Should Dancers Deadlift?

Should Dancers Deadlift?

For the purpose of keeping this blog post very simple, today’s question: Should dancers lift weights?

My answer: Yes.

Specifically, should dancers deadlift?

YES.

Smart dancers everywhere are already picking up heavy things for their art.

Look, here’s Chelsy Meiss of the National Ballet of Canada thrusting some bar.

cmeissdeadlifts

Her deadlift technique leaves a bit to be desired, but she’s actually lifting something heavier than a handbag. Rock on!

I love deadlifts. I think it feels good to lift heavy things, and I think everyone should try getting strong at least once to see if they like it, too. You might accidentally become empowered. And you might accidentally start dancing better.

It happened to me!

When I started lifting, I’ll admit it was purely for aesthetic purposes. I had no deeper motive like that the deadlift was a movement that could improve my athleticism, help prevent injuries, and improve  elements of my dance technique.

It was pure vanity.

When I started lifting, my technique was pretty poor. I was also on the brink of burn-out and was not following an appropriate training program to support my dancing, yet somehow my dancing still improved. Teachers noticed. That’s the beauty of strength.

Had my technique been optimal, I probably could have avoided a hamstring injury rather than reinforcing some compensation patterns that ultimately led to said injury.

To illustrate, the video below is my personal best deadlift (taken after the hammie injury). If you watch carefully you can see that my left foot is supinating off the floor, and so I was probably doing this lift without my left glute.

If I’m lifting without my left glute, I was probably dancing without a left glute before, and so it’s no surprise that I injured my left hamstring.

But I’m saying this because my n=1 experience- deadlifts helping me feel stronger dancing- made me want to learn more. I knew that if a dancer got proper coaching , they could reap the benefits of improved dancing, and not get injured like I did.

And so here I am today, telling you to try this fantastic lift that I feel to be an essential part of a dancer’s movement education.

Here’s some reasons why dancers should deadlift:

1. At first, strength can be developed lying on the ground, but then it can’t.

This is my problem with many of the floor-based exercise programs, like Ballet Beautiful, mat pilates, and Tracy Anderson’s tripe.

With floor-based bodyweight exercise you can quickly reach a point of diminishing, and then zero returns. The stimulus becomes quite comfortable, and you cease to improve.

Or make gainz.

The science of motor learning tells us that to make changes we must work at the edge of our abilities. We have to fail a little. Things have to be hard, and when they get too easy we stop learning.

Strength is a learned behaviour requiring increasingly challenging stimulus. Standing up off the floor and adding external load is one way of doing that. Because if you read this blog you probably care about strength.

Or, if your goal is just to move your arms and legs around and you don’t care about strength so much, try doing what Tracy Anderson tells you.

Floor based stuff like yoga is great. I love yoga and rolling on the floor. But if you reach a point where it no longer becomes a challenge, then it’s time to stand up and lift, baby.

2. Deadlifts can help prevent back injuries.

That’s right!

If you’re doing them proper, deadlifts are a great tool to teach dancers to flex and extend at the hip rather than the spine. Learning to load the hips and not the spine is smart if you want to prevent back injuries.

While I recognize that lumbar flexion isn’t bad, it sure can be if you choose to do it over and over and over. Just think of the number of flexion cycles you put your spine through in a dance class. A lovely aesthetic, but not necessarily one that will feel good after 10 000 reps.

A while ago, a reader/dancer/strength coach messaged me on Facebook saying this:

I started seeing an LMT for nasty knots in my quads in addition to the chiropractor that is the head of the practice. They came HIGHLY recommend by the head of our dance division and have helped everyone from college level dancers, world record setting lifters, to your typical elderly cute mom and pop. Everyone in their office, including the PT vehemently opposed doing deadlifts saying that they were an unnecessary risk to build strength, muscle, etc. Are they just being overly conservative? I know you love deadlifts, and for good reason because it is efficient and effective, but the combined concern of these folk have me confused….

So frustrating when your recommended network of health care practitioners don’t know the difference between an unsafe exercise, and doing a good exercise unsafely.

It’ s just a hip hinge. Adding weight improves your work capacity to do hip hinges and do ’em right without popping a disk.

Every once in a while I also get people telling me not to deadlift because it will hurt my back. Phooey. Deadlifts teach me how not to hurt my back. 

A hip hinge requires your core to be stabilizing while you hips take the load. That doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Certainly not every dancer is ready to pick up a bar and lift heavy, but at the very least practicing a bodyweight deadlift (or hip hinge) is an essential part of  low back rehab and prevention.

3. Deadlifts builds confidence and foster a growth mindset.

I saw this diagram on a friend’s Facebook feed the other day.

So. Accurate.

That crippling self doubt thing- It’s real. We all feel it. But after a solid deadlift sesh it’s hard to let anything bring you down.

The process of building physical strength, and getting better and stronger each time is so good for dancers who need that confidence boost, regardless of how composed they seem on the outside. And the focus on it being a process is an important mindset to learn and practice.

A colleague of mine asked me what are the most important things that I wish I could teach dancers, and my top two things were: The importance of learning to stop giving so much of a damn and of getting stronger.

Deadilfts can help with both.

4. Deadlifts help develop grip and rotator cuff strength.

Deadlifts require grip strength, and grip strength is correlated to rotator cuff strength, and rotator cuff strength is correlated to not dislocating your shoulders.

Through a process called irradiation, when you activate your grip like you’re trying to crush something, it sends a signal to your rotator cuff to activate. It’s cool stuff, and can explain why if your grip is poor, you might one day have cranky shoulders if you don’t already.

But aside from shoulder health, why is grip and rotator cuff strength important for dance? So many skills require a firm grip and shoulder stability: Acro. Shoulderstands. Aerial silks. Partnering. Lifting people over your head.

Also, it’s fun to have an intimidating handshake.

5. Building full-body strength efficiently.

Strength training has been proven to reduce injuries and improve aesthetic competence in dancers. I don’t think I need to list all the benefits here.

But hey check this out:

Dancers have limited time to train outside of class so they’d better be efficient. And what’s more efficient than a deadlift? From your hands to your feet, you need to be engaged.

And when would I find the time to write this blog if I chose to do 5 exercises instead of 1? Deadlifts it is.

6. Easy on the hips and safer on the low back compared to the squat.

I love squats but they can be more problematic for dancers than deadlifts.

Many of us dancers have hip issues, knee issues, pelvic alignment issues. And some of us are built in such a way that make us poorly adapted for a movement like the squat.

Listen to what Dr. Stu McGill says about squats, bone structure and genetics:

I love that video because it illustrates that genetics actually do play a role in how well we’re set up to squat, and that means it’s ok if you can’t squat all the way down, if you need a wider stance or to point your toes slightly out.

Knowing we all have a different structure I tend not to do as much squatting as I do deadlifting with my dance clients. Bilaterally at least. I love single leg squats and split squats.

I definitely want dancers to learn the difference between a squat and a plie, but in dance, we almost only ever use full range hip flexion (like in a deep squat) with the use of turnout and probably compensation from the pelvis and lower back, and rarely with an active intrinsic core. These dancerisms don’t always make for a safe squat, but gives you a great reason to learn the movement properly.

So for reasons of safety and efficiency, if a dancer has creaky knees and a ripped up hip labrum that I don’t know about, I feel much more comfortable with them deadlifting, where they won’t be grinding their hips and loading their knees as much as a squat might allow them to do.

7. Deadlifts works in parallel.

Working in parallel isn’t bad! Give your external rotators a break.

If you lose the ability to internally rotate your hips, you also lose the ability to extend them. If you lose the ability to extend from the hip, you probably compensate by arching your back. Too much of this and your back gets a bit cranky.

Too, working in parallel helps to practice hip joint centration (getting the femur to sit centered in the socket), helping you to also move farther into external rotation. Centered joints just work better that way.

Deadlift in parallel. It’ll do you good.

8. Learning new motor skills is good.

Learning new movement skills that feel weird and are totally different from what you’re used to is a great thing to do. As a dancer, the more movement skills you have in your tool kit the better.

And if it’s a movement skill that also allows you to save lives by lifting cars off people,   protect your spine while you dance, and make your bum look nice, all the better.

If you need help learning deadlift technique and are unwilling to hire someone to help you, you should definitely check out one of the many resources Eric Cressey has online. He’s one smart dude, passionate about lifting. Google that shit.

Got any other reasons dancers should deadlift that I missed?

 

 

 

 

How to tell if You’re Stuck in the “Dancer-Box” (and get out of it, too)

The theme of “getting out of the box” has been prevalent in my life for the past month or so.

I work at a Thai massage center with both Thai practitioners and RMTs (registered massage therapists, for the non-Canadians. In the stares I think LMT is similar). The owner is not an RMT. Nor am I an RMT. We, as non-RMTs, have our limitations (not being able to issue insurance receipts is the main one). But she feels so strongly that the RMTs, despite their ability to make massage so accessible, often limit themselves by living in their “RMT box”.

By this she means nothing derogatory, just that she’s hired a few RMTs who hold onto limiting attitudes they’ve learned in massage school that prevent them from becoming the Thai practitioners they want to be. And I don’t mean to knock the RMT designation- I want to go back to school to earn it myself because it makes massage so accessible for people who otherwise wouldn’t have the option.

What she is saying is true for any profession or paradigm. If you enter with a sense of entitlement or superiority, an unwillingness to change and learn new ways of doing things, and even unlearn a few things, then you are boxing yourself into a mediocre version of what you could be.

Dancers can just as easily put themselves in the “dancer box”, and this is dangerous. It puts a limit on their abilities, their potential, and even their health.

What is the dancer box? It’s ego. Clinging on to comfortable ways of doing things. Habits. Doing what you’re told, rather than what you know to be best for you. Not being aware that the box even exists.

Some examples of being in the dancer-box:

  • Thinking resting is for the weak (had a dancer tell me that a few days ago… Oh boy)
  •  Dancing through injuries even though it hurts just to walk
  •  Speaking of walking, proudly walking with emphasized turned out
  •  Showing off your flexibility and skillz at every possible moment, sometimes causing foolish, preventable injuries (perhaps when drunk to impress your friends…)
  •  Thinking you need to look a certain way, be a certain weight
  •  Doing physio only once and thinking you got your injury “sorted out” forever

This is unfortunately the way many dancers are brought up to think. It’s how things are habitually done, and most dance teachers don’t have the time or energy to counsel each dancer individually on “best practices”. Worst case,  dance teachers sometimes tell their students completely bogus stuff that only keeps them in the box (skip meals, don’t cross-train, etc).

Get out of the damn box! Start now.

Listen to your body. If it hurts when you move, don’t dance that day.

Know that spending 90 bucks on rehab is totally worth it in the big picture if it adds a few more years to your career. It’s an investment in one of your most valuable assets- Your body.

Don’t let the way you look make you believe you can’t be a dancer because you don’t have the perfect body. Pobody’s nerfect, you know.

In yoga classes, please don’t make it about showing off how flexible you are- It’s not about that.

Make sure you’ve rested enough after an injury and then return back to dance gradually. If a piece of choreography hurts to do, troubleshoot- Find a way to get to the same aesthetic without damaging your joints. It IS possible. Communicate your needs with teachers and choreographers.

Eat. Sleep. Drink water. Take the summer off dance if you want. It’s not going to ruin you.

I recently began working with a talented group of dancers in a professional training program. I start their day off with what was initially supposed to be a “stretching and conditioning” class, but I’ve morphed into something different which I feel to be more beneficial. And seeing as I was given complete autonomy, I took advantage. No-one’s complained yet.

On the first day, I asked all of the dancers what was going on with their bodies. What’s sore? What do you want to improve about your dancing? And the big daddy question: Who has an injury right now?

To that last question, they ALL raised their hands. “Oh shit…” I thought. They want me to stretch with a group of dancers, 90% of whom have lower back injuries? All of whom report feeling constantly”tight” and sore. All of whom, while I was introducing myself, were writhing on the floor trying to crack their hips and backs, and stretch their hamstrings to relieve their soreness.

*Shudder*

Almost all of these dancers we “in the box”.

I could feel the boxiness oozing off of them.

For example, a few of them told me before class that they can’t do some of the exercises beacause their backs are too sore.That’s totally cool- Don’t do things that hurt.  And yet, they claim it’s still fine if they do dance class. And when I ask if they are seeing someone for rehab they say “yeah I did a few years ago, it’s fine”.

It is NOT fine.

In my class some of them become quickly discouraged when exercises must be done in parallel, and are difficult for that reason, refusing to believe they could actually be “weak” at something. You’re not weak- It’s just a new way of moving that you’re not used to.

They don’t see the point of breathing exercises. They just want to stretch.

I don’t blame them. I was like this too. I wanted a stretch class. I wanted a quick fix. I wanted to show off in yoga classes. I was in the box, too. I get it completely.

But life is better when you step out. You discover what is really possible. You unlearn myths, and learn the truth. It’s harder at first, but I promise it’s better.

But my boxy group of dancers have come a long way. I see some of them starting to get it. That stretching isn’t always the answer. That resting is good. That proper physio isn’t a liability, it’s an investment. And it’s beautiful to see these glorious creatures emerge from the boxy depths of dancer ego. It’s what makes my work worthwhile. It’s what makes for good dancing, too, I think.

It’s likely that we were all in the box at one point. Sometimes we have one foot in, one foot out. And it’s ok. The most important thing is to know the box exists, and know that there’s a lot more space to dance outside the box.

Were you in the box? I’d love to hear what you think. How did you get out?