Welcome back to the discussion! Let’s jump right in (haha, get it? Jump? Cause it’s a plyo article??)…
In PART 1, which you should read now if you haven’t already, Joel did a great job of detailing exactly what plyometric training is, and how it could potentially help dancers develop jump height, and just plain dance better in general.
I agree with the things Joel was saying, but I was a little disappointed that his article didn’t answer all my questions. A foolish notion, I know, to expect to ask one question and get all the answers.
My main concern was, yes, in theory, it sounds like plyometric training, which is great for athletes who want to improve their power and jump height is a good idea. But dancers are a little different than other athletes.
And yes, dancers are indeed athletes. The definition below could be used for “dancer” to a TEE, if you added in something about artistic expression at the end.
Athlete- “Someone who engages in social comparison (competition) involving psycho-motor skill or physical prowess (or both) in an institutionalized setting, typically under public scrutiny/evaluation.” (Baechle & Earle, 2008)
So anyway, should dancers even perform plyometric training? Is it good for them? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
Here are the major concerns I have:
1) Do dancers need a particular level of relative strength before beginning plyo training? For example, the NSCA recommends (and this is probably for men, mind you) that before beginning a plyometric training program, athletes should have at least a 1.5x bodyweight squat. Considering that barely any dancers even resistance train, I don’t know of a single dancer that meets that qualification.
And also, based on that, a lot of people would be shot for the things they do in the gym.
Then I stumbled across this (go read it), from Vertical Jumping (.com) and it seems they’re of the opinion that “strength first” is a myth. Hmmm.
It is silly to think that beginner athletes without a large strength base can’t handle plyometric training. You just need to use exercises that don’t have the same degree of landing forces, or if you want to use the shock methods, you simply use a lower box height that allows the athlete to still be challenged, but also to safely perform the exercise.
And Joel said this:
I agree with you [Monika]. This recommendation [strength first] may be more applicable to athletes who don’t have experience with power training. Dancers incorporate plyometrics into their training already. I don’t think there are big injury concerns if they get started immediately (even without the strength base).
Moving along to my second concern about dancers doing extra plyo:
2) Many dancers are constantly performing through their injuries, which are rarely ever diagnosed. Most often, these injuries are only addressed when they get to the point that they can’t even dance anymore. I remember needing to take pre-show painkillers to perform. Not a fun time.
Encounters, choreographed by Arsenio Andrade- This was a performance I distinctly remember needing copious doses of ibuprofen to get on stage for…
These injuries, especially to their backs, knees, hips and ankles, could potentially be aggravated by additional plyometric training. And the fact that dancers will need to often perform through these injuries might in itself be a contraindication for doing plyo training.
If you are a dancer, and you love your art, you will do what you need to do, which probably means performing through an injury. We’ve all done it. I’m not saying this is good, but I’m saying it might be necessary at some point, and so you may not want to put any extra stress on your vulnerable joints.
For example, I am working with a couple of dancers right now who are recovering from pretty awful ankle sprains, and one who has some nasty hip and back dysfunction, which causes her pain. Would I make these guys jump up and down any more than they need to? No, probably not.
Yes, these injuries are a major concern. Dancers train through them anyway, so perhaps plyometric training won’t be any more damaging than what they’re doing already. On the other hand, plyometric programs are usually (relatively) high volume, so the repetition might be really dangerous. This is why I think supervision is important.
3) Many dancers have muscles imbalances due to the nature of their art. Some can be corrected to an extent to help them perform better, and some are a necessary evil.
For example, many dancers are hamstring or lower back dominant, and don’t use their glutes. Glutes can be trained, and this training will help you perform better and not get hurt. Dancers also tend to have incredibly tight ilipsoas and quads, which can pull on the spine, in a bad way, and cause back and hip injuries if they are not first taught how to work with these issues.
But, due to the nature of dance you WILL need to have some weird imbalances, especially if you need turnout. That’s ok. But you have to realize that because you are functionally asymetrical for your art, you are at risk of getting hurt.
Agreed, and that’s exactly why I don’t want to be more specific about recommendations 🙂
Is it smart to do power training with your hamstrings and lower back as the prime movers? Have you had a lower back or hamstring injury? You tell me…
4) The non-specific joint angle when performing plyo exercises might not be beneficial for dancers, could cause injury, and not improve performance. This concern is especially for dance styles that require the use of turnout.
Donna Krasnow (dance professor at York University, Ph. D in dance science, all around smart lady) told me some interesting things when I asked her about plyometrics last summer in THIS INTERVIEW. Here’s a quick recap of what Donna told me when I asked her if dancers should do plyometrics and Olympic lifting:
“Yes. If the dancer has a need for it.”
She explained to me that many dancers are naturally good jumpers and it would not be a productive use of their time to work on something they are already good at. Hip drive power does help with vertical jump height, which is of importance to dancers, but if they don’t need much extra help in that regard, it is not necessary.
She states that the training must be specific to dancing. For this very reason, she is not in favour of ballet dancers doing much plyometric training. Her experience is that it will not transfer over to a dance setting as one would like it to, for the feet are in a parallel position which is not very helpful for dancers who work in turn-out.
I asked about doing plyometric work in a turned out position, and we both agreed that it would probably not be safe for the knees.
Olympic lifting could however be quite beneficial for dancers needing help with their jumps.
And here’s what Joel said:
In my opinion, plyometric exercises that don’t involve turnout are preferred because with greater technique demands comes the problem of poor exercise performance due to physical limitations. If plyometrics are performed for general power, I don’t think it’s necessary to incorporate dance technique into the program as well. From my perspective, dancers (and other athletes) should emphasize technique during dance- or sport-specific training and use more basic movements during strength and conditioning. Squats, for example, might be used to develop lower body strength, but the actual movement is quite different from anything dancers actually do in class or performance.
Very interesting indeed. But again, this is more of a concern for dance styles that use turnout- like ballet, but often in modern, jazz and contemporary as well.
Ok, let’s wrap this up, because concision was never my strong suit. Yes, concision IS a word.
It is my view that plyometric training for dancers COULD be a good idea, but rather than ask how, I think we need to ask if and when to do it, and more research clearly needs to be done.
Joel’s final thoughts:
I think the individual abilities, physical limitations, fitness, and current training practices of dancers make it somewhat dangerous to try to give more detailed guidance about things like plyometrics in an overview article. I mentioned in the article that it’s important to be evaluated by someone who understands the nature of plyometric training and how to program effectively for people with different backgrounds. I really believe that, for the most part, people should avoid this type of training unless they are supervised.
My short answer to all of this is, yeah, I think dancers can benefit from plyometrics if they do basic movements with the goal of developing power. If they have physical limitations, it’s particularly important to do plyometric movements that require very little technique. Off season is probably the best time, but for dancers who perform year round, there are just too many variables involved in developing a program to make more detailed recommendations.
Ok. So. Conclusions?
I guess we can both agree that the answer will probably always be, “it depends”. Which is extremely dissatisfying. Such is life…
Personally, I always err on the side of caution (having been overtrained and injured before), and I would be very reluctant to get a dancer to do things like box/depth jumps, unless I had a really good feeling about it. I often act based on feeling. It’s usually a good system.
It is unfortunate that there’s just not a whole lot of research done on training dancers. When they first come to me, the state of most of my dancers are bordering on post-rehab, not high performance, and I don’t usually even consider plyometrics for them.
So. What do YOU think? I know Joel and I would love to hear your thoughts. With our eyes… So leave a comment below!
Yes. I’m totally serious- As dancers we are predisposed to being clumsy. And I can explain it scientifically. And I know you’re wondering, and the answer is yes, after reading this you can officially explain to your friends, with science, the reasons why you stumble over your feet and/or drop things more often than your non-dancer friends.
Being a dancer can make you clumsy out in the real world, away from the dance studio. And this is important to realize, because even though we are dancers, we are first people.
The anatomy of dance blows my mind on almost a daily basis, and I sometimes have these moments of enlightenment (usually when I’m in the shower, don’t ask why…) that make me go OHHHHHHHHH!!! Science is cool.
Are you a dancer? Do you drop stuff a lot? Do you spill things on yourself more than your non-dancer friends? Do you trip over your own feet daily? Is precision vegetable chopping a dangerous activity? You are not alone.
I think there’s a high expectation for dancers to be poised and graceful constantly, but in reality, we’re anything but. That said, when we DO trip and fall, it is likely to be the most graceful fall. Ever. Falling is (unfortunately) a part of dance. It happens. On stage. So you learn to fall with as much dignity as possible. It’s a really good life-skill.
Anyway, back to the point at hand. I have 2 main reasons why being a dancer could predispose you to being clumsy:
1) Dancers are often limitated in dorsiflexion.
I’ve mentioned it before, so I’m not going to beat this to death, with a lead pipe, in the library… But I’ll say it again in case you missed it: Dancers will tend to lack ankle dorsiflexion (the ability to flex your foot) compared to plantar flexion (pointing your foot).
Your body becomes what you do with it the most. If you eat tubs of ice cream on the daily, you tend to look like Honey Boo Boo’s mom. And much by the same token, if you point your feet for hours every day, they tend to naturally stay more pointed.
This is a concept called “plasticity”. If you think of a plastic bag, and how you can deform it’s shape- stretch it slowly and you can get it to stretch out and change shape. Think of your body like this plastic bag- it will deform gradually, over time, based on the things you do with it.
Many dancers I assess (and myself included) have much greater range of motion in their ankles through plantar flexion than they do in dorsiflexion. Not only can improving this imbalance put more spring in your step (literally, you’ll be able to get into a deeper demi-plie and thus, better jumps and leaps) but it can help prevent injuries like shin splits and Achilles tendinitis. And not just ballet dancers, but you Irish dancers too, who I’m pretty sure never really put their heels down on the floor.
The good news is that you can train in such a way that will allow you to get back some of the ability to flex your feet, and this won’t make your feet any less pointy. Ideally, you want your dorsiflexion to be stronger than a kitten.
Now think about what your foot needs to do when you walk- You need to flex your foot as you swing it through to take a step. What if your foot can’t flex enough? One of two things happens- Your toe hits the ground and you trip, OR you turn your foot out and roll it in (evert/pronate it) to avoid your toes hitting the ground.
This also explains why it’s so comfortable for us dancer to walk turned out- It’s a trip-prevention mechanism.This is a poor mechanism however, because by turning out your leg, you’re not addressing the actual structural issue, you’re placing more strain on the knee, AND you’re just reinforcing another imbalance at the hip joint, aka, turnout.
Just blew your mind didn’t I?
Since I stopped taking regular ballet classes, I actually trip less. Weird, isn’t it?
2) Dancers tend to develop some kind of thoracic outlet syndrome
What’s TOS (thoracic outlet syndrome)? Long story short, there is a bundle of nerves up in your armpit area (the brachial plexus) that innervates your arm, and when muscles and other such things surrounding it get tight, they can squeeze this bundle, reducing the blood flow and nerve conduction to your hands. It can also cause numbness and tingling usually in the pinky and ring finger. Especially with you arms over-head.
The brachial plexus (in yellow) can get squished between a lot of stuff. Not a fun time.
Why do dancers tend to develop thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS)? Anyone can develop TOS in one form or another. 9-5 office workers, computer guys, and folks with crap posture in general are also common candidates, but dancers tend to develop a lot of tension in the neck muscles and in pec minor from having to do crazy movements like head whipping, arm contortion, and such-like. For dancers it pays off to check out your scapular mechanics to make sure you’re lifting your arms over-head safely, bring awareness to your posture, and make sure to stretch the tight stuff out
The Harkness Center for dance injuries in New York says this:
Various factors may contribute to compression of the nerves and blood vessels within the thoracic outlet, including:
- Repetitive activities involving a forward-head posture or drooped shoulders.
- Partnering dance movements involving awkward neck and shoulder movements.
- Carrying heavy loads, cases, and dance bags.
- Trauma to the neck or shoulder.
Now think about what it means if you have poor sensation in your hands due to a cut off nerve supply. This could actually cause one to become kind of clumsy, couldn’t it…?
Less blood flow+poor innervation= You drop stuff.
Just another reason to correct your posture- I’ll bet it would save you at least a couple of fancy plates dropped on the floor. And make chopping onions way less risky.
I currently have a nasty case of nerve compression in my right arm, and it’s not fun. My clumsiness has reached a new level, and my arm is in constant, throbbing pain. Fun times.
Now I’m not saying that all dancers are clumsy, or that dancing will absolutely make you clumsy. I’m just saying that these are some pretty interesting correlations, ones that I’ve noticed in myself, and other dancers.
That, and science don’t lie.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Are you a clumsy dancer, too?
I’ve gone to physio many, many times. Throw some chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture into the mix too. I just had an impromptu ART session yesterday! One of the perks of working at a gym with multi-disciplined trainers.
I’ve had a lot of dance-related (and non dance-related) injuries. Too many. I don’t even want to talk about it.
Actually, yes I do. But more for your sake than for mine. As much as I love talking about myself. Just kidding… I’m actually pretty boring in real life.
When I was 14 (or 15?) I first went to physio for low back pain. Like many dancers, this is age when the aches and pains begin, and most often it’s the lower back that is the first to go.
At that age, my back pain didn’t really worry me too much, and I didn’t let it slow me down. I also remember at the age of 15 (while studying at the Banff Center’s summer program), that I couldn’t walk without significant pain in my right hip unless I turned my right foot out to about 45 degrees. And that was ok with me.
I even remember my parents saying something like, “Oh that’s not good, Monika, we should really take you to get that looked at.” To which I replied, “No it’s fine as long as I walk like this!”. Zombie stylez.
This is the mindset of too many dancers. Pain is the expectation. Especially the young dancers who don’t necessarily understand what’s happening inside their bodies. At that age there are too many other things to worry about, like, OMG did you know that Gretta wears a thong?? I totally saw it the other day. I know, right!!?!!? What a sl^#*… I mean…
But in all seriousness, when I was 14, I could have cared less about the impending doom stemming from my unchecked injuries. Many people don’t even know how to differentiate between “good pain”, and “bad pain” until it’s too late.
Anyhoo, so when I was 14 I went to physio for my back, and was given a few exercises and stretches that I’m sure would have helped me a lot. If I actually did them…
Which leads me to problemo numero uno with the whole physiotherapy thing:
1) No body likes doing physio exercises. This isn’t necessarily a problem with the physiotherapist in question, or saying that physio is a BAD idea, but more an issue with own laziness, lack of self-efficacy, and not being educated on the importance of rehabilitation. I know the damn exercises take forever to get through, like Ben Hur, but just do them! I don’t think I did the exercises once. And my back got worse. Go figure.
2) It’s too late, you’ve already hurt yourself. Wouldn’t it be better to NOT get hurt in the first place? The fact that you’re in the physio office is proof of your ineptitude to take care of your body’s needs- Namely, understanding how it functions, and then doing the things that hurt it.
3) Some physiotherapists won’t even give you exercises. I had a physiotherapist once, whom I explicitly asked to give me stretches and exercises (for my hamstring), and he said, “Well, you don’t really need to do any right now, just keep coming for treatments.” It isn’t until now that I really understood where his priorities lay, aka, my wallet. I trusted him to help me recover in the speediest way possible, but he was only interested in booking me for soft tissue therapy. You need to be careful that you’re going to someone reputable, and especially someone who knows dancers. I happen to know a miracle worker. Email me if you want her deets.
4) Some physiotherapists don’t continue their education after becoming licensed. They don’t make an effort to keep up with the latest findings, and latest techniques and research. They are set in their ways and don’t want to change. You probably know people like that.
So we’ve established that going to physio is undesirable. What’s the solution? Well, hind-sight is 20/20. Knowing what I know now, I would have told 13 year old Monika to start strengthening my body while I was young and relatively uninjured.
I encourage young dancers to learn how their bodies work as early as possible. Make your body resistant to injuries by doing some sensible core training, especially if you’re prone to lower back pain. It’s way more fun to strength train before you’re hurt, than it is to do physio exercises or lie in the traction machine. I promise.
And do your research! Ask your physiotherapist questions before deciding to trust them with your body. Better yet, just start strength training NOW so that you can limit your future exposure to the physio.
I was talking with my mother the other day about how young is too young for someone to begin strength training. “You’re not talking about using WEIGHTS, are you??” she said. To which I replied, yes, of course! How do you think you get stronger? Is there some unwritten rule that children (I’m talking 10 years and up) shouldn’t be strong? That they shouldn’t be body-aware? Should they save these skills for later in life? I don’t think so…
In reality, strength training is probably much healthier for the body than dancing (especially ballet). The dominating thought is that dancers should start doing pointe as soon as they are strong enough (and many start doing it when they’re not yet strong enough). Between 11 and 13 is when girls generally are deemed worthy. And yet, somehow, it’s NOT ok for them to develop full body strength (strength train with weights). Strength that would make doing pointe much safer at a young age, and prevent the myriad of injuries associated with it.
It’s enough to make me want to cut off all my hair. Which I really want to do anyway. Long hair is SO hard to maintain. The number of times per day it gets stuck in zippers… Don’t get me started.
Yes, I think dancers should start strength training young. Yes, I think strength training will probably make so that you won’ thave to go to physio as often later on. At some point, most people are going to have to go see a physiotherapist for something. There’s no way you can prevent every injury. I’m just saying, it’s better to integrate your body structurally as early as possible, and I think we can all agree that saving money on physio fees is a sweet, sweet thing. Just something to think about.
Strength training and learning cool new things about your body is also way more fun than phsyio. If it isn’t, I want to meet your physiotherapist, cause he sounds awesome!