Last weekend I was at the IADMS conference in Hong Kong to learn from and present to some of the smart people in the dance medicine and science world.
In the picture you’re looking at myself in the middle, along with Lauren Warnecke from Chicago, of Art Intercepts, and Christina D’amico, from Utica New York, of Enhance4Dance(a strength training program for dancers based out of her gym). The studios at the Hong Kong Center for Performing Arts were absolutely beautiful.
As you may have read HERE, one of my movement sessions was cancelled due to typhoon. The typhoon itself turned out to be quite underwhelming, and more annoying that terrifying (not complaining about being safe, though!).
Lauren, Christina, and I collaborated to hold a movement session on strength training applications for dancers (it’s just a shame so few dancers can actually afford to attend the conference!).
Our session should really have been titled, “Here’s how to actually perform the exercises that the research says are beneficial for dancers to do in a way that your body will thank you for”. But that doesn’t roll of the tongue as nice.
I EVEN LEARNED A THING OR TWO…
Always learning a thing or two.
As Julien Smith said, and words I live by, whether deliberately or not, “Aim to be the stupidest one in the room.” That way I’m always learning.
For me, a key take-away from IADMS this year was the realization that the need to cater to the individual needs of dancers, not to generalize that dancers, as a group, should do x, y, and z, is generally lacking recognition in research land, or is simply slow to. After all, this is only the 26th year of IADMS.
We see the big picture quite well now, but the application requires us to zoom in and focus on reaching individuals and communities.
This is already something that I think we all know intuitively, but to see some presentations addressing this made me realize that maybe it isn’t as appreciated as I thought. Too, to see some presentations NOT discuss individual variance in how we should treat and train dancers brought it’s importance even more to the forefront in my mind.
What the heck am I trying to say?
Individual dance genres have their own unique needs. Let’s be wary of saying dance is THIS or THAT. Dancers should do this and that. There is so much variation between each dance style.
Individual individuals have their needs. Based on their injury history, lifestyle, and other factors that make me and you unique from Cindy Lou.
And individual species have their needs (us humans). As a species, we all have (ideally) the same biomechanics and anatomy, regardless of what we do with it. Dancers aren’t some special species…
To the end of every research presentation supporting strength or cross training for dancers, the addendum, “if done in a way that serves each dancer’s individual needs as a member of the human race”, would have been a nice touch.
Though our mechanics and anatomy are essentially the same, I do not move like Cindy because I am not Cindy. I have different set of challenges than Cindy, and this needs to be understood and respected in a training program or treatment strategy. Cindy and I should not be treated like the same person.
Common sense, right?
And then someone said something that pissed some people off
In a generally inspiring way.
There was this one particular presentation that ended by “concluding” that strength training was not good for dancers and other athletes, and that this presenter’s particular way of training only motor control to address individual asymmetries was far superior, and conventional strength training is the cause of many injuries. Therefore, dancers should not strength train (because apparently strength and motor control are two things that can’t be trained concurrently… But that’s a rant for another day).
It was very interesting to observe my own reaction to this statement. I could feel my heart beating a little faster. I looked over to my left and saw Lauren’s eyes widen.
On one hand, my ego and my biases were outraged. What he is saying goes against what I built my career upon. This must be what it feels like to be a podiatrist on an Anatomy in Motion course realizing that he could help people get out of pain without selling orthotics.
But on the other hand, I could completely agree with him. It is true that strength training, if not done in a way that addresses an individual’s needs, and not done in a way that prioritizes quality movement over quantity movement, can be deleterious.
But so can any activity. There’s a rather large “IF” missing.
The use of one word in his conclusion changed everything: “Is”, as in, “strength training IS bad for dancers and athletes”, I think is what ruffled my feathers, and those of my fellow strength coaches in the audience. The use of absolute terms, “strength training causes injuries” pissed a lot of us off. Not only that, they are dangerous to use because not everyone has the sense to think a little deeper about the use of absolute statements and their truth.
But at the same time, his “conclusion” also challenged our thinking. What if he has a point? And I think he does. Not that strength training is bad, but what if this presentation was a wake-up call for some folks in the audience that the way that we’re training dancers to gain strength isn’t serving them?
Are we paying close enough attention to the details?
Do we have enough trainers and coaches in our field that can observe and assess movement and guide dancers safely and effectively through whatever style of cross-training and strength training they decide to do?
On both of the above counts, I don’t think we do. And I’m not saying that I am awesome, either. I’m still learning, and the more I learn the more I realize that I know very, very little about movement and strength training.
I think our favourite presenter’s core message is significant: Dancers and athletes should be treated as individuals, not as a group, and should be assessed and given exercises that are specific to their needs.
This is something that I firmly believe. No, it’s not just a belief. It is the truth as far as I can tell. And it is why I feel lately that writing this blog as a “do this exercise to get this result and be awesome” doesn’t sit right with me ethically, because what might be extraordinarily useful for one individual at one particular moment in time could be exactly what another person should not do.
And this core message- address the individual and don’t clump dancers together as one group with only one set of needs, is one reason why Lauren, Christina and I felt strongly that our movement session had value.
Here’s what we did: We simply broke down three important fundamental movements: Hip hinge (aka deadlift), squat, and push-up. We went through the technique. We troubleshooted. We demoed what to do and what not to do. We hoped it was useful… (and later we learned that it was!).
It wasn’t rocket surgery, but it was info that we hoped dancers, dance sceintists, and dance teachers could appreciate and use.
“Here are the exercises the research tells us dancers can use to their benefit, but most importantly, this is an opportunity to explore them in your body, ask questions about what you’re experiencing so that you can feel confident doing them on your own, and know how to respect your body’s limits while doing them.”
That important experiential stuff that many sciency, medical folks might not have the time for or appreciate as often as we’d like.
In fact, as I encouraged one such sciency-guy to “experience the movement in your own body” before bombarding me with questions on the supporting “evidence” for what I was presenting, he told me I was being too philosophical, too spiritual, too “yoga” (whatever that means). Well, what if what’s missing from dance medicine and science IS a little bit of philosophy, a little bit of experiencing, a little bit of spirit, and a little less intellectualizing and over-analyzing?
But THAT is the difference between strength training that hurts, and strength training that serves a useful purpose for performance.
More often than not, it’s not the what, but the how. It’s understanding the experience you’re having with it. And that is not something easily taught, or easily proven with evidence.
I don’t think we can measure someone’s experience of their understanding of their body in motion- An important skill required for dancing, strength training, yoga-ing, and thriving as a human, whatever you decide to do. And yes, it is a skill, meaning that you can learn and practice to do this better.
And it’s a shame that information can be interpreted in the way that the presenter who thought strength training was bad had done.
Let’s finish that sentence.
Strength training CAN be bad IF…
And even if it does hurt someone, is that not a learning experience? Is that not why this blog I write even exists?
Everything serves, even when it temporarily hurts…
Thank you IADMS 2016 for challenging my thinking, and for your tremendous support of the two movement sessions I actually was able to present. Until next year… Hoping for no typhoons in Houston.
For the purpose of keeping this blog post very simple, today’s question: Should dancers lift weights?
My answer: Yes.
Specifically, should dancers deadlift?
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.
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.
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.
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?
This is less a post about prescribing the perfect amount of cardio, and more a plea for tuning in to one’s own needs.
Dancers are known perfectionists. Many of us have type-A personalities, making us exceptionally susceptible to fads in exercise, diet, and various “fixes” best served with a grain of salt.
Many of us also have extreme personalities. We hear we should do X stretch for at least 3o seconds to get more flexible, but hell, we’ll hold that stretch for 5 minutes. Minimum. Because more is better. Right?
Sometimes it’s not.
A client of mine, a lovely dancer from York U, is stuck in the “more is better mindset”.
When she came in to start training this winter, on break from dance for the holidays, she was quite over-trained. Starting to burn out mentally, getting injured, sore all over.
But she had a lot to show for her hard work. She had an excellent semester and had achieved a lot since I last saw her, and I was proud. But I was sad, too, that she was displaying all the common symptoms of someone verging on burning out. And she didn’t have a clue. I have been deep in that state, been oblivious to it, and it didn’t end pretty.
Despite feeling a little rough after a hard semester, she was pumped to train. She came prepared with some fantastic goals, too. She wanted to strengthen her hamstrings (to overcome a mild hamstring injury earlier in the semester), get her external rotators to fire better, and get a mad deadlift. She was also still attending dance classes, although I strongly believe that when you get a break from dance, you should take full advantage of it.
Anyway, yes, she had intelligent goals, but to accomplish these, I had to explain we were going to work on first things first: She needed to recuperate a bit if she wanted to get that deadlift goal. She needed to sleep more, hydrate, unload her mind, and let her dancer patterns settle down.
But all she wanted to know is “what more can I do?”, and more specifically, she told me one day, “I went to the gym yesterday between our sessions to do cardio, how much should I be doing?”.
I am so, so inspired by this lady’s drive to do everything she can to become better. And I have seen so many dancers with this same drive. But sometimes it is borderline blind desperation, and in that case, less is much more.
When I was in school dancing everyday, I also felt the need to do extra cardio. I understand that urge. But jogging 4 times per week didn’t improve anything. I felt sore, rundown, and hated every minute of it. Extra cardio wasn’t what I needed at that point. I needed sleep, water, and vegetables.
Imagine a nice big closet. You’ve been shoving junk into this closet for years. It’s getting quite full and you’re starting to wonder how you’ll fit all your new stuff into it. What would be most logical is to clean the closet out first, make room for the new stuff.
Closet emptying is a daunting task, yes, but it’s also a beautiful thing, not a thing to fear.
When you look through years of junk you’ve accumulated, you can learn a lot about yourself. You remember things that are important to you, and realize there are things you can let go of. And the most beautiful part is that now, with an empty closet, you get to choose what you put in.
So to my lovely lady who commendably wants to do more and more, I say, do less.
Not to say be lazy, but don’t worry about doing more cardio. You’re becoming well over-trained. You have the right spirit, but the wrong question.
Don’t cram more into the closet until it bursts. Empty it first.
How much cardio should you be doing? The amount that makes you feel good. Only you can know.
Do you genuinely enjoy doing extra cardio? Do you feel better after doing it? Or do you feel run down. Are you already sore but you feel the need to do more exercise anyway? Are you doing it because somewhere, someone you don’t remember told you you should, because someone somewhere told them the same thing?
I would love to be able to recommend a precisely calculated ratio of work to rest, and exact duration and type, for supplementary cardio, but the fact is that many dancers I train are starting with a full closet. I want to help them first to see how full it is, and help them to develop the strength to tackle the job of emptying it. Together, we’ll fill it back up with the right stuff.
Strength and recovery first. Strength makes movement easier. It will help you move more efficiently, waste less energy. Breathe better. Strength will improve your stamina without doing any “cardio”.
Are you recovering from your strength workouts? From dance classes? Work on that first.
Make sure you’re not sore all day everyday, mentally foggy, and a chronic insomniac. Then we’ll talk about perhaps doing some cardio. Deal?
The other day I had a dream that someone told me deadlifting was bad for your back, and that I shouldn’t do them.
I woke up angry.
On another occasion (this time in real life) a friend of mine, who has some lower back and sciatic pain issues, overheard me talking with one of my clients (also has back pain flare-ups from time to time), about our goals for her deadlift- aka, lift more. He then told me that I shouldn’t let someone with chronic back pain deadlift because “deadlifting pinches a nerve in your back”…
I wanted to say so much, but the non-confrontational being that I am, I just said with a huge smile “not if you’re doing them right”, and walked away before we got into an argument.
No- Deadlifting does not pinch a nerve in your back. Pinching a nerve, by the way, is a garbage term used to describe many types of pain that don’t even involve a nerve being “pinched”.
Now THAT’S a nerve pinch…
No- deadlifting is not bad for your back. Rather, deadlifting is an excellent exercise to teach you how to NOT hurt your back, and make it less likely that, if you do have chronic back pain, like I do, it’ll flare up.
So, be it resolved that dancers are notorious for injuring their backs, I would like to argue FOR the case that dancers should indeed deadlift. When they are ready for it.
Nothing gets me stoked quite like deadlifts do. Is my first client of the day scheduled to deadlift? Then I’m off to the start of an awesome day. Do I get to teach someone their first ever deadlift today? You bet I’m excited. It’s impossible to be around deadlifts without getting a buzz.
I just did some today. And I feel awesome!
While there will always be those who think that deadlifts will hurt their backs and knees, making them not worth the risk, I think they’re wrong. Well, in some cases, they’re right- There are some people who I’m sure it would be a good idea not to deadlift. At least initially. But seeing as everybody picks things up, puts them back down (eventually), and sits on the toilet, it’s a good idea to learn to hinge from your hips (aka- deadlift).
Some good reasons for dancers to deadlift:
1) Deadlifting teaches you to use your glutes as the prime mover, over the back. A common imbalance in dancers, is to overuse their lower back muscles (from the constant demand to be in lumbar hyperextension) rather than use their glutes. It’s also pretty common for people to not bend from the hips, but to bend from the spine, putting all the load on the lower back.
Story from the gym today, these two dudes were doing multiple sets of 50 sit ups. Dude 1 says, “Man I can really feel the burn in my lower back!”. Dude 2 agrees enthusiastically that this is awesome. They proceed to do at least 5 more sets, while I foam roll and stretch, observing in close proximity, shaking my head and face-palming internally. Again- I could have said something, but I choose to avoid rationalizing with lost causes unnecessary confrontations like this. Besides, it was Sunday- My only day I don’t HAVE to talk about gym stuff and biomechanics if I don’t want to.
So anyway, back to this important point- The deadlift teaches you to use your glutes as the prime mover, with the hamstrings and lower back as secondary. The glutes are one of the strongest muscles in the body, but also one of the most commonly weak ones. Deadlift and your glutes will get strong, helping with a lot of things from injury prevention, to alignment, to technical performance of dance moves, etc.
Another common thing that dancers do that kind of screws things up for them, is that they use their glutes (glute max, which also externally rotates the hip) to turnout, instead of using them to jump, balance, and other things involving hip extension. Deadlifting, and glute strengthening in general, can help you learn to use the part of the glute max which extends the hip, not just rotates it. Addressing this can aslo help you to prevent overuse injuries to the hamstrings and lower back and hips. Yay!
2) Deadlifts make your whole body strong. Not just your glutes. If you like multi-tasking, then you’ll love deadlifting.
Most strength coaches would agree that the deadlift is paramount to developing full-body strength. I don’t think there’s a single muscle that you don’t need to have engaged to do a deadlift properly. Glutes, abs, back, legs, arms… Sometimes even the arches of my feet are sore after deadlift days, because my foot posture is excellent.
Deadlifts teach you to transmit force from the floor, through your whole body- Everything, from your feet to your hands, has to work to get the bar up, making it one of the most efficient exercises to build strength.
And the German blood in me really, really digs efficiency.
3) Deadlifts build upper back strength. Continuing on the same lines as the above point, if you aren’t bracing your upper back as you lift the bar (or other heavy object of your choosing), then you will probably hurt your back. Just one of the reasons deadlifting gets a bad rep. By engaging the muscles of your upper back (lats and friends), you strengthen the crap out of them.
I think something that sets one dancer apart from another is their ability to dance from their backs. If a dancer is just flapping her arms and legs around, it doesn’t look quite right. But when you can initiate the movement from your back- magic happens.
Fun fact: Those who don’t strength train can only use about 70% of their available motor units, so it’s really amazing the difference you will see in your dancing in just 4 weeks of strength training, during which time increase in strength is due to the fact that now you are actually using more motor units.
4) Deadlifting strengthens your core and neutral spine position. Again, to deadlift properly, and not hurt your back, you need to have a stiff core in a neutral position. Considering most dancers don’t focus much of their time on being in neutral spine, it’s good for them to practice it once in a while. By deadlifting.
5) Deadlifting strengthens your grip. Dancers of many styles will benefit from improved grip strength. If you ever need to lift somebody, hold onto somebody, or climb something (I’m looking at you silks and circus peeps), then you’ll probably need a certain degree of grip strength.
Grip and rotator cuff strength are correlated, making grip strength an important factor for injury prevention to the shoulder. There is also evidence that weak grip can be associated with pain in the elbow, shoulder and other stuff you might not think it would be linked to. The body is just kinda crazy like that.
Deadlifting is also proven to make your handshake way more intimidating. It will help you impress at your next audition or interview.
7) Deadlifting improves your confidence. You’d be surprised at how many dancers actually tell me how little confidence they have in themselves. Part of performing is knowing how to fake confidence I guess.
But tell me, how could you NOT be empowered having the ability lifting something that weighs your own bodyweight and then some? One of my key philosophies, that the DTP thrives on, is that time spent training in the gym should be used to create positive memories of success, to boost confidence, and make the trainee feel good about what they’ve accomplished in each session.
By working on improving strength, and the dancer seeing the numbers of her/his lifts going up, it gives them something positive and tangible to focus on. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of their dancing, or what they need to improve on, they get instant gratification, a flood of adrenaline, and the sense of accomplishment associated with a successful lift.
I’ve seen dancers blossom as people as they see themselves becoming stronger, and stronger. They look forward to deadlift day, because it is another chance to improve themselves as people, not just as dancers.
The confidence a dancer can build through mastering their bodies, and learning the mechanics of lifting heavy is something I think will help them immensely when they are performing, and in daily class. A stronger, more confident, more empowered person is a better dancer than a weak, insecure and tentative person, would you not say?
8 ) Deadlifting has real-world, functional applications. My dancers are surprisingly strong, and like to show it off at their jobs:
This dancer (weighs, like, 115 pounds MAX) works as a server at a popular restuarant, and told me this story: “The other day, we had to move the big crates of cutlery from the floor onto the counter, and no one else wanted to lift them up cause they weigh a ton, not even the dudes. But it was no problem for me, I was just like, ‘I’ll deadlift it up’.”
This dancer works at a popular hardware/houseware store and told me this one: “At work this week, I helped a man lift an apppliance he bought into his car. He looked concerned and went to help me as I [dead]lifted it up into his trunk, but then he was like, ‘Oh… you’re really strong, you didn’t even need my help’. No big deal”.
High. Freakin’. Five. These ladies are killing it in life, at the gym, and on the dance floor.
Thank you deadlifts. Thank you for improving the quality of my life in more ways than I could possibly imagine.
A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with a client of mine about body awareness. Specifically, on the importance of listening to your body when it tells you you’re in pain.
Pain exists for a reason- To guide you. To teach you. To give you some very important information. Your nerve endings can’t talk so they have to resort to being annoying to get your attention. Annoying to the point of being total jerks.
Communicating with jerks is a good skill to develop, and in much the same way, having good communication with your body is important. Body awareness- the ability to interpret what your body is telling you.
It’s your choice, and your responsibility, to listen to your body’s signals, and interpret their meaning. I highly recommend you do.
Like the one time I tried hot yoga and felt like vomiting and passing out simultaneously. The (only moderately fanatical) teacher, reassured me that this was just my body “detoxing” and that I should at all costs NOT leave the room before the 90 minutes was up. I’m all for not being full of toxins, but something tells me the teacher wouldn’t have appreciated me “detoxing” all over the mat. Nor would the sweaty gentleman next to me. And so, much to the instructor’s chagrin, I chose to listen to my body, which was telling me to get the hell out of there.
Detox my ass. That was horrible. I will never hot yoga again.
Is your body being a jerk?
Before you take pain killers, lather up with tiger palm, and ignore these signals, maybe consider changing the way you treat your body.
Imagine you have a pot of water boiling on the stove you want to cool down to drinking temperature, so you keep adding ice-cubes to it in hopes that will cool it down. But this is a silly, ineffective attempt- If we want the water to be a comfortable drinking temperature, you have to take the fire out from under the pot.
I see all too many people masking their pain so they can ignore it. They’re just putting ice-cubes in their pots. You can only put in so many until you run out of ice, or the pot overflows.
But, like, whatever. You can do whatever you want to do. Speaking for myself, however, when my body sends me signals of impending doom, I know better than to ignore them.
So anyway, onward to today’s real topic of discussion.
So you have tight hamstrings, do you?
Do you relate to any of the following? :
“My hamstrings are soo tight, I need to stretch them more”
*while sitting in splits* “I wish I had more flexible hamstrings”
“POP” (sound of hamstring tearing).
I’ve only been witness to one acute hamstring injury (my own) and yes, there was an unsettling popping sound. It was… unpleasant.
I would love it if you could use the information prevent such unpleasant muscle strains and treat your hammies with the respect they deserve- You should probably STOP stretching your hamstrings so much and work on getting them a bit stiffer.
The following article is for dancers who are already at a pretty advanced level in their training. Advanced meaning in terms of years they’ve been dancing, technical skill level , or a combination of the two. This could include university, competitive and professional dancers, and aspiring younger recreational dancers who excel among their peers. Also to any other dancer who meets the following criteria:
Can already do the splits in all directions, especially if you can do over-splits
Can actively lift the leg up to, or past 90 degrees
Dances 3-4+ times per week for at least an hour
Competes/performs regularly several times per year
This could also apply to gymnasts, firgure skaters, circus peeps, etc.
This one’s for you guys, to keep you safe. You’re welcome.
You can stop the excessive hamstring stretching!
Just to avoid confusing, I’m definitely not saying that no dancer, ever, needs to stretch their hamstrings, because initially, you will. There are many dancers who benefit from stretching their hamstrings if they lack flexibility.
The hamstrings act to extend the hip, flex the knee, and also help to rotate the leg when the knee is flexed. Biceps femoris, the most lateral of the 3 hamstrings, is most often the hamstring injured, since it’s the only one what also laterally rotates the leg. Ohh turnout… The hamstrings are also important for dancers because of the deccelerative action they perform-The eccentric control necessary for landings from jumps, and for speed and agility.
The misconception is that because your hamstrings “feel stiff”, or “tight”, they should be stretched more. But just because a muscle feels stiff, in your specific case, this might actually be an indicator of the opposite- A need for more stiffness. An actual stiff muscle, by it’s true definition does not feel sore and tight, but feels kind of springy.
In reality, this hamstring “tightness” is the feeling of a muscle locked long that you are over-recruiting. A weak, over-stretched, over-worked muscle tightening reflexively to protect itself from tearing.
Think about this: you’re obsessed with stretching your hammies, and then you make them perform strenuous, repetitive work, at a high volume while they’re locked in an eccentric (elongated) contraction. Not a super strong place to be.
So if the hamstring is locked in a stretched out position, and you’re jumping around all day kicking your legs over your head, AND THEN stretching them even more while you’re cold, does it really surprise you that they tend to get cranky and damage easily?
The good news is, knowing this, you can easily prevent these sorts of overuse injuries. Here’s how:
1) Evaluate your need to stretch your hamstrings. They need to be flexible, but they also need to be strong. Act responsibly. If you’re already flexible and/or hypermobile, your needs are different than your friends’. I very rarely do any hamstring stretching with my ballet dancers. There are more productive things we can do. But if you do indeed need more flexibility, spend some time stretching them- Ideally after your day of dancing is complete, or as a separate session on a non-dance day.
Hypermobile dancers like to stretch. They find it easy and it feels good, but stretching for long periods into the end of range may lead to instability and even injury. Stability and strength should be developed as a priority. However, even in hypermobile dancers there will be areas of restriction and tightness and it is good to stretch these, whilst avoiding stretching areas where there is already excessive mobility.
Many hypermobile people are naturally attracted to dance because of their additional flexibility. However, strength and fine control are essential components to match increased flexibility and end of range movement. Additional coaching, conditioning and physiotherapy exercises can be useful to gain strength and reinforce movement patterns.
2) Strengthen your glutes and hamstrings. Add some functional stiffness. Both the hamstrings and the glutes extend the hip, but often we dancers use our glutes (especially the maximus) to turnout, and so the hamstrings (especially the lateral one) do all the work. Silly. And risky.
Here are some exercises to begin with, and eventually progress to:
Prone hip extension. Focus on pushing your hips into the floor and try to not allow the lower back to dip down towards the floor.
Hip bridge with foam roller. Press through the floor with your heels and imagine you are getting a stretch for your hip flexors. Do not thrust up with your spine. Squeeze the crap out of the foam roller.
Pull throughs. A very exciting exercise to do in a busy gym.
Single leg stiff legged deadlift. Ignore how shaky mine are.
And one my favourite exercise of all time, le barbell deadlift. Start with a kettlebell or dumbbell, and progress to a barbell if you’re ready to handle heavier loads (ie no injuries, you’re taught proper form, etc).
That was a personal best for me from a little while ago. I don’t dance much anymore so I decided to work on a strength goal (I don’t recommend lifting THIS heavy if you’re dancing seriously). I accidentally counted the plates wrong, which kind of screwed the whole workout flow up. I can’t count. I avoid math if at all possible. It makes for surprising workouts sometimes.
So to conclude, I urge you to consider a more conservative approach to hamstring stretching (an “as needed” approach), and develop strength in your glutes, and hamstrings. A simple strategy that will go a long way in helping to prevent injury, and improving things like jumps, alignment, and over-all level of pain you’re in on the daily.
Have you had a hamstring injury? I’d love to hear your experiences. Leave a comment below.