Let’s Change How We Speak to Dancers About Injury Prevention

Let’s Change How We Speak to Dancers About Injury Prevention

I’ll start by stating the obvious: Dancers get injured. A lot.

Studies show us that the injury rate in dance is similar to that of collision sports and, while each study presents a different statistic, the injury rate is often somewhere between 60-100%.

Not to mention that you can’t completely rely on studies that include self-reported data, because many dancers don’t report getting injured.

THIS study, outlined in Science Daily says:

injury rate for ballet dancers over an eight-month period was 61 percent. This is comparable to rates found in other studies for athletes in collision sports such as football and wrestling. The average time lost because of a ballet injury was 10.5 days, with the actual time loss ranging from one to 87 days.

In THIS study, the injury incidence in professional Irish dancers was shown to be 76%.

And in THIS study of young ballet dance students, of the 476 students in being observed, 438 injuries were recorded. The injury incidence rate was 0.8 per 1,000 dance hours.

If you dance, you will get hurt.

Am I scaring you? I’m only doing it to make a point. How does hearing these statistics make you feel? Are you inspired now to go out and take care of your joints? Or are you paralyzed, discouraged, and unsure what to do about it?

That’s my point. Scary stats aren’t enough to inspire action. Telling dancers they need strategies to prevent injuries doesn’t count as guidance. One-off injury prevention workshops don’t give long-term support that dancers need.

THIS study done in the UK looked at dancers’ perspectives towards injuries and pain, and one conclusion was:

Dance injury rates do not appear to be decreasing significantly, despite greater awareness and the promotion of the “healthier dancer” in dance training schools, universities and among professionals in the UK.

The way we’re presenting injury prevention to dancers is not effective enough.

There’s enough research supporting cross-training to make it mainstream, yet even the dancers who cross-train get injured.

And fear mongering, kind of like I’m doing now (it’s only to make a point!), isn’t an effective means of getting dancers interested in preventing injuries, it only makes them focus on their fears.

Is it really helpful to focus on pain? To be told that you will get hurt if you don’t do x-y-z? Has being scared into trying to prevent injuries ever really inspired you?

Michael Mullin’s Facebook page is always full of gems like this one below, which I’ve been making a conscious effort more recently to be aware of in my own practice:

michael mullin FB quote

Pain science shows us that focusing on pain only draws our attention to it more, making it more pronounced and threatening in our minds. The more we fear pain, the more we try to stiffen ourselves to prevent feeling it, and the more we alter our movement patterns in compensatory ways that can cause even higher risk of injury.

Please watch this TED talk by Lorimer Mosely, author of Explain Pain, which summarizes nicely why things hurt (and read his book, too):

What if we stopped focusing on pain and injuries?

And what if we stopped putting the onus on the dancer to change they way they do things, and instead, change how WE work with dancers.

It’s a mistake to keep telling our students the same things over and over expecting them to change, while we ourselves refuse to adapt to their situation. We don’t study dance science for our own personal gain after-all, it’s to help the dancers. Isn’t it?

Our language needs to change.

What if, instead of naming programs as “injury prevention screens” we called them “performance optimization screens?” They are the exact same program only with a different name.

What if instead of saying “don’t do this or you will become injured!”, we said, “If you try to do things this way instead, you will be creating better patterns of moving that will help you perform better and stronger”.

Subconsciously we react differently to hearing words like pain, injuries, don’t, not, and bad. Over time, constantly hearing these words can start to change the way we feel about ourselves, and limits our potential.

Take the emphasis off the threat. Let dancers focus on their love of dance.

aaron swanson PT quote

Does inducing fear help reduce pain in the same way that encouraging dancers to experience gratitude does?

Consider that you’re trying to motivate a dance student, or yourself for that matter, to start a cross-training or therapeutic exercise program. How would you word it to them?

Would you a) Attempt to instill a fear of spraining an ankle if you don’t do it, or b) Express how  the exercises will make you stronger and better at dancing.

I think it’s obvious.

Changing your language, both to yourself and to others, is a challenge. It requires that you are completely aware of every word coming out of your mouth. This seems unrealistic but it is possible, and this subtle switch can make a massive difference, and is 100% worth the effort, with zero cost.

I have made this switch myself, and it drove me crazy when I realized how my words could be sending the wrong subconscious message to my clients, and to myself, despite my best intentions.

They say you become what you focus on. I know this to be true.

When I was recovering from an eating disorder, the hardest part was trying to teach myself how to eat again in “normal” portion sizes, without becoming completely obsessive about it. I’m sure if you’ve been through one yourself you can relate to the challenges of acclimating back to being a regular person who eats regularly.

Food was on my mind constantly. When would I eat next? How much would I eat? What would I eat? How many calories? How many carbs? How much protein? Did I deserve to eat that many carbs? Should I go exercise before or after eating? Is that too many calories or not enough? And then how many hours should I wait until I eat my next meal? What should I have for my next meal? Should I just skip eating today altogether??

When I reflect back on the hours wasted and the mental energy spent every day just thinking about food, it’s no wonder I was always exhausted and injured.

It wasn’t until I finally decided to stop thinking about food that I was able to eat like a “regular” person again. Canada is not a third world country. There is ample food here. I had no need to worry for hours each day about where my next meal would come from.

When it comes to injuries, constantly obsessing about them and their prevention is counterproductive in a similar way that my food planning obsession was. It’s a waste of mental energy that can be used more productively.

Don’t get me wrong, we need people to think about injury prevention, but it’s not the dancers who should be worried. It’s us- The scientists, the physiotherapists, the trainers, teachers, parents, and doctors to think about these things, maybe even worry about them a little, but only so that the dancers don’t have to.

Let the dancers worry about dancing, and we, the dance educators can carry the burden of their injuries. Because we’re geeks and we’re into it, and our bodies aren’t the ones on the line.

We, the educators, trainers, and therapists, need to learn all we can about prevention, but not only prevention- We also need to learn how to communicate this information to dancers in a way that doesn’t make them afraid, but empowers them to become stronger. Because the fear and obsession tactics don’t work.

In my first year at Ryerson University I remember that we were asked what our biggest fears were, as dancers. Our response? A unanimous fear of becoming hurt and no longer being able to dance.

What causes this fear of injuries?

You’re afraid of injuries because you don’t know enough about how your body works to be able to heal yourself without an entire team of specialists (which you can’t afford).

Injuries are scary because of the time off you don’t want to take, for which you will have nothing else to fill it with, because dance is all you know.

You’re afraid to become hurt less because of physical pain, and more because you tempt losing a piece of your identity.

You don’t want to think about the fact that you can’t afford rehabilitation fees.

And you’re afraid of injuries because you perceive that teachers will judge you as inferior for becoming hurt (“if your technique was better this wouldn’t have happened to you!”).

So you push these fears to a dark corner in your mind so that you can dance without limits. When you’re not injured you feel invincible, and it feels good to dance like you’re invincible. The best dancers to watch must be the ones who feel invincible because they don’t hold anything back.

You don’t need the constant reminders that you will get hurt, you need goals for performance, a well designed strength training program that is actually fun to do and that helps you feel immediate reward so that you’ll want to keep doing it. You need to be educated on how your body works so you can enjoy using it and, by understanding your limits, you can respect them.

What I feel is lacking for most dancers, unless part of a professional ballet company, is a safety net that has your back when you do get injured. Because injuries will happen. We as educators know that we can help dancers to get injured less often, but it still happens.

By safety net I mean a system that ensures that a dancer doesn’t need to be afraid of becoming injured, because they will have access to the support they need financially, emotionally, physically, and mentally in that situation.

It’s not the dancer that needs to change, it’s you and I. How we educate, train, and make ourselves a part of a dancers’ rehab process. We need to change the system rather than expect the dancers to fit into the one that currently exists, and often fails them.

Anyone who has become injured knows that it doesn’t just hurt the physical body, but it can trigger deep depression and cataclysmic feelings of low self-worth. You feel like you’re losing your identity when you lose your ability, if not only temporarily, to dance.

I am fortunate to live in Canada and that my father works for the government.

Had to insert a Justin Trudeau pic in here somewhere

While I was in school, I was covered under his benefits and could get my physio fees reimbursed through his insurance policy. Physio which, by the way, was not effective because I had no idea how to choose a therapist that would fit my needs.

Despite this accessibility, my rehabilitation experience was not good and, eventually I maxed out my parents’ coverage to the point that I stopped going because I could not afford it anymore. I even paid for treatments out of my own pocket that were ineffective.

I felt bad about myself for not getting better. I felt judged by my teachers and felt the pity of my peers. I felt guilty that I had used all of my parents’ insurance coverage and still could not dance.

It could have been much different if a system was in place to help. If I didn’t have to make decisions alone that I knew nothing about. I was alone and ignorant. Alone, even though I’m sure every dancer in my class had gone through a similar struggle.

At the IADMS conference this past October, I distinctly remember one presentation showing us evidence that insufficient coping skills was one of the top reasons dancers get injured. I can relate.

Most of us don’t have a support system unless we go out and create one for ourselves. We all have the right to a safety net. An incredibly supportive, effective, affordable network.

What if each dance program/school had a network that consisted of a rehabilitation team, a strength and conditioning team, and a therapist.

Welcome to my perfect world where:

1. Each dance school/program has a built in a budget for student rehabilitation. This budgeted amount is established knowing that dancers will get hurt- Not if, but when. This  allows dancers to receive a certain minimum amount of treatment for their injuries, and a subsidized rate beyond that amount, so that they can focus on their dancing without fear.

2. Strength and conditioning is a mandatory part of the curriculum. Not a bootcamp, Barre fitness style class, but a sensible, periodized, dance-specific program taught by a competent coach who would have as much a role in education as supervising exercise,  empowering dancers to become their best while feeling good about themselves and their abilities.

3. The dance program has it’s own  team of rehabilitation specialists. They observe dance classes, communicate with the other teachers and faculty, and, most importantly, aren’t only into making money with fancy treatments and passive therapies. Did you know that some physios can make hundreds of dollars by prescribing an injection that takes them 5 minutes to administer? Makes it pretty tempting to do this than work long-term with a patient to teach them how they came to be injured.

4. Dance teachers are educated on how to speak and interact with their students.  They are taught to avoid negative language and help them adopt a growth mindset, set goals, and raise their self-worth rather than make them feel bad about their abilities.

Imagine how reassuring it would be to dance at a school that had this kind of support system. The dancers in this program would thrive knowing that if their worst fears came true, they wouldn’t have to deal with it alone. It would allow them to dance with more confidence, not subjected to inappropriate language and fear mongering with no talk of solutions.

I write this because a dancer I know has been going through some hard times in his last year university and a system like this could have prevented his current situation, as well as that of many dancers.

Meet Michael.

I “met” Michael via email (probably chatting initially about deadlifts and hamstring injuries, two things we have in common).

Despite his best intentions, desire to learn how to take care of his body, and love of strength training, he became badly injured and has now accumulated thousands of dollars in medical bills he can’t afford to pay, and is still trying to get back on his feet.

Michael’s not an idiot. He’s way smarter than I was at his age.

Michael didn’t do anything wrong. He only wanted to work hard and succeed at something he loves, but he didn’t have the support and education he needed to overcome his injuries.

When his physiotherapy program was not helping him improve adequately, he didn’t know whether he should call it quits and find someone new, because that isn’t taught in school.

When he was cleared to go back to dance, still in pain, he was not educated on how to know when to rest, something we all need an education in.

He loves strength training and knows it’s good for him to do, but like most students, he wan not able to afford supervision and a customized program that would have ensured his cross-training was helping him, not just grinding him into the dirt (unlike other collegiate athletics programs which almost always include strength and conditioning training).

Michael didn’t get adequate recovery because he felt guilty about resting, and felt judged for sitting out. He didn’t have a better plan so he pushed through his injuries to perform in a show which, by the end, found him unable to walk without pain.

While he will probably look back a few years from now and see his situation so clearly, it’s not so easy to make the right choices when your life is ruled by judgement, competition, and pressure to succeed, with little support.

Michael needed a system.

He needed better quality physio that insisted upon adequate recovery, guidance for his cross-training, financial aid, compassion from his teachers,  and to be re-assured that  he would have a  smooth transition back into dance if he followed their advice.

Image result for dance injuries

He needed a trustworthy system with this kind of incredible communication between rehab, cross-training, and teaching, with the budget to support him so he didn’t have the financial burden at the forefront of his mind.

Of course there are some challenges this model poses.

The big one: Money. Where does this budget to subsidize rehab, training, and education come from?

Another biggie: Time. Convincing the head of a dance program that it is necessary to make time for screening and strength and conditioning in the already packed curriculum isn’t an easy sell.

This system is my dream. Just give me 10 years and I’ll make it happen ;).

How is Michael now coping with his situation? He’s started a Go Fund Me campaign to help pay for his medical expenses and get back to dancing. It takes courage to put oneself out there and ask for money. I certainly would rather have given up completely than ask for help.

But Michael shouldn’t have to be asking for money. Dance students should not have to reach out to their friends and strangers on the internet because they can’t afford physical therapy. That said, this is Michael’s reality, and if you’d like to help him out, please contribute to his campaign. Better yet, reach out to UC Irvine where he studies and ask them to consider creating a better support system for their dance students.

Michael has been inspired by his situation to start a charity that would support dancers through times of need like his. For now, his Go Fund Me campaign is his charity, and if he meets his fundraising goal, he also hopes to donate to a charity that does something similar to support dancers. Please help him out, and share this post.

And if you are aware or organizations that support dancers, please let me (and Michael) know about them. Many of us are not aware what resources are available to us, so post them in the comments below.

What do you think? Am I too idealistic? (I for sure am, but I’m not changing). Can you relate to Michael’s experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And yes, realize that I used a lot of negative verbiage in this post, but it was mostly to make a point!

 

 

 

 

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?

Listening to Pain for a Longer Dance Career

I’m working with a dancer this summer who reminds me a lot of me. When we first started to work together she didn’t know what pain was. Silly, right?

This lovely young lady is dealing with some pretty chronic hip, knee, shoulder and neck pain upon many passive and active movements. How has she been dancing? How does one successfully perform the infinite ranges of motion and challenges of stability that dancing requires when it hurts to do a basic, passive movement?

A lot of things are possible when you ignore pain. But for how long can you maintain that?

A huge part of what I do with some clients is pain education, something many dancers won’t ever get.

No dance teacher ever taught me how to listen to my pain, but told me to push through it. We’re told that pain is an inherent part of our existence. But I’m telling you it doesn’t have to be.

I don’t care how annoying it gets, I will ask you how you feel after every exercise.

If I know you have knee pain, I will always ask you how your knees feel, because as lovely and sweet and awesome as my aforementioned client is, she never mentions pain until I ask her. And then it finally comes out after some probing. “That hurt my knee”. WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME DURING THE EXERCISE WHEN YOU FIRST NOTICED IT???

Dancers…

The presence of pain changes motor control and facilitates the development of compensation. That’s why you don’t ever want to repeatedly perform movements that hurt.

Yes, to dance you will have to do some things with your body that feel uncomfortable, but that isn’t the same as pain. Do you know the difference between pain and discomfort?

I have never had a formal education in the science of pain, just like I never received a formal education in anatomy, biomechanics, neurophysiology, or many other things that I would have liked that relate to my interests in the field of training and rehabilitation. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I learned straight from the source.

While my dance teachers may never have warned me that “if X joint starts to hurt upon Y movement, go seek help because that’s bad”, I learned eventually, anyway. Was it worth it? I often wonder…

So in case a dance teacher fails to deliver this important message (that might save your dance career, by the way):

If your arm goes numb when you put it over your head, go see someone about it.

If it hurts your neck when you turn your head to one side, go see someone about it.

If your knee sometimes gives out painfully while you’re walking down the street, go see someone about it.

If any part of your body is experiencing pain at any time while you dance or otherwise, take a freaking break and go see someone about it!

It doesn’t make you weak to acknowledge pain, and taking time off from dancing when movement is painful won’t cause irreparable regression. You often need to regress to progress. That’s what pain is telling you. That’s your education from pain. Let it teach you it’s lesson, and move on to better things.

Pain is your body’s way of telling you something isn’t right. Will you listen? It’s an opportunity to make huge improvements. Will you take it?


 

Achieving the Splits Safely

Just a quick (I hope) post today. It’s been a while since the last one, and let’s just say that it’s because I’ve been busy. Doing stuff. And I’m still catching up on work, so today is a cop out blog post where I answer a reader question (which I one that many of you might be wondering about anyway).

The question: When does flexibility become “unsafe”? Are we dancers, with our ligament pathologies intricacies, doomed to be sore and in pain for as long as we remain flexible? How do we know when  (or if) we’ve reached the perfect balance of strength and flexibility?

That’s the gist of the email I received from a lovely reader I’ll call FABIO, for the sake of anonymity.

Hi Monika,

Your post Ligament Pathologies in Dancers- Things You Need to Know” was phenomenal. I’m combing through post after post of yours because of your insights. I was recently diagnosed as hypermobile. I’m a former dancer and have done yoga for years. Several of your posts have had me going “Omg! It’s me! That’s exactly what I do and that’s what happens to me!” While I’m currently working with a physical therapist to strengthen my hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes, she’s suggested I avoid all stretching.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to regain all 3 splits. Is it possible for someone with all these wonderful ligament pathologies to safely do the splits? Do you have any suggestions regarding strengthening versus stretching? I have tried asking the physical therapist but the answer I generally get out of her is, “it’s complicated.” I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts since I can relate to so much of what you’ve posted.

I always try to take the time to respond when I get awesome emails like this, because when I started writing this blog (which started as a personal brain-dump) I wasn’t anticipating that I’d have real live readers one day. So, yeah, I think it’s pretty cool that there are people out there who think I’m smart and want my opinion. It gives me a warm fuzzy (and my name does mean “advisor”, so I should try to live up to it I guess).

Anyway, here’s (the edited to have no typos version of) how I responded:

Fabio, your question is one that I’m still trying to figure out. What is the most optimal ratio of strength to flexibility for dancers to maintain technical virtuosity while preventing injuries and maintaining a long, healthy career? I wish I had a more satisfying answer but quite honestly it’s a question I consider every single day. Everyday I’m working to come a bit closer to some semblance of an understanding.

Your PT is right- It’s complicated, and every BODY is different. In general, stability, neutrality, and alignment are more important for injury prevention and pain management, but dance (and even yoga) has some extreme aesthetic and athletic demands that take you well beyond your own neutral. And trying to dance in perfect neutral all the time is just. Not. Dance.

My suggestion- experiment safely. Build awareness and get to know your limits. That said, if anyone reading this happens to make any progress in figuring this strength vs. flexibility thing out for themselves, please keep me posted. I’d love to hear about your experiences in body-detectivism.

But I’ll give you an anecdotal example: I have a contemporary/ballet, university-level dance client who dances 5-6 days per week. She can do the splits in all 3 directions, and is probably as flexible as her genetics will allow (with some underlying ligament pathologies, to boot). In the 2 years she has been training regularly with me she has maintained her flexibility, improved her technique, and is stronger than the average chick. She can deadlift close to her own bodyweight for 5ish reps, can do full depth push-ups correctly, can squat proficiently, and has an excellent understanding of how her body moves.

In this time she has had only one minor knee injury, which didn’t stop her from dancing, but required one or two physio appointments. When she originally came to me, she had all sorts of complaints about her lower back and hamstrings. I’d say that’s not too shabby.

But again, that’s HER. Not you. Not anyone else.

Another example is bodybuilders, some of whom despite their huuuuge muscles can still do the splits. Do they also need to jump around and do athletic things? Not as much as dancers do… but I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to strength vs. flexibility, and I hate (strong word!) when fear of losing flexibility is the main reason for not developing strength.

Then there are factors like genetics, injury history, foot wear, habits outside the dance class, lifestyle, diet, etc that can contribute to your optimal level of flexibility and strength.

So… Yes. It’s complicated. It depends on a lot of factors. And to keep this post short (and because I have to get back to  doing “real work”) I’ll end it here.

And for those of you who want something more actionable and sciency to read right now, check out Miguel Aragoncillo’s post about developing flexibility for dance  (keeping in mind that Miguel is a hypermobile bastard , and he is pretty dang strong too).

 

Dancers and Plyometric Training- Part 2

Dancers and Plyometric Training- Part 2

 

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.

Joel sez:

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.

Joel sez:

 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!