Starting Dance Students on a Strength Training Routine

Starting Dance Students on a Strength Training Routine

If I had a goal when I started writing this blog, it would have been to raise the awareness of the need for dancers to be stronger and move better fundamentally in order for them to prevent injuries and excel artistically. But I wasn’t thinking that far ahead…

Despite poor long-term planning, it seems this message has spread to some very important individuals who have the power to facilitate change: Dance teachers and studio owners. They have the most influence on a dancer’s development from a young (or older) age and so their understanding of how to train a well-rounded dancer, artist and athlete, is so, so very important.

 

A month or so ago I got an email from the owner of a dance school in Calgary. In her email, which I will share with you below, she says that she has recently taken it upon herself to learn about strength training for her dancers, and is taking action by implementing a training program.

Check this out for yourself, and feel the warm fuzzies:

I have come across your articles due to research I have been doing on strength training for dancers. I have a dance school in Calgary and started a pilot program this year with 15 of my senior dancers. Once a week these dancers work with a trainer on weight lifting, track and plyos. We are seeing marked improvements in these dancers however I would like tweak the program to be more specific for dancers.  The trainer we are working with has become passionate about ballet and he has even started taking privates to better understand our art form and training needs.  Can you advise us on the best way to introduce dancers to the gym and weight lifting in particular? How young can students begin this training? Is there anything we should avoid?

First of all, I’m so excited for these 15 dancers! I hope they know how lucky they are to have a teacher that cares about their well-roundedness and career longevity, not just thinking about the next show (or making money).

Second, I am so happy to connect with dance teachers and studio owners who are keeping up to date with trends and research. Science has shown that dance alone is not enough to keep dancers performing optimally, and that strength training reduces injury rates, so it’s not even debatable anymore. It’s science.

Third, and with the last point in mind, I think that something every dance teacher or studio owner should ask themselves is: What can I do to help my dancers begin strength training?

And it’s a loaded question that can be answered in a number of ways that depend on your time, budget, knowledge, facility, equipment, support, and more…

  • Do you want add a separate strength training class to your studios repertoire?
  • Do you want to simply incorporate more strengthening exercises into existing class time?
  • Do you have a budget to purchase equipment?
  • What kind of equipment are you prepared to buy?
  • Do you want to refer your students to a trainer you trust at a separate gym?
  • Will they be training privately or in small groups?
  • Maybe you want to upgrade your studio to have a training facility (which would be AMAZING, and a friend/studio owner of mine in Toronto is doing just that).
  •  Are you as the dance teacher qualified to train the dancers, or will you need to  find a trainer to bring in for them?

But remember that by just saying the initial “yes” to resistance training you are making an incredibly positive choice, even if your students and their parents resist, believing foolishly in the dogma that dancers don’t need to do anything but dance.

And lastly, because there are so many variables that affect how, where, and when to get your dancers stronger, here are some guidelines that I think dance teachers, studio owners, trainers of dancers, and dancers themselves should pay attention to as they transition into the fun world of strength training.

 

Top 5 guidelines for dancers beginning a strength training program:

Assuming you’ve begun with a good assessment, no injuries or symptoms of over-training are present: Cleared to begin strengthersize.

1) Master neutral spine, pelvis, neck, and every joint, really.

Teach you students to neutralize. This is so fundamental. Neutral isn’t sexy, but neither is hip replacement surgery when you’re 30 because you never cared enough about where you put your femoral head (snug in the acetabulum, where it belongs, I hope).

Many dancers want more flexibility, but what they really need is stability first. They need more muscle activation so that they can actually get to a neutral position, because their ligaments sure aren’t holding things in place anymore. THEN they can start to consider if they really need that extra flexibility.

Start with the saggital plane. Once that has been mastered you can move into the frontal and transverse planes of movement. Using the lumbo-pelvic area as an example, first work on getting out of lumbar extension and anterior pelvic tilt (saggital plane), make sure their the adductors and abductors are balanced and functional (frontal), and then work on hip internal and external rotation (transverse).

But maybe you’re thinking, “But dance isn’t neutral- Why should I train that way? Won’t that screw up my ability to dance?” Nope. That’s the exact reason you need more neutrality. You won’t ever get it in a dance class.

Finding neutral for a hypermobile person is like getting the splits for a stiff person. It takes daily work to get that range of motion.

2) Emphasize postural education, not just exercises and stretches.

Educate dancers on awareness of their current posture, and teach them what “good posture” feels like. From foot to head. Many dancers don’t even consider that they have bad posture. And even scarier is that many dancers take pride in their poor postural tendencies, like walking with their feet pointing out, even if it’s causing them pain. That posture is part of what makes them feel like a dancer.

The worse their posture is, the more they’ll compensate to make them appear to have taller posture. But compensation is hard work. Don’t spend your energy on compensating for bad posture. Take the time and energy required to assess your alignment, fix it, and enjoy the ease that follows.

Postural education is even more important that the training sessions you’ll do. Even though you do good, important work for a few hours (if you’re lucky) per week, there are so many other hours in the week to undo it. Moment to moment postural education is so important for injury prevention, and to continue to progressively develop strength and improve alignment in dance class, too.

And give ’em a smack upside the head if you seem them slouched over their precious iPads. And do they really need all the stuff they have in that backpack?

Just kidding.  Please, no violence.

3) Common muscle imbalances to keep in mind:

Here’s a short list of muscles that I often see are weak and need to spend some time “waking up” initially:

  • Quadratus lumborum
  • Psoas
  • Rectus abominis/ TVA
  • Lats
  • Mid and lower trapezius
  • Glute max
  • Adductors
  • Hip internal rotators (TFL, glute med/min)

Keep in mind that depending on the individual, this will vary. But I am shocked when I meet a dancer for the first time who can activate their glutes and core on command (which includes QL and psoas, in my books).

And on the flip side, many dancers will have compensations in which muscles are up-regulated and need to be released first (via some form of soft tissue work, stretching, etc). Here are some common ones:

  • Diaphragm
  • Iliacus
  • Calves (gastrocnemius, soleus, and some others too, depending on the person)
  • Spinal erectors
  • Neck extensors
  • Sternocleidomastoid
  • Piriformis
  • Pec minor.

And again, those are the common ones. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule and other things to consider. But it wouldn’t hurt for your piriformis to spend some time quality with a lacrosse ball, I bet.

4) Train like any other athlete.

If the dancer is structurally ready and has no weird pain or injuries that need addressing, train hard!

Dancers are no different from other athletes in the respect that they still should train with full body compound exercises in a well rounded program that is complimentary to the competitive/performance season they are in. Use full body movements like squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, push-ups, etc- the usual staples. Use perfect technique, with the ever-awareness of the compensation-masters that dancers are.

In fact, science (again) has demonstrated that push-ups and vertical jump height are correlated to improved dancing in several studies. The staggeringly high injury rate in dancers should not deter you from resistance training, because it’s the absence of said training is that is correlated to the injury rate.

5) Monitor their recovery carefully.

Many dancers become over-trained due to the stress that dance, and the industry as a whole, places on the mind and body. Though strength training will help dancers improve their capacity for work, and make dancing itself less of a strain on the body, it too can be overdone at times. Pay attention to the warning signs of overtraining. You can read more on that specifically here: Managing Overtraining in Dancers.

To avoid burnout, you should also pay attention to which training season you’re in. Your training goals should be different in the on vs. off-season: You need to treat your body differently in the competition season compared to the summer when you’re likely not to be taking regular technique classes. I firmly believe that dancing should be optional in the summer off-season. It should be a time for increased focus on strength and cross-training. This helps the dancer recover from the physical and mental duress of competitions, rehearsals, and intense technique classes, so they can come back fresh in the fall, ready to push past training plateaus.

So those are my top 5 to keep in mind, but like I said earlier, simply making the decision to educate your dancers that they need to do more than just dance is a beautiful thing, and will keep them dancing stronger, for longer.

8 More Reasons for Dancers to Deadlift

8 More Reasons for Dancers to Deadlift

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’.”

BAM.

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.

 

 

Dance Cross-Training Myths De-Bunked- Part 1

FIRST POST OF 2013!!!

I hope you had an excellent time (d)ring(k)ing in the new year. I spent the night rocking out to my good friend Joe’s band at the Watermark Irish Pub (right across from where the National Ballet trains), drinking rum and cokes, and eating red velvet cake. For the first time! OMG red velvet cake is my new favorite cake. Or maybe I just really, really liked the cream cheese icing. Cream cheese icing is my weakness.

Let me take a moment to  forget about that sweet, delicious cake before I continue…

Mmmmmmm. Ok. Aaaand I’m good to go.

Now, I can’t think of a better way to dedicate the first DTP blog post of the new year, than to some myth de-bunkery. Let’s get our heads straight in 2013.

If you are a regular stalker (follower?), then you know that there is a lot evidence pointing to the efficacy of dancers performing strength training to correct muscle imbalances and build full-body strength, among other benefits.

If this is your first time reading this blog, then welcome, and might I suggest you’ll want to go back in time and read THIS and THIS, to get caught up. And THIS too.

To over-simplify in a huge way: Strong dancer good. Weak dancer bad.

But I want to get a little more into the why, what, when and how of cross-training for dancers. We already know the who- It’s YOU!

The problem is that dance is an art-form firmly rooted in tradition.  I love tradition (what would Christmas be without delicious egg nog and nanaimo squares??), but there are some dance traditions that I think it’s time we let go of in favor of new, healthier habits.

We are now in the era we call “post-modern” dance, where choreography is becoming more challenging and physical. Our dance training, however, is failing to prepare us for the physically-challenging.  Only those with superior genetics seem to be able to keep up. The current dance training system is failing us.

Speaking from experience, I graduated from Ryerson’s dance program feeling unprepared physically for the caliber of dancing I longed to perform. I could plead ignorance then, not having discovered the whole “strength-training thing” yet, but now I can’t. I know there is a way I could have stepped up my game, and I was just touching on it before I became injured and was forced to stop dancing.

Here’s the key to dancing success: Lots and lots of deadlifts. Just kidding (but I’m kind of not).

I apologize for the vertical video. Still haven’t figured out filming with my iPhone yet.

Though I would be remiss to not mention that there are other aspects of our dance education and training system which could be improved, I want to focus on my area of expertise– Cross-training. Strength training for dancers in particular.

I was told some questionable things, as a young dancer. Up until recently, I took these things as gospel, and they shaped the dancer I became- A chronically injured one. Not the most hire-able kind of dancer. Only now do I realize that I, and countless other dancers, were eating up that sweet Soylent Green. Maybe you were eating from the same plate as I was too…

Were you told that participating in activities other than dancing would ruin your dance technique, and that doing so was a sign that you were not committed enough to your dance training? I was.

Were you urged to dance as much as possible during the summer, because if you didn’t  your dance technique would be worse when you returned to regular classes in the fall? I was.

And were you ever educated that there were measures you could take to actually prevent the injuries that we dancers have come to accept as inevitable? I wasn’t.

Did you have teachers who preached that to dance was to be in pain every day? Yep.

I believed it all and I didn’t question any of it. What did it get me? Too many injuries and a dance career cut short. Maybe some of you can relate?

But I have good news for you! There is a way to prevent injuries, dance more efficiently, and keep up with the choreographic challenges of the 21st century. All it requires is the simple addition of a little something called cross-training, and you should try it! It’s time to debunk those dance training myths once and for all.

Which I will do. In part 2 of this article. Tomorrow.

You can look forward to seeing these myths punched in the jejunum:

 

1)      Lifting weights will make your dance technique worse.

2)      Strength training will reduce your flexibility, and create big unsightly muscles.

3)      Doing anything BUT dancing will cause your dance technique to become worse.

4)      During the summer, dancers should try to keep dancing as much as possible to retain technique.

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow! Have a wonderful day.