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
- Rectus abominis/ TVA
- Mid and lower trapezius
- Glute max
- 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:
- Calves (gastrocnemius, soleus, and some others too, depending on the person)
- Spinal erectors
- Neck extensors
- 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.