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?
As promised, in continuation from yesterday’s blog post (which you should read first if you haven’t already. Just sayin’…), I want to share the 3 most common “types” of dancers I tend to work with.
Please bear in mind that I work primarily with studio, competitive, collegiate level, and emerging professional dancers, though I also see some professional dancers and adult beginners. A nice variety, but collegiate contemporary being the group I work with, and draw correlations from the most often.
There are definitely more than 3 types of dancers. You might be type 2.5, or type 3X. And I am eager to hear what your experiences are, too.
Type 1: Surviving dancers
These guys aren’t dancing, they’re surviving dance. This is an analogy I most recently saw used by Gray Cook in his book Movement, in which he asks us to question whether we are moving, or are we simply surviving movement. Breath holding is just one of many means of survival we dancers can relate to…
Surviving dancers and are probably in an over-trained state, or will be soon. Whether this is beacuse of mental, emotional or physical stress and/or acute trauma, will be highly individual, but all will contribute to varying degrees. The thing about these guys is that when placed in a generic conditioning routine, progress is often unpredicatble, non-linear or non-existent, because these dancers don’t feel safe. They don’t trust you and they don’t trust themselves. It’s hard to change the way you move if you’re in constant fight or flight mode. Getting out of survival mode is a huge win.
Sympathetic nervous system dominant (I would check HRV for these guys but don’t have anything to track that yet)
Painful movement that often seems random because the it may not even be dysfunctional-looking
Always sore and low energy (probably over-trained)
Have current injuries, or nagging chronic ones that haven’t been completely rehabbed.
Poor breathing and core stabilization patterns (getting this is the KEY to levelling up from survivor status)
Slow progress in non-individualized training situations
Suggestions for training focus:
Stress management/meditation in some form as they might have issues with sympathetic and parasympathetic balance that need to be overcome before anything else can change.
Correct breathing patterns with neutral everything that hates being neutral (neck, ribcage, spine, pelvis, shoulders, etc)
Careful progression through fundamental movement patterns while avoiding painful movement
Use corrective exercise to restore fundamental movement, breathing and developing basic levels of body awareness.
REST, RECOVERY and REHABILITATION
Type 2: Ready to MOVE
These dancers actually feel safe in their bodies. YAY. They can more easily be taught how to move efficiently and develop strength to support that smooth movement. This is because they actually feel safe enough to get vulnerable in a session with you and embrace the new way of moving you are trying to present them.
They may appear physically weak and shaky and maybe a little shy, but these guys will blow you away with how quickly they’ll progress if you give them the right exercises and concepts to focus on.
Free of insidious pain (may be injured, but pain is clearly defined and not random).
Movement screen is free of pain, but with probable asymmetries and poor stability in most movements
Good understanding of breath and stabilization in neutral alignment after one or two exposures to it (mastering this is the key to levelling up!)
Quiet, shy,but eager to work hard and good at following instruction.
Show progression in movement competency and strength in a predictable, linear way.
Suggestions for training focus:
Breathing must be constantly reinforced. Add full breath cycles to each exercise.
Work on constantly improving movement pattern quality and symmetry when needed.
Strengthen fundamental movement patterns like squatting, lunging, single leg balance, upper body pushing and pulling and core stability with regressions and progressions as needed.
Improve ability to use full functional ranges of motion coordinated with breath (some sensible stability based yoga is good for this)
Explore strategies to boost confidence, mental clarity, sense of purpose and self-esteem (strength development helps so much with this, as does simple conversation and goal setting- help them to understand whether they have healthy social and family relationships that are supporting their goals ).
Type 3: Athletic dancers
These dancers are the ones that probably didn’t specialize in ballet at 3 years old, but were exposed to a lot of other opportunities to move and do athletic things before the rhythm and expression of dance called to the artist within them. They will generally have a good base of strength, and be self-sufficient with exercises/breathing technique. You can ask them to do some training on their own and feel confident they won’t screw anything up ;).
No present injuries or painful movements.
High energy, abundant positive energy, enthusiasm for life.
Probable asymmetries in movement screening, but are competent movers and quick learners with few red flags.
Typically higher muscle tone but possibly less mobility (not always…)
Decent base of strength (can probably even do a push-up upon screening)
Progress can be seen from the start to end of a session as gains in strength and motor control are quick (likely because they aren’t over-trained)
May have more dance-technique specific goals to work on than basic movement, strength and mobilty goals.
Suggestions for training focus:
ALL THE SAME THINGS AS TYPE 2 DANCERS
Get deeper into the mind-body experience, using the breath to guide the dancer into the limits of their functional range of motion (which they will using in dance classes). Having a regular yoga practice with emphasis on long duration holds and meditation is one good way I have found so far.
Develop dance-technique-specific strength and improve functional ranges of motion (for turn out, leg height, spine extension, etc)
Counselling on life-direction (where do you want dance to take you?)
Like I mentioned above, I’m sure this is an incomplete list, and I’m sure there are things that you might disagree on (and that I’ll disagree with myself on tomorrow…). This is not based on any research I’ve done, but on my own experience, so it is by no means to be taken too much to heart.
Understanding these types has helped me recently to choose the structure of our sessions and to not stress out and get frustrated when the plan for that session goes off course. My hopes is that it will help you out a bit too. Would love to hear what you think.
P.S. The Dance Stronger program works best if you’re not a survivor ;).
For the past few years I consider myself fortunate to have worked almost exclusively with dancers as training clients. As an example, throughout this summer I’ve worked with 13 dancers and only 5 non-dancers. That ratio changes a bit during the fall when dancers are in-season and don’t need to cross-train as much, but I generally don’t ever see my ratio of dancer clientele drop below the 50% mark.
So yeah, you could say I see a lot of dancers in a day compared to the average person.
Not only that, but I get to see how good these dancers are at not-dancing. Out of their element. Just being humans. This last point is my mission: Get dancers to feel like well-functioning, strong human-beings outside the dance class.
You’d think that from working so frequently with this unique population I’d be able to slap together a dance-specific training program and have a breeze with it, making progress in an awesome linear way. In reality, this is far from the case.
I have tried my best to make such a program (for dancers who want to develop full-body strength to support their dance practice) in hopes that there are people out there who will actually get something out of it. Dance Stronger is a 4 week program that you can sign up for HERE for free. Look, it actually helped this person:
I came across your web site and blog in November, after a disappointing performance in which my legs felt shaky. I hit the gym, inspired by your site and the results have been awesome. I feel strong, powerful, and alive, and even after taking a month-long break from dance training and only going to the gym, returned to the studio with a strength and vigor I hadn’t known in recent history.
I love your straight-forward, courageous, no-nonsense assault on the damaging myths of the dance world. And the particular exercises you write about work, and are efficient—I love the psoas activating stuff, and the work on the glutes.
Rock on! I can at least feel semi-justified (and relieved) that some people have the ability to take a non-individualized program and get some initial benefits from it.
But that’s not enough for me. My German heritage demands utmost efficiency.
I used to try to logically create a program template for my new dance clients to follow, knowing that I would probably need to adjust the exercises- progressions and regressions- here and there. I still kind of do that.
What was so frustrating for me, though, was that despite knowing of the common patterns of muscle imbalances, injuries, training needs, etc, every single one of my dance clients are SO different. My “logical starting template” never worked. Sure I would get to the planned exercises eventually, but in a roundabout way that I could never predict. I didn’t like that.
It got to the point where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing- I would have this sensible-looking program in front of me to take the client through, but I would look at the dancer, and look back to the program, then back to the dancer, sigh and put the program down and do something completely different.
If my program said that in this session we were going to work on a plank variation, and my client can’t even focus enough to lie on her back and show me good breathing technique, we’re sure as hell not following the plan that day.
And maybe on another such occasion my handy plan states it’s time to work on lunges, but this dancer is so stiff through the hips that the lunge start position wasn’t possible, you bet we spent that day trying to get her range of motion back instead of lunging.
And this was happening every day despite my best efforts to plan. I felt that I was missing something huge.
I realize now that it wasn’t that I had made a “bad” program, but that the dancer wasn’t at a stage where they were ready for it, and I had failed to notice because I hadn’t properly screened for it. I feel that many dance-specific training methods have this same issue and are unaware that this is why so many dancers fail to make progress with their methods.
Have you ever, for example, signed up for a pilates class, attended religiously, and still not made progress? Not noticed a difference in strength, control or an improvement in your dancing? Strong chance it’s because you aren’t ready for that type of training yet. There’s something even more fundamental and preparatory you are missing.
I can see now why I felt like I was floundering with some of my dancers, and was because I wasn’t taking into consideration that, for example, while one dancer might look like they’re doing a plank properly, they aren’t making progress anywhere else because something even more fundamental needed addressing first.
What’s more fundamental than a plank? Breathing…
I had skipped too many steps. I had assumed that all dancers have body awareness. That all dancers can learn movement quickly. And that all dancers will understand the importance of not cheating their way through an exercise and ignoring pain during movement. These things will elusively hold back their progress unless you screen for it.
I see now that there are a few types of dancer, each with varying degrees of readiness for exercise. Some are ready for hard work, some can’t even focus for 5 seconds on what I’m asking them to do.
It wasn’t that I was giving them a “bad” exercise plan, it just wasn’t the right type of plan. I hadn’t made sure they were actually ready for it. Maybe there was something even more fundamental that needed addressing, like a lack of mobility at a particular joint, a lack of awareness of a particular element, or a even a change necessary in their state of mind.
I have identified (I think…) 3 types of dancer, and while I’m sure there are more than just 3 understanding what type you are, or you are trying to train in whatever method you work with (pilates, yoga, rehab, weight training, etc.), will help you to better determine what type of exercise or technique any individual dancer might need to progress most efficiently.
But this post is long enough for now so stay tuned for all that stuff tomorrow ;).
Both activities are similar in that they require a significant amount of flexibility, particularly at the hip (high kicks and fun things like that), yet the injury rate in Tae Kwon Do is much lower. And this despite the fact that Tae Kwon Do is clearly a contact sport.
Studies show that 64%-80% of professional dancers need to stop performing for extended periods due to Overuse Syndrome (OS). Although ballet and Tae-Kwon-Do seem to have similarities in muscle lengthening, the Tae-Kwon-Do injury rate is significantly lower.
Why? Tae Kwon Do was even found to be a higher intensity activity, so the intensity factor in ballet can be ruled out as the reason for their higher injury rate.
The methods used were 3D motion capture and biomechanical modeling. Six ballet dancers and five Tae-Kwon-Do artists participated in the study. The results show that intensity during Tae-Kwvon-Do is higher than that during ballet, particularly for small muscles. As intensity cannot be responsible for higher injuries, strength training for small muscles and shorter exercise duration in Tae-Kwon-Do may account for the reversed rate; consequently, this is a promising procedure for ballet training.
So there you have it. Despite the fact that Tae Kwon Do is a martial art with a higher intensity than ballet, requiring similar flexibility, the injury rate remains lower because they are STRONGER. Promising findings for ballet dancers indeed. Findings that correlate anecdotally with my own personal experience training dancers for strength.
Another interesting thing to note is that, in my humble opinion, the different psychology of the two activities could also be a factor in the high dance injury rate compared to martial arts. Whereas in many martial arts participants are taught to be “like water” and to master their minds, dancers often have highly stresful lives and suffer from anxiety, depression and body dysmorphic disorders.
Obviously it depends on the quality of instruction, but I believe that this focus on mind-body is an important aspect that gets ignored in dance, while for martial artists it is of supreme importance. An unhealthy, weak mind makes for an easily injured body, too.
Clearly this is something that requires more investigation, but its worth thinking about, for now.
So what are you waiting for? Science dictates you learn to strength train to prevent injuries. You can start HERE, with my 4 week online program for beginners. Go lift something heavier than your purse today, and follow up with some relaxing Zen.