The ballet world has slowly come around to the idea that strength and conditioning is a fundamental aspect of simultaneously enhancing dancer performance and enabling longevity. Unfortunately, many of the discussions around strength training for dancers includes enduring myths that are closely linked to fundamental misunderstandings of biomechanics, sports performance, and body composition.
Myth 1: Ballet dancers should move like ballet dancers in their cross training
A survey of social media posts will quickly show a number of ballerinas—dancing for some of the biggest companies in the world—engaged in substandard “cross training.” Probably the worst movement pattern you’ll see on a regular basis is loaded arabesques under the mistaken assumption that a dancer can improve their arabesque by loading the movement. It would be difficult to come up with a worse movement for longterm spinal health than squeezing a dancer’s vertebra between a barbell and one foot with a hyper-extended spine in the middle.
There are myriad SAFE options for strengthening the spinal erectors, glutes, and hamstrings without putting a dancer in a loaded arabesque—all of which would both do a better job of improving the arabesque positioning and building the resiliency on which a long career is based. Great strength coaches will tell you that athletes in most sports have to put themselves in compromised positions in order to succeed, but that doesn’t mean loading those compromised positions in a gym setting. Quite the opposite.
Myth 2: Dancers can “tone” and “lengthen” muscles
One of the more interesting things about the ballet world in particular is how many of the misunderstandings around strength training are linked to gender-specific tropes around women. In short, the fitness industry lied to women for decades about what strength training does to a woman’s body, what set and rep ranges women should use, and what “toning” means.
“Toned” muscles are nothing more than muscles surrounded by relatively small layers of fat. In other words, the best way to have a “toned” body isn’t to use tiny weights for dozens of repetitions (unless one wants to work inefficiently). A toned body is a body with muscle mass and relatively less fat mass. In order to tone, then, men and women alike—ballet dancers and non-dancers alike—must build and retain muscle, and lose body fat. What’s the most efficient way that we know to build muscle? Strength training.
Muscle lengthening is a more complicated discussion, because there are instances when muscles can in effect “shorten,” or lose range of motion, over time.
But the key thing to keep in mind is that muscles have fixed beginning and end points. No amount of Pilates or stretching will truly “lengthen” a muscle, no matter how much the marketing materials for the boutique class geared toward women say so. What athletes can and do manipulate is the amount of flexibility in a muscle, which is a combination of passive and active elements. Dancers need BOTH passive and active range of motion in order to execute the aesthetic postures necessary for their art. A well-designed strength training program should improve active range of motion without inhibiting passive range of motion. Pilates can do the same thing, of course, but falls short when it comes to developing other aspects of performance, like power production. For cross-training purposes, then, Pilates and yoga are better viewed as important accessories rather than as centerpieces for conditioning. (In a future blog we’ll tackle yoga and what dancers ought to be looking to get out of it. Hint: it’s not more flexibility.)
Myth 3: Dancers are special
The old guard of the dance world isn’t much different than the old guard of the football or baseball worlds. Old school coaches have old school ideas about what every athlete (or dancer) should be doing. While every movement-based activity has specific requirements that need to be taken into account—baseball pitchers or hockey goalies are prime examples—most of the programming for most athletes, including dancers, will look remarkably similar. Athletes jump and land, athletes produce explosive power, athletes elevate their heart rates, and athletes are strong enough to withstand their given activity.
Dancers require far more range of motion than most other athletes, particularly in their hips, but one mistake a number of dancers make is steering into that range of motion in their cross-training rather than training stability. Highly flexible people often complain of tightness and attempt to compensate by stretching and “searching” for a stretching sensation. But the problem for many of these dancers, yoga practitioners, and other hyper-mobile people very well could be a lack of stability. The tightness might not be muscular at all, but could be derived from compensatory and protective tension—in a sense, our bodies sense a lack of stability and force us to provide it in the form of a “tight” muscle. If that tight muscle is tight because of a compensatory tension and you go cranking into a stretch, you’re only going to make the underlying issue worse.
In this way, then, dancers are similar to other athletes who participate in demanding activities. They need to be strong enough to do what they do, and their “cross training” ought to provide some balance to the extreme demands of their performance. An already hyper-mobile dancer is asking for trouble by solely focusing on flexibility off-stage, just as the football player is who chooses to focus solely on strength at the expense of mobility or rehabilitation.
Myth 4: Strength and conditioning is for performance only
Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird famously hurt his back shoveling gravel in the summer of 1985, an injury that eventually limited his ability to perform on the basketball court. That such an athletic juggernaut sustained a career-curtailing injury off the court should come as no surprise to strength coaches who have had the opportunity to watch gifted athletes move in a gym setting. Sometimes people renowned for how well they move their bodies don’t actually know a lot about how to move their bodies. One of the most consistent movement limitations I’ve seen across athletic and hyper-mobile populations: an inability to hinge properly at the hips. Athletes and dancers who don’t know how to hinge are at a greater risk for off-the-floor lifting injuries for two different reasons. Strong athletes (like Bird), are more likely to try to muscle through an activity using their spinal erectors. And dancers are more likely to borrow dangerous range of motion from their hyper-mobile lumbar spines (instead of loading the hamstrings and glutes) to pick an object off the floor. Either the way, the result could be the same: devastating injuries that have nothing to do with performance.
Dancers, therefore, need to learn how to move and keep themselves safe when they’re not rehearsing and performing. They need to learn when to use their impressive range of motion to perform and when to use stability to move. In a strength training setting, learning how to apply and maintain muscle tension is the very foundation of nearly everything that happens on a training floor. We teach every client we train—from general population folks to more athletic populations—to hinge properly. It might be the single most useful movement pattern one can learn how to do in a gym setting.
Understanding the Why
The woman who trained me to be a personal trainer taught me to always ask “why am I doing that?” When it comes to dispelling enduring myths in the strength and conditioning world, it’s a helpful question to keep in mind. If the answer is “this is the way it’s always been done,” or worse, a substantively dubious claim about “toning” muscles, you ought to be very suspicious and cautious about trusting your body with the person answering the question.