Strength and conditioning research has lagged behind in a significant area, which is high quality studies that focus on women. Thanks to researchers like Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, this has been changing and we’re learning quite a bit about body composition for women athletes. It’s critical that we distinguish canned “weight loss” advice intended for obese populations from body fat suggestions intended for athletes.
Smith-Ryan’s presentation at the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) National Conference in 2018 entitled “Maximizing Body Composition & Metabolism with Exercise & Nutrition” offered key insights that are applicable to male and female dancers alike. Here I’ll break down some of her findings that have specific applicability to dancers.
High intensity interval training: Losing body fat is about expending more calories than one is taking in. Some dancers take this basic understanding of thermodynamics and engage in long, slow bouts of cardiovascular exercise on elliptical machines in a mistaken attempt to maintain a caloric deficit, and thus, keep low body fat.
What this approach to cardio fails to take into consideration, however, is that the energy we expend during exercise is a relatively small piece of the metabolic puzzle. What’s most important is the energy expenditure from our bodies over time. Enter “HIIT” training and why it’s important for dancers. Smith-Ryan cited a study whose title says it all: “High-intensity interval exercise induces 24-hour energy expenditure similar to traditional endurance exercise despite reduced time commitment.” Do half as much work for similar results, in other words, leaving valuable time for recovery, sleep, and meal preparation.
Macronutrients and Nutrient Timing: Smith-Ryan boiled her review of the research around macronutrients down to these points.
The ideal ratio between carbohydrates and protein in an athlete’s diet is probably less than two to one. What I like about this formulation is it gives a dancer an easy way to think about nutrition. “Just make sure you’re eating no more than twice as many carb grams as protein grams, and ideally try to make sure that ratio is closer to 1:1 than 2:1.”
Athletes will burn more fat by consuming protein and carbohydrates prior to exercise than they would in a fasted state. NO FASTED STRENGTH TRAINING. (Those caps are mine, not hers. But that’s what I wrote in my notes as I listened to her present.) Fasted exercise actually blunts fat oxidation in both men and women.
My priority as a strength coach is to simplify matters and find efficiencies for my dancers and athletes as much as possible. The good news is, we have data, experience, and research from thousands of athletes around the world—and an increasing amount of this work is being done with women specifically in mind. So if we synthesize Smith-Ryan’s work with some of this other research and best practices, we begin to see a picture emerge for what healthy body composition strategies look like for dancers.
Prioritize retention of muscle. Strength training for every dancer, both in season and off season.
Prioritize rest and recovery. This means choosing strength activities that will work more quickly (lifting weights > Pilates), conditioning activities that will work more quickly (HIIT > long, slow elliptical), and skipping activities that don’t address weaknesses (sleep > early morning hot yoga).
Prioritize protein. Dancers should be eating protein and vegetables at every meal, including breakfast, and should strongly consider supplementing with a healthy protein+carb option pre- and post-workout. I really like Precision Nutrition’s “super shake” recipe.
The dancer who uses a smart, sustainable approach to body composition can avoid the insecurity and anxiety that can come with attempting to “rush” to lose weight in order to compete or prepare for a role. The smart, sustainable approach will put the dancer in a forever “ready to go” state, which frees up valuable brain space for choreography and valuable emotional space for connecting with the material.