Present Tense Fitness
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Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Incorporate Bands to Elicit Glute Connection

Remember, your glutes play multiple important roles: they are powerful hip extensors, they are powerful hip external rotators, they are powerful hip abductors (moving legs away from the body—here we’re talking specifically glute medius and glute minimus), and they keep the femur in the acetabulum of the hip. Given the extraordinary mobility dancers often have in their hips, it makes sense in a training sense to also give them a bit of the stability they can lose over the course of a performance season.

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Good Strength Training is Good Connective Tissue Training

Parents of young dancers should seriously consider a long-term athletic development program that coincides with dance training so that adolescents build the year-over-year connective tissue strength that will pay off into adulthood. According to a recent widely cited study, “physical activity-associated bone loading both during and after skeletal growth is positively associated with adult bone mass.” Those early dance years are important for honing technique and developing passive flexibility, but these things needn’t be prioritized at the expense of strength or long-term health.

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The Force-Velocity Curve

When it comes to dancer strength and conditioning, it seems we’re in the position that baseball strength and conditioning coaches were maybe fifteen or so years ago. This athletic performance type of approach just isn’t widely accepted yet, and so we have to prove its efficacy—and safety—as the dance world slowly accepts the change. Once that happens and more dancers are exposed to training (again, as opposed to simply “working out”) then I imagine you’ll see an increasing number of dancers doing more conventional team sports like lifts. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to a point where we’d recommend a female ballet dancer do something like a barbell power clean, but I could see a place for a lift like that among contemporary dancers of all genders and male ballet dancers.

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Big Words for Younger Dancers

This seems like a minor point, but part of coaching and teaching young people is seizing every opportunity to develop the person in front of you over time. The point isn’t to teach them everything you know about the knee joint in a quick aside, but to take the opportunity to expose them to a concept that hopefully will be reinforced over time. That’s a piece of long-term athletic development.

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Dancers and Posterior Chain Work

Every strength coach will tell you that they evolve over time, but at this point I can tell you that I’m certain training the posterior chain for dancers is going to be something that evolves for us over time. Dancers cannot afford not to have easy neuromuscular access to these muscles, and yet there is a risk to loading hinge movements in order to target these muscles when the proper work hasn’t been done to ensure sound biomechanics. This is where early off-season work, when dancers are still recovering from the rigors of performing, can be critical to drilling good form as a foundation for loading later in the summer. But if the loading happens before the form is established, strength coaches could inadvertently be steering dancers into injury.

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Between Preparedness and Expectations

Our approach is to try to prepare every dancer we see as if they are principals or soloists, which means an emphasis on interval training that tracks with the demands of high intensity performances. If someone usually dances is the corps—these dancers have demonstrated relatively weaker cardiovascular capacity in studies, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research—but are prepared for the rigors of solo or principal work, then the chances of them getting chosen to perform more rigorous choreography improves.

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Letter to Dancers: How to think about training

If you think of training on a spectrum of rehabilitory work to extreme bodybuilding or powerlifting, what you’ll begin to recognize is that athletic performance training falls somewhere in the middle. Athletes put themselves through movement demands that an untrained 9-5er going through physical therapy never does and also that the powerlifter responsible for only executing three lifts ever does. An athlete needs to be healthy enough to practice and compete consistently but also strong and powerful enough to practice and compete with the required intensity.

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Answering the question, "How are you?"

I begin every training session by asking clients how they’re feeling. But because people have learned not to answer the question “How are you?” honestly, I’ve altered that phrase some. I”ll ask, “how is your body feeling?” so that I can avoid rote answers and catch phrases. But I’m recommitting myself to asking the real question in such a way that I can elicit honest answers.

“How are you?”

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Four Dancer Concerns, Corresponding Strength and Conditioning Solutions

Younger dancers in particular often need help learning when to breathe, when to brace, and when to use a martial arts-style exhale to produce maximum power. Counterintuitively, the work our people do on the yoga mat reinforces this connection between breath and power by installing a sense of mindfulness around breath. You can’t use breath effectively if you’re not in touch with it. That’s one of the ways we use yoga to help a dancer perform at her peak.

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Dance and Power Development

What we won’t do is repeated, high-volume, high-fatigue plyometrics under the misguided auspices of enhancing power. Not only will this not increase jumping power, but it also could add too much fatigue to a dancer heading into the performance season. The point we keep returning to is that training for maximum performance is training with purpose and care. The fetishized grind only wears athletes and dancers down, but so many people chase results with poorly designed overtraining because they think maximum performance ought to feel terrible.

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Dancer Muscle and Job Security

Dancers are told they need to be skinny. They’re told they need to cross train. They’re told they need to do Pilates. They’re told they need to be in good condition. They’re told they need to be strong. But they’re not told how to do so many of these things in a healthy way. When we first started down this road of helping dancers, we were told that dancers “already had the help they needed.” But we knew this to be a lie—because we had taken the time to do the research and to talk to dancers.

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Strength: It's Not Just Muscle

It’s another aspect of strength that people often forget or neglect because they mistakenly believe that strength training is all about hypertrophy. To understand why this is wrong, we have to distinguish what it means to be a strong athlete or dancer versus what it means to be a strong lifter. Team-oriented strength and conditioning coaches are tasked with developing strong dancers and athletes, not lifters. Often the strongest dancer or athlete in the context of their activity won’t be the strongest lifter in the weightroom.

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The Fight Against Time

The dance world can be close minded and traditionalist—but a lot of other worlds are like that too. Talk to an old school baseball coach some time and see if you don’t walk away asking yourself what year it is. But I know from talking to dancers that they are hungry for a more modern approach to their livelihoods. I also know how much more confident and secure they feel in their bodies when they get stronger. We owe it to them to value their bodies and their time by developing realistic, recoverable, and science-driven strength and conditioning programs that avoid dogma, borrow heavily from any available best practices, and continue to evolve over time.

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Spinal Extension: Strategies and Pitfalls

Cat/cow is a classic yoga movement wherein a person moves through spinal flexion (think of an angry or scared cat) and spinal extension (belly hangs low, like a cow). Hypermobile people who are attracted to things like yoga and ballet can easily get into impressive-looking cat/cow postures. But the problem is, they almost certainly shouldn’t be trying to exploit all of that range of motion on a yoga mat. Understand the distinction I’m making here: onstage, dancers need to do what they need to do. But in a yoga studio or strength training facility or on a Pilates reformer, their coach or teacher needs to make sure that they are staying within a safe range of motion.

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Hip Articulation and Arabesque

Today I want to isolate hip movement for you, and to do that we’re going to introduce a Functional Range Conditioning technique called controlled articular rotations (CARs). CARs are articular movements—meaning, movements about a joint—that are intended to work the outer ranges of motion. The theory is that if I can ACTIVELY move my hip and control its outer ranges of motion, then I’m less likely to injury myself during athletic movement. For our purposes here, I’m interested in developing as much specific range of motion in the hip as I can so as to mitigate the amount of spinal extension I need to borrow in order to execute a beautiful arabesque.

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Why can't dancers hinge properly?

Dancers, in my experience, can move through all of the above movement patterns with ease—except for the hip hinge. It’s fascinating to see professional athletes who have never learned how to hinge properly, because the muscles that move our hips into extension are critical for explosive movements. Want to jump higher? Move with power and grace across the stage? You need a strong butt, and you need strong hamstrings. Want to do all of these things without injuring your back? You need a strong butt, and you need strong hamstrings.

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Bone Mineral Density and Dance

Our bodies are a system of pulleys and levers, with muscle acting on bone to execute movement. As our muscles get stronger and increase the mechanical stress on bone, our bodies react by building bone mass and strength in order to handle the increased demands. This increase in bone mineral density is one of the byproducts of well-designed strength training programs.

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Four ways to build in workout efficiency (and four things to avoid)

It’s not difficult to find dancers standing on one leg, pointing their toes, and doing some sort of strength move atop a BOSU ball. Probably strength coaches are too hostile to BOSU balls, but when it comes to efficiency, you’re better off leaving your specific balance training to the dance setting and focusing instead on strength, coordination, conditioning, and mobility when you’re strength training.

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