Present Tense Fitness
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Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

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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Connecting Subjective Performance Qualities to Training Principles

What this tells us is fairly obvious to every strength coach who’s ever worked with athletes: our job is to provide the dancer or athlete with the tools necessary to enhance their skills, not to try to replace the dance teacher, football coach, or basketball coach. Better technical jumps allow the dance teacher a larger canvas on which to work with the dancer to create more artistry, but the higher jumps don’t by themselves improve the subjective aesthetics critical for dance.

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Dancers: Take a Day Off

Given the extraordinary demands on a dancer’s body, the central nervous system is unlikely to distinguish between the stress of an hourlong bout on an elliptical machine or on a Pilates reformer or in a hot yoga studio or on a gyrotonic machine and the stress from class and rehearsal. It’s not necessarily the load and intensity—to borrow a phrase from the strength and conditioning world—it’s also the amount of repetition that dancers need to regulate in order to get and stay strong as well as prevent injury over a long performance season.

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The Lats: A Primer for Dancers

Strong lats are critical for any athletic movement, in other words, so it’s important that we understand the interplay between them and posture, injury prevention, and performance. When we consider how often dancers are in spinal extension—think arabesque or the standing posture we often associate with ballerinas—then we begin to understand the delicate balance between latissimus dorsi strength and latissimus dorsi mobility.

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The Deload Week: Guide for Dancers

Dancers should be training, not exercising. First, improving performance requires an individualized approach not conducive to random fitness classes. Second—and perhaps more critically—injury prevention dictates a delicate balance between overload (which is required for improved performance) and overtraining (which can lead to fatigue-induced injuries).

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Dancing and Body Composition

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 Abbie 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.

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Strength as Supplemental Skill Set for Dancers

Theoretically every client gets this same level of attention to detail, but in practice I know there is a time and place to hold a busy working mom accountable for every single repetition in the gym. Athletes hiring a strength coach, however, ought to expect exhaustive detail and accountability for every single repetition completed. That’s where the skill of strength comes from, and it could be the difference between a long career and one cut short by avoidable injuries.

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On Dancing Through Pain

The more I’ve gotten to know the dance world, the more I see parallels between the pressure on aspiring professionals and up-and-coming baseball players. Both dance and baseball require joint actions that are essentially “abnormal” (dancers at the hips, and baseball players at the shoulders); at the highest levels, both require a mix of rehabilitative work and performance-enhancing strength work; and both groups of parents succumb to pressure that serves dance schools or summer baseball showcases but not necessarily the athletes themselves.

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Group Classes for Dancers? Sure. Random? Never.

But think about a dancer’s schedule. Class. Rehearsal. Learning new choreography. Often a side hustle. Time in the physical therapy room. Dancers are often busy from very early in the morning to late into the evening. This means that you can’t afford to waste time with a random group exercise routine that has little to do with your specific needs.

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Serratus Anterior and Dancer Shoulder Health

Sahrmann goes on to write that she “has found that impaired control of the scapula by the serratus anterior muscle is common.” My young dancer client for right now is asymptomatic, but my job as a strength and conditioning coach is to make sure she learns how to use her serratus anterior so that we can avoid any problems before they start. Otherwise, she’ll be the dancer who complains of shoulder issues, or worse, hurts herself lifting a heavy bag above her head when she’s traveling to perform or audition.

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Ballet Strength and Conditioning Myths

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.

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Off-Season Strength and Conditioning for Dancers

Too many dancers skip the general strength and conditioning phase and jump right into the dance specific work, which is in part why studies on dancers tend to show that they lack both the strength and the conditioning their activity actually demands. This is the precise recipe for injury: asking the body to do something for which we haven’t prepared it.

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Ballet: The Case for Strength Training

Our understanding of this dynamic in the sports world is nearly intuitive. If our best players are able to stay on the field longer and miss fewer games because of injury, our team has a better chance of winning. The dance world is no different, except for it relies on an approach that cares for injuries once they’ve happened (with physical therapists and athletic trainers) rather than an approach that simultaneously enhances performance and prevents injury.

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