Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Good Strength Training is Good Connective Tissue Training

Overemphasis on muscle strengthening at the expense of tendon and other connective tissue strengthening can produce a muscle complex which is prone to injury and inefficient in generating strength…

Moreover, muscle tissue adapts to increased loading within several days, whereas the connective tissues (such as tendon, ligaments and joint capsules) or systems which contain a high proportion of connective tissue (such as bone and cartilage) only display significant adaptation and hypertrophy after several weeks or months of progressive loading. It is vital that the prescription of training takes into account the different rates of adaptation of all the systems involve and avoids overtraining the systems with the slowest rates of adaptation.

—Supertraining, by Yuri Verkhoshansky and Mel Siff

I’ve been working on writing a three-month off-season plan to include in our Dancer’s Guide to Strength and Conditioning, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of progressive overload and periodization. I think the idea that we should slowly increase the intensity of training sessions through an offseason makes intuitive sense to most people, but I don’t think we stop to appreciate one of the most important reasons for offseason periodization: connective tissue health. It’s obviously important for professional dancers, but parents of developing dancers ought to consider connective tissue health as well, because they can help their sons and daughters develop strength, power, and resiliency over time by appreciating ligaments, bones, and tendons in long-term athletic development.

So many young people and their parents zero in on dance very early on in the biological and athletic development life cycle that they can develop an overemphasis on passive flexibility at the expense of connective tissue strength, which can both lead to unnecessary injuries and an inability to fully express strength.

A case report in the most recent Journal of Dance Medicine & Science explains why the injury half of that equation can be more obvious. The piece outlines the case of a 14-year-old dancer suffering from a large labral tear. “She remembered,” the authors write, “that her ballet teacher used to sit on her shoulders in order to force her split more fully and the left leg was almost always in front.” Aside from the dubious efficacy of standing on an adolescent to increase her grand écart, it’s easy to see how a young dancer would end up focusing on her passive flexibility and not the concomitant strength she needed to jump and land safely.

But the second half of that equation is important as well: weak connective tissue doesn’t transfer force as well, meaning dancers can’t ever get as strong or as powerful as they need to be if they’re not mindful of connective tissue strength. Dancers too preoccupied with passive flexibility inadvertently rob themselves of the opportunity to get stronger without the dreaded hypertrophy that so many dance teachers fret about.

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.

Connective tissue health is one of the best reasons for dancers adopting a training approach to getting strong, rather than a “cross training” or “working out” approach. What a dancer does during one month in the gym ought to be inextricably linked to what they’re doing two months later, and that’s only possible with good, solid programming and periodization. At the end of a three-month training block the dancer should be stronger, more explosive, and have developed better connective tissue than through dancing alone or haphazard general population-style bodybuilding workouts.

Our Approach

If you’re interested in reading more about our approach, you can be the first to find out about our Dancer’s Guide to Strength & Conditioning, coming this Fall 2019. Go here for more information.