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Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Ballet: The Case for Strength Training

The dance world has been among the slowest to adopt modern strength and conditioning practices, to the detriment of the elite athletes responsible for performing the art form. Dancers have notoriously high rates of injury and thus are reliant upon professional physical therapists and athletic trainers to keep them onstage. But curiously absent from the professional ranks of dedicated people working with dancers every day are strength and conditioning coaches. That needs to change, both for the longterm health of the dancers themselves, but also in order for dancers to unlock the key to more expressive athleticism.

Unfortunately, not enough research has been conducted on dancers to be able to “prove” the efficacy of a periodized strength and conditioning program for ballet dancers, but the theoretical underpinning is obviously a sound one. Stronger athletes are more resilient, more explosive, and better able to perform at high levels over longer periods of time. Dancers appear to intuitively understand this, which is why social media is full of professional dancers lifting weights on their own or even working with personal trainers.

“Working out,” however, is not what professional athletes ought to be doing. Professional athletes ought to be training with a plan that covers the calendar year and takes into account both off-season and in-season considerations for intensity, volume, and stress accumulation. In addition, what dancers are doing inside of the gym is as important as the longterm plan. Too many dancers appear to mimic their art form in the gym, which puts them in compromised positions such as barbell loaded arabesques. Strength and conditioning professionals understand that what we load in a training context is different than the positions athletes must get into to perform.

This 2013 New York Times piece captured well the benefits of strength and conditioning for injury prevention and performance. “From 2006,” according to the article, “the year before [strength coach Shannon] Turley arrived on the Farm, as Stanford’s campus is known, through last season, the number of games missed because of injury on the two-deep roster dropped by 87 percent. In 2012, only two Cardinal players required season-ending or postseason surgical repair; this year, only one.”

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.

When dancers do take strength into account, they often rely on modalities such as Pilates. The downside to the Pilates approach to strength is it cannot build explosive power the way strength training can. And while a well-rounded strength and conditioning approach can borrow heavily from “softer” disciplines like yoga and Pilates, the reverse isn’t necessarily the case. If you want to jump higher and lift overhead with a solid foundation, strength training is your best, most efficient bet.

So what are the objections to lifting weights if a periodized strength and conditioning approach to dancers is something the artists themselves seem to understand? There are two that come up repeatedly.

Strength training will make dancers less flexible: Modern strength and conditioning favors an approach that enhances functional range of motion. Strength coaches like Eric Cressey of Cressey Sports Performance doesn’t train his baseball players like bodybuilders or football players. He trains them like baseball players with specific mobility needs. It’s a proven hybrid strength and therapeutic approach that has made him a sought-after strength and conditioning professional in the baseball world.

Strength training will make female dancers “bigger”: This is an objection nearly every personal trainer in the country has had to overcome with general population clients and dancers alike. In short, strength training doesn’t make people bigger unless they’re training for big volume and eating for hypertrophy. A strength and conditioning approach wouldn’t favor high volume for dancers in the first place, so concerns about growing “bulky” muscles are misplaced.

Dancers are elite athletes and ought to be training as such. This means a longterm plan, fundamental and safe movement within the gym, and careful, professional consideration given to the unique needs of every individual dancer. This is the argument for a strength and conditioning approach in the professional ballet world and the dance community generally.