Present Tense Fitness
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Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

The Deload Week: Guide for Dancers

I was talking to a general population client this week about the difference between training and exercising. Training is a specific approach to improving performance outcomes that requires planning in increments of weeks and months. Training requires planning and careful attention to the individual needs of the dancer, athlete, or recreational trainee.

Exercise is movement for the sake of it, and there’s definitely a place for this type of activity in all of our lives. Exercise can be critical for stress relief and for people who aren’t fit and are seeking a way to develop a movement habit. But exercise isn’t necessarily great for people who have specific goals because progress can’t be measured or planned in the same way.

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).

One key aspect of a training program for dancers is the deload week, wherein a strength coach will intentionally reduce the intensity, load, and volume to which a dancer or athlete is subjected. People unfamiliar with sports performance will sometimes think that a dancer gets stronger during cross training, when the truth is that dancers get stronger during periods of rest. If dancers don’t rest and continue to pound away at their bodies during class, rehearsal, and cross training, they will get stronger for a while before breaking down either with injury or illness. We already know how many dancers choose to deal with this fairly predictable breakdown: they push through.

But there is a better way.

Dancers who are trying to build resilient bodies should be incorporating deload weeks into their training regimens. Not every strength coach uses the same deload schedule, but deloading every four weeks is a good, easy-to-remember simple framework.

So what exactly would a deload workout look like? Let’s take a sample off-season workout for a female ballet dancer.

Workout 1 — Regular working loads

  • Box jumps 3 sets of 5 jumps.

  • Goblet squat 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

  • Landmine press — 3 sets of 8 repetitions (each side).

  • Dumbbell Romanian deadlift — 3 sets of 8 repetitions.

  • Dumbbell row — 3 sets of 8 repetitions (each side).

  • Ab wheel rollout — 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

The deload week version of the above workout would reduce the repetitions from 8 to 5 and reduce the amount of weight being used. For the goblet squats we might do something like 3 sets of 5 repetitions using between 50 and 60 percent of an estimated 1-repetition max. For the box jumps, we might only do 1 set of 5 repetitions. The point is to give the body the space to adapt to the previous three weeks’ training stimulus by backing off on the amount of work it is doing, allowing the dancer to come back stronger after the deload week.

The difference between training and dancing comes down to progressive overload and intentional deloading. Progressive overload means dancers will be subjected to incrementally more difficult intensity, while intentional deloading means dancers will have scheduled opportunities to recover from and adapt to training stimuli. An individualized approach to both progressive overload and intentional deloading is critical to longterm success and injury prevention.