Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Strength as Supplemental Skill Set for Dancers

In an ideal world, training athletes shouldn’t look much different than training general population clients. In practice, general population clients train fewer times per week than genuine athletic populations, and thus must prioritize—and sacrifice—more than athletes should. Most general population folks are looking to lose body fat, feel better, and learn how to work out effectively. If someone is only training twice per week, as coaches we have to triage. A morbidly obese client has different immediate concerns than, say, a client coming back from prostate cancer surgery.

For athletes and dancers, the prioritization is different. A male ballet dancer might have different concerns than a female ballet dancer. A modern dancer might have different concerns than a ballet dancer. But in each of these instances, the number one priority is ensuring that the dancer learns how to move with impeccable alignment. For the morbidly obese general population client, I’m not going to spend much time teaching her how to jump and land. I might skip an exercise rather than spend the time developing the skill because I need to prioritize building whatever muscle I can while helping the client lose body fat.

Dancers cannot do this. Dancers simply have to learn how to jump and land well, and they must be held accountable for each repetition in the gym setting. Male ballet dancers need to learn how to lift overhead well, and they must be held accountable for each repetition. These things aren’t optional if we take our role as a dancer’s strength and conditioning coach seriously. But if we’re not teaching dancers how to move well, then we’re setting them up for longterm injury risk.

People outside of the strength and conditioning world seem to view strength as property that merely correlates to the amount of muscle a person carries. (This is in part why the dance world has been relatively resistant in some ways to women participating in heavy lifting). While strength is correlated to muscle mass, obviously, it also is correlated to neuromuscular considerations. In other words, strength is a SKILL.

I’ve been working with two young female athletes recently. One is a dancer and the other is a volleyball player, both around the same age. What’s remarkable from a strength coaching perspective is how much jumping and landing they’re doing in their respective activity—and how much coaching I’m having to do to teach them to jump and land well in a gym setting.

Every time we meet, I’m drilling some sort of jumping and landing activity in order to reinforce good technique. A gym setting is perfect for this because we can control the volume and intensity while nitpicking the details. An outside hitter in volleyball doesn’t have the time or mental space to think about avoiding knee valgus on takeoff. Same with a ballet dancer. So if these athletes haven’t drilled the skill of jumping and landing properly, they are more likely to injure themselves late in the season or late in a performance.

According to a 2012 injury review published in the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, “most [anterior cruciate ligament] ACL injuries occurred late in the day and in the season. They suggest, therefore, that fatigue may play a role in ACL injury.” The two takeaways from a datapoint like this should be obvious: we need to do a better job of making dancers more resilient from a conditioning perspective, and we need to drill jumping and landing such that basic athletic technique doesn’t break down as fatigue sets in. Another way of thinking about this is giving dancers the strength and conditioning they need to forestall fatigue as much as possible, but drill basic alignment and athletic technique such that when fatigue does arrive—it always does for athletes and dancers alike—that they don’t suffer catastrophic injuries as a result. Part of the skill acquisition then is learning how to maintain proper alignment in a fatigued state, something a gym setting is perfectly constructed to do in a controlled, safe manner.

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.

Like what you’re reading? Be the first to find out about our Dancer’s Guide to Strength & Conditioning, coming this Fall 2019. Go here for more information.