Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Four ways to build in workout efficiency (and four things to avoid)

Our “why” for focusing on dancers began with talking to them about their schedules. When we learned how little time movement artists have to live—let alone train their bodies—we knew right away that we could help at a basic, organizational level.

From a “cross training” perspective, dancers need efficiency. They simultaneously need injury prevention, enhanced explosive power, better conditioning, and body composition regulation. Given this long list of physical demands, exercise selection is critical. Here are four simple ways that you can build exercise efficiency into your workouts while addressing multiple needs simultaneously.

Number One: Incorporate loaded carries…

Male ballet dancers in particular are essentially artistic overhead athletes. They need strong and mobile shoulders, trunks that won’t wilt under load, and the ability to carry weight with the appearance of effortlessness while moving.

Enter the loaded carry. Loaded carries are great because they can serve multiple purposes at once. They are great conditioning tools following a full body workout, and for the male ballet dancer, they can reinforce good overhead positioning with movement.

…and skip the burpees.

There is probably not a more overused exercise than the “burpee,” popularized by Crossfit. People gravitate toward them because they appear to be hard and because they are great at skyrocketing the heart rate. From a strength and conditioning perspective with athletes, my issue with them is that they get sloppy very quickly, and it’s not difficult to imagine a fatigued dancer injuring his lower back or shoulders while cranking out burpees for time.

Conditioning ought to be hard, but it also needs to be safe. You simply cannot afford to get injured while training in the gym, and one of the reasons I love loaded carries is they simultaneously can help prevent injury while burning fat.

Number Two: Work unilateral…

Every dancer knows the importance of having trunk stability, and one sneaky way of reinforcing this important attribute is to work unilaterally. Instead of chest pressing with two dumbbells, press with one. This imbalance will prompt you to engage the obliques, glutes, transverse abdominus, quads, and adductors. Not bad for a simple chest exercise, right? I’m not opposed to direct abdominal work, but the bulk of the core we do in our studio comes from forcing dancers and athletes into positions where their trunks have to stabilize. Unilateral presses, loaded carry variations (like suitcase carries), and single leg work holding one dumbbell or kettlebell are great ways to build muscle and strengthen the trunk simultaneously.

…but don’t step on that BOSU unless you’re rehabbing.

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. When you put too much instability in an exercise, you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to build the strength and resilience you’ll need to stay injury free. Remember, there is a mountain of dance-specific research citing dancers’ general weakness and deconditioning as major factors in injury rates.

Number Three: High intensity interval training…

HIIT training has been in the mainstream for years now, and its benefits—fat burning, conditioning, reduced time demands—are even more pronounced for the dancer solely because of the efficiency of the conditioning technique. Dancers are still running on treadmills and grinding through long, slow elliptical workouts despite the evidence in favor of HIIT-style training.

From a conditioning point of view, HIIT training is critical for dancers because their long, slow bucket already is full from classes and rehearsals. The bucket dancers typically need to fill is that near maximal range of heart rate such that when they get on stage in front of a crowd, adrenaline and nerves and excitement palpable, they’ve trained their bodies to go where they need to go. They’ll be able to jump higher and land more safely, to execute difficult choreography with the appearance of ease, and bound across the stage late in the show with the same grace and explosive power as in the beginning. An hour on the elliptical doesn’t get you there—but 45-minutes of strength training followed by 20 second sprints on a ski ergometer can.

…and don't skip sleep to do fasted cardio

Bodybuilders have been using long, slow cardio for years to burn extra calories, so the instinct to use this technique is not unfounded. But remember, dancers face competing demands on their time, so what they need is efficiency. Because they already do so much medium to low intensity work in their dance settings, that bucket already is full. So the last thing they ought to be doing is sacrificing sleep to get even more of that same work in. They’d be better off working the more intense end of the conditioning spectrum in a shorter time period and getting more sleep to aid recovery. Especially during the performance season, every single hour of a dancer’s day needs to be accounted for in some way, but the number one priority ought to be getting seven to eight hours of quality sleep. Ultimately that will be more beneficial for injury prevention and fat burning than rising at 6 AM to grind away sixty minutes on an elliptical while watching Netflix.

Number Four: Prioritize multijoint exercises…

Multijoint exercises involve multiple muscle groups simultaneously. For the time-strapped dancer, these exercises must make up the bulk of their programming, both because they are more likely to translate to the stage and because they don’t have the time to focus on such a tiny muscle group as the biceps.

Remember, you’re training because you’re trying to enhance your performance and mitigate injury risk. Bicep curls won’t do that, but pull-ups and rows can. And the best part about rowing movements is if you want great arms, you’re more likely to get them by prioritizing big muscle groups over small ones. The latissimus dorsi are your biggest upper body muscles, so by working them you’ll be burning more fat, getting stronger, and protecting your spine and shoulders. And when you work them as in a lat pulldown or pull-up, you’ll also be working your biceps. That means less time in the gym and more time for sleep, relationships, and cooking.

…and save the bicep curls and tricep extensions for when you have time

I’m not against bicep curls or direct tricep work. You just have to know when and how to incorporate these movements into your training program. Think of your major pulling movements as the vegetables and direct arm work as dessert. You have to eat your meal before moving onto dessert, and if time is short then the direct arm work should be the first to go as you prioritize big muscle groups, conditioning, and mobility work. There’s no sense in having great looking arms if your hips feel tight because your posterior chain is weak.

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.