Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Bone Mineral Density and Dance

The resilient dancer is the dancer who has the requisite strength, mobility, conditioning, and explosive power that allows them to perform through a season while avoiding overuse or acute injuries that arise due to fatigue. Strength training incorporating periodization and specific programming is required to help dancers recover from the previous season while preparing their bodies for upcoming performances. One aspect of a periodized training model we haven’t yet tackled in this space is bone mineral density.

Our bodies are a system of pulleys and levers, with muscle acting on bone to execute movement. As our muscles get stronger and increase the mechanical stress on bone, our bodies react by building bone mass and strength in order to handle the increased demands. This increase in bone mineral density is one of the byproducts of well-designed strength training programs.

Essentially, our bones get stronger with a similar logic to which our muscles get stronger. Introduce a carefully chosen new stimulus (usually in the form of slightly heavier weight), and the body must adapt. If the new stimulus is too much (the weights chosen too heavy), then injury can result.

This balance is why I’m such an advocate for dancers working with coaches to facilitate their training, and why I think the blanket “cross training” suggestions aren’t helpful. Understand I’m not saying that progressive overload and periodization are so complicated that dancers and athletes can’t learn them. Athletes in particular are often great partners in their strength and conditioning programs. Comparatively, the self-efficacy around strength training for dancers lags behind other athletic populations, however, and so the movement-based artistic population would benefit from coaching.

With bone mineral density in particular, the strength and conditioning science is pretty straightforward about the methodology around increasing it. Use multijoint exercises in different planes of motion with progressive intensity. But what does that mean in a practical sense?

  • Weights get progressively heavier through the month

  • Exercises change every four or five weeks

  • Multijoint movements predominate the program unless there’s a specific need to address

Dancers and athletes shouldn’t randomly change exercises every week, but instead should focus on increasing the load on any given movement—remember, this progressive overload is what safely develops bone mineral density. But dancers and athletes should change exercises on a planned and consistent basis in order to provide the body with new stimuli, eliciting adaptive responses.

This could mean something as simple as:

Month 1 = step up

Month 2 = reverse lunge

Month 3 = side lunge

These exercises will work the legs in different ways (the reverse lunge will emphasize glute activation a bit more, the side lunges will fire up the adductors, etc.), but what they all share in common is a focus on knee flexion, quadriceps strength, and single-leg coordination. The exercises change just enough to elicit new stimuli but continue to work similar muscle groups; and the weights used for each exercise will increase slightly with each week through the month.

Strong bone health is inextricably linked to stronger muscles. Strategic exercise selection and progressive overload are key factors in simultaneously developing muscle and bone while allowing for adequate rest.