Present Tense Fitness
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Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Dancers: Take a Day Off

We’ve written a lot in these pages about strength and conditioning for dancers and why we think it’s the most underutilized tool available to movement-based artists. Rather than viewing strength and conditioning as a supplemental “cross-training” tool, we believe that basic strength work—lunging, hinging, pressing, and pulling—could be the difference between a long, durable career full of explosive athleticism, and a relatively shorter, injury-laden one.

But rest and recovery is just as important as hard work, which is why a dancer collaborating with her team of strength coaches, physical therapists, and athletic trainers ought to have a singular focus on one health goal during the performance season: getting a complete, uninterrupted, totally relaxing, day OFF.

Not a day on the elliptical.

Not a light workout day.

Not a Pilates day.

Not a gyrotonic day.

A full on, sleep in, turn over and sleep some more, wake up slowly without an alarm, read all the damn newspaper or watch bad television, catch up with a friend, day OFF.

There’s a stereotype about coaches in sports like American football, reinforced by scandals at Oregon and Maryland, where strength coaches have overseen workouts that led to hospitalization and death. (Stories like this, I suspect, are partially responsible for why the dance world continues to rely more on physical therapists and athletic trainers than strength coaches for even the type of training better reserved for strength and conditioning specialists.) But the dance medicine literature is replete with research around overtraining in the dance world. Overuse injuries are less dramatic, of course, but they are no less deleterious to the career of an ambitious, explosive, athletic dancer.

Researcher Glenna Batson has written a number of book chapters and academic papers about rest and recovery for dancers. She published an exploratory paper in 2007 that sought to investigate the efficacy of work-to-rest ratios in dance class settings. One quote stood out: “Repetition without rest appears more implicated in overuse syndromes than either the amount of force or type of force (muscular contraction) generated.”

While she was writing specifically about repetition in a dance sense, it’s not a stretch to think through what this means for “cross training.” Stress is stress. Given the extraordinary demands on a dancer’s body, the central nervous system is unlikely to distinguish between the stress of an hourlong bout on an elliptical machine or on a Pilates reformer or in a hot yoga studio or on a gyrotonic machine and the stress from class and rehearsal. It’s not necessarily the load and intensity—to borrow a phrase from the strength and conditioning world—it’s also the amount of repetition that dancers need to regulate in order to get and stay strong as well as prevent injury over a long performance season.

More, as it turns out, isn’t always more. So what do we do with this information? The prudent in-season approach for the dancer seeking the proper amount of rest would be to “consolidate stressors,” and fight hard to have a complete day off.

  • Eliminate long, slow bouts of cardio in favor of shorter, more intense interval training. (Remember, dance is more of an interval-based form of movement than it is a long, slow marathon. Your training should reflect that.)

  • Don’t be afraid to lift weights within 24-hours of a difficult performance or class day. Doing so can help you carve out the time you need to take a complete day off.

  • Work with a coach who can teach you to cross train efficiently, wherein you perform dumbbell rows instead of bicep curls, or presses instead of tricep extensions.

  • Prioritize sleep like it’s your job (because it is). The single most important thing you can do to prevent injury or illness and mitigate soreness is to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep consistently.

  • Resist the urge to fill in a rest day with other stressors likely to tax your central nervous system. With a real day off, you’ll enter the next few days of class, rehearsal, and performance able to focus better and express your strength more.

  • Incorporate visualization as much as possible as you’re learning new choreography. The more you can internalize new movement without actually stressing the body, the better you’ll be able to incorporate new movement without wearing down your body.