Present Tense Fitness
adam-littman-davis-269635-unsplash.jpg

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Why can't dancers hinge properly?

Every client who walks into our studio learns variations of these basic movements:

  • Knee flexion-dominant movement — squats, lunges, step-ups

  • Hip hinge — deadlifts and variations, kettlebell swings, hip thrusts, bridges

  • Horizontal press — bench press variations (barbells and dumbbells)

  • Horizontal pull — rowing and pulling variations (seated row, barbell row, dumbbell row)

  • Vertical press — overhead pressing variations, including landmine pressing

  • Vertical pull — overhead pulling variations, including pull-ups, lat pulldowns, and ab wheel rollouts

Every person is different, but in a general population we see the most movement restrictions with the knee-flexion movements, overhead pressing movements, and the hip hinge. General population clients struggle with squatting and lunging because they often have ignored these movements for months or years. And this same group can struggle with overhead pressing movements because of range of motion restrictions in their shoulders. As for the hip hinge? Well, it’s probably the most difficult of the basic movement patterns to teach and learn. Some people take to it naturally, while others struggle for weeks to understand.

Dancers, in my experience, can move through all of the above movement patterns with ease—except for the hip hinge. It’s fascinating to see professional athletes who have never learned how to hinge properly, because the muscles that move our hips into extension are critical for explosive movements. Want to jump higher? Move with power and grace across the stage? You need a strong butt, and you need strong hamstrings. Want to do all of these things without injuring your back? You need a strong butt, and you need strong hamstrings.

What do we see typically in dancers? Weak butts. Mobile—but relatively weak—hamstrings. It’s not a surprise then that a hyper-mobile dancer who’s never learned how to hinge will have difficulty with the movement. Reading Tony Gentilcore’s simple definition of a hinge gets to the heart of why.

“In a hip hinge we are moving our body through hip flexion and extension, while maintaining our spinal position in a neutral range.” (emphasis added)

Dancers need back mobility and flexibility onstage. Nearly every dance variation includes an incredible amount of back flexion and extension, and these extraordinary positions allow for striking choreography and artistic expression.

But the gym is different than the stage.

Life is different than the stage.

If a dancer can’t hinge with a neutral spinal position offstage, then she’s setting herself up for potentially injurious positions onstage. Strength training—”cross training,” to borrow the dance world’s phrase—isn’t about putting movement artists into the same positions they need onstage. It’s about strengthening their bodies such that they are more resilient through the ranges of motion they need to perform at the highest level. If a dancer can’t ever find neutral, then she’s in a more precarious position when she needs to be outside of neutral to perform. In addition, she’s also setting herself up for injury when she needs to move a couch or heavy box from the floor.

We know from the literature that back injuries are an epidemic in the dance world. We could go a long way toward mitigating that risk by teaching every dancer from a young age how to hinge properly.