Present Tense Fitness
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Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

The Fight Against Time

There are two rhetorical methods I’d like to avoid as we continue writing about dancer strength and conditioning. The first is being needlessly provocative, wherein we publish things solely because we know they will upset people. The title of this blog post probably was unnecessarily salty, for instance, and it invited more defensiveness than discussion. I don't want to do that, because I think ultimately it can obscure the very good points about body image and training that I think we made.

The other is erecting straw men arguments so we can look very smart tearing them down. We see this in the strength and conditioning world, wherein a guru who has developed a System® argues for its supremacy relentlessly. The way this usually goes is the guru talks about some strength and conditioning practice that has long been abandoned by the most respected people in the business, then proceeds to dismantle the practice as if he’s offering something new.

So I want to be pretty clear about something: we’re not offering anything new here. Nothing I’ve written in these pages is really all that innovative or groundbreaking. We’re not here to tell you that the way you’re doing something is stupid or that there aren’t other ways of approaching the same problems.

But we have been surveying the landscape, and the key insight I think we do offer is an understanding of the core issue dancers face when it comes to their physical conditioning.

It’s the scarcity of time.

Weightlifters—I’m using this terms to mean the people who compete in the two Olympic lift variations, the snatch and the clean and jerk—love to talk about how much athleticism, strength, and mobility their athletes develop. If you want a humbling experience, just scroll the feeds of nationally competitive weightlifters. They are brutally strong and stunningly mobile.

Given the undeniable athleticism, power, explosiveness, and mobility weightlifters exhibit, why shouldn’t football or basketball or baseball coaches incorporate all of the same lifts into their work with athletes?

Some do. Power cleans are a staple in a number of strength coach’s programming for team sports. But far fewer strength coaches would incorporate, say, a full snatch into the program for a team athlete. Why?

Time.

The mobility and skill required for learning the barbell snatch requires an extraordinary amount of time and attention to detail. If you don’t have the time to devote to developing the wrist and shoulder mobility to barbell snatch well, then the injury risk is significantly greater. How many offensive linemen in American football possess this kind of overhead shoulder mobility?

Not many. Right? So if you’re an American football offensive line coach, you have to balance the need to develop footwork, understanding of the playbook, hand-fighting technique, and injury prevention with whatever benefit might arise from doing overhead barbell snatches. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze, and the risks outweigh the potential rewards. The point isn’t even really debatable. But that’s not because barbell snatches are inherently bad movements. It’s because they require too much time, energy, effort, and attention detail to even remotely fit into a football player’s strength and conditioning program.

For dancers, whose schedules are arguably more time consuming and on whom the skill-development demands are even more pronounced, this time cost/benefit analysis becomes even more important.

A dancer must maintain and expand her level of skill. She must build requisite strength to mitigate injury risk. She must build requisite conditioning capacity to perform at a high level and mitigate injury risk. She must develop and maintain the requisite passive flexibility and controllable mobility to be able to exhibit the necessary aesthetic. She must have the central nervous system capacity for acquiring new choreography efficiently.

Given this reality and what we know about the science of strength and conditioning, a well-designed strength training program is her best and most efficient option for developing the complementary physical capacity required for her to dance professionally while mitigating the risk of injury.

In the course a strength training session, a dancer can:

  • Develop power for jumping

  • Develop strength for lifting, absorbing impact, and joint stability

  • Develop greater articular functional mobility

  • Develop active mobility

  • Develop cardiovascular capacity

Pilates can’t do all of these things as efficiently as strength training. Gyrotonic machines can’t do all of these things as efficiently as strength training. Yoga can’t do all of these things as efficiently as strength training.

That doesn’t make these other modalities and approaches bad! In fact, the well-rounded strength and conditioning program MUST borrow heavily from all of these techniques in order to craft a training regimen tailored specifically for dancers.

Too many dancers are simply on their own when it comes to their strength and conditioning program. A catch all “you need to be doing cross training” isn’t enough. “Go to a Pilates class” isn’t enough. “Go to yoga to maintain your flexibility” isn’t enough. “Do some cardio to maintain your fitness” isn’t enough. If the class isn’t specific to the dancer’s needs, then she’s wasting valuable time. An hour on an elliptical machine is wasting a dancer’s valuable time.

The dance world can be close minded and traditionalist—but a lot of other worlds are like that too. Talk to an old school baseball coach some time and see if you don’t walk away asking yourself what year it is. But I know from talking to dancers that they are hungry for a more modern approach to their livelihoods. I also know how much more confident and secure they feel in their bodies when they get stronger. We owe it to them to value their bodies and their time by developing realistic, recoverable, and science-driven strength and conditioning programs that avoid dogma, borrow heavily from any available best practices, and continue to evolve over time.


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.