Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Lengthen and Tone is a Scam

I’ve spent most of my career training predominately women, which is to say that the innumerable tropes against which we’re fighting when we train dancers are utterly familiar, almost certainly because the standards of beauty often cited by some dance traditionalists share origins with a European concept that centers white women as the measuring stick for femininity. So when I read things about exercises that promise to “lengthen and tone” instead of building “bulky” or “overdeveloped” muscles, I already recognize the unscientific code language the person is using, usually to sell their trademarked ballet-strengthening system.

What’s great about strength and conditioning, however, is when it comes to building strong, resilient bodies, there are facts we can look up. Because people have been trying to systematically develop bodies for years now, there’s actual research that allows us to understand the most important factor when it comes to muscle hypertrophy, what dance traditionalists might refer to as the process of building “bulky” muscles.

It’s not modality. It’s volume.

Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, two researchers who've been studying and researching muscle hypertrophy and bodybuilding techniques for years, wrote this in a study published earlier this year:

The present study indicates that substantially greater training volumes may be beneficial in enhancing muscle growth in those with previous RT experience, at least over an 8-wk training period. Hypertrophy for three of the four measured muscles was significantly greater for the highest versus lowest volume condition.

Contreras in particular has built a career out of strengthening and growing glutes—the tag line on his website is literally “the glute guy.” One of the things he’s been emphasizing for a long time as both a well-regarded personal trainer and now Ph.d researcher is that glutes don’t just magically grow bigger on their own, even with big exercises like squats and deadlifts. For his female clients who are figure competitors or bodybuilders—in other words, women for whom the dreaded “bulky” muscles are actually desirable—he has to specifically work with them on volume to grow larger butts.

Last week’s blog post was all about hip hinging, a joint action that involves the butt, and one of the pieces of feedback we received was that ballet dancers avoid hinging because they’re worried about their butts getting too big. What you have to understand is there’s a large gap between being able to use a muscle effectively and growing a muscle to a noticeably larger size. Fear of “bulky” muscles is inadvertently leading to injury, particularly for female ballet dancers who’ve never learned or been taught how to hinge properly. Some of the back injuries that follow are entirely preventable with a conservative, periodized, scientific approach to glute training. What we know from researchers like Schoenfeld and Contreras is that building “bulky” muscles is something for which we have to train specifically. In other words, we can make ballet dancers a lot stronger via strength training without making them a lot bigger.

My selfish hope would be for the Eurocentric beauty standards that have dominated the traditional ballet world to die. But in the meantime, we know that we can train every dancer in a way that will allow them to build a stronger, more resilient body without the muscle hypertrophy that dance traditionalists fear.