Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Dance and Power Development

One of the more common requests from dancers who meet with a strength coach is to help them improve their power, and I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the misconceptions that exist around how to improve things like jumping and sprinting speed.

This week I was working with a young volleyball player, for instance, whom I was helping refine some technique on the lifts she was doing for off-season volleyball conditioning. (A brief aside: Two of those lifts were the barbell bench press and the barbell back squat, neither of which I would recommend for overhead athletes. Both are GREAT exercises outside of the context of the sport, but in the context of a volleyball player who’s going to be stressing her shoulders anyway, there are probably better ways of achieving upper body strength than the bench press and better ways of achieving leg strength that are easier on the shoulders than a barbell back squat.)

As she was walking me through her conditioning program, she was describing the plyometric training she was doing, the purpose of which according to the coach was to “increase jump height.” The exercise selection was good, but the way it was programmed would achieve a different goal than what was described.

So what was the problem?

At a basic level, you can’t increase power or speed in a fatigued state. So the volleyball conditioning program had a lot of plyometrics strung together. That work will be beneficial insofar as injury prevention (as long as the strength coach is monitoring the volume), but not for increasing power—because too much of the work was being done in a fatigued state.

One of track coach Tony Holler’s principles for building faster sprinters is “If you're too tired to sprint your fastest, you're not getting faster.” Maximum speed requires freshness.

Dancers aren’t sprinters, I know. But dancers and sprinters share something in common, believe it or not: both want to increase their power. So if a dancer comes to me and says “I want to jump higher,” I’m going to do a few things:

  • Incorporate measured and progressively overloaded plyometric training. This work will begin every training session after warmup and breathing.

  • Strengthen the dancer’s legs, in part by teaching her how to incorporate her glutes and hamstrings (but not necessarily focusing on hypertrophy).

  • Develop coordinated upper body and lower body strength, with a laser focus on alignment and athletic posture. So if she is performing a unilateral dumbbell overhead press, I’m not only going to be paying attention to her starting and ending position with the dumbbell, but I’m also going to be ensuring that her pelvic and ribcage positioning do not change during the movement.

For specific plyometric progressions, we’re fond of the simplicity of Mike Boyle’s approach. Here’s what a simple two-leg plyometric progression might look like for a dancer.

  • Weeks 1-3: box jumps

  • Weeks 4-6: hurdle hops, sticking the landing

  • Weeks 7-9: hurdle hops, add bounce before the next hurdle

  • Weeks 10-12: continuous hurdle hops

That progression assumes we have an entire off-season to work through progressions with a dancer. Depending on the person, we might move through these progressions more quickly. Younger dancers, for instance, require more fine-tuning when it comes to jumping and landing safely. They might need more work on how to use their breath to enhance their power; when to breathe and brace; when and how to exhale. For this young dancer, we might spend a lot of time just working the basics with a view toward long-term athletic development.

Dancers obviously also need muscular endurance, and so it would be irresponsible to solely train power. But the principle of specificity helps us deal with this. Train power when you’re training power, and train muscular endurance when you’re training muscular endurance. The training session can’t be random, in other words, either within an individual session or from session-to-session. Within a session, we’ll train power first, then strength, and then assistance exercises at higher repetitions. Sprinkled throughout will be “filler” exercises and movements designed to work on specific-to-the dancer mobility concerns.

What we won’t do is repeated, high-volume, high-fatigue plyometrics under the misguided auspices of enhancing power. Not only will this not increase jumping power, but it also could add too much fatigue to a dancer heading into the performance season. The point we keep returning to is that training for maximum performance is training with purpose and care. The fetishized grind only wears athletes and dancers down, but so many people chase results with poorly designed overtraining because they think maximum performance ought to feel terrible. Don’t get me wrong, it should be very, very hard in doses. But a good training environment is one in which dancers and athletes feel a sense of accomplishment. Dancers in particular exist in a state of judgement and even anxiety around their bodies, their roles, and their injuries. Their strength and conditioning training space ought to offer a respite in a sense, wherein they can push hard and be open about what hurts and what doesn’t while feeling strong.

The general public tends to think about dancers in the context of grace, not power. But if you spend any time talking to dancers themselves, power often comes up very quickly in the conversation. One thing is for sure, no dancer would ever ask me about how to be more graceful. But I can help with the power while admiring the grace from afar. Good exercise selection, good programming, and individualization are the tools of the trade.

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.