Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Strength: It's Not Just Muscle

I was speaking to a prospective general population client this week, and the person asked me how quickly they would see results. I don’t remember exactly what I told them, but it was something along the lines of “expect to see the results in increments of months, not weeks.” But I told them they would feel stronger, more mobile, and generally better rather quickly. We don't do the hard sell in our studio, and we’ve developed what I hope is a good reputation because we always tell the truth—even when it might not be what a potential customer wants to hear. Building trust through transparency is really our most important marketing technique.

What might be a hard sell for general population clients ought to make dancers, particularly female ballet dancers, rejoice. Because the core of my messaging to the prospective body composition client was this: you can get stronger and more mobile without necessarily building a ton of muscle or immediately changing what your body looks like.

“Augmented neural drive is thought to occur via increased agonist (i.e., the major muscles involved in a specific movement or exercise) muscle recruitment, improved neuronal firing rates, and greater synchronization in the timing of neural discharge during high-intensity muscular contractions. In addition, a reduction in inhibitory mechanisms (i.e., from Golgi tendon organs) is also thought to occur with long-term training.”

—National Strength and Conditioning Association, Essentials of Strength and Conditioning

This paragraph is all about strength and all about the central nervous system but not at all about muscle growth. So when well-meaning dance teachers tell ballerinas that they shouldn’t lift weights in-season because it will make them “too bulky,” what they’re failing to recognize is all of the other potential benefits that can keep the dancer saf(er) during the performance season if she focuses on staying strong. “…it is apparent,” the text goes on, “that neural adaptations typically occur before any structural changes in skeletal muscle are apparent.” (emphasis added) In other words, you’ll get stronger before you have had the time to even build bigger muscles. That’s frustrating for the general population client but great news for dancers! It means there exists a sweet spot wherein we can ensure that a dancer remains strong through her season without making her “bulky.”

So what does this sweet spot look like? First, we’ll limit volume, which is the primary mechanism through which athletes and bodybuilders build bigger muscle. Second, in-season we’ll prioritize movement and joint health, which is another way of saying articular mobility. Why is this phrase, “articular mobility,” important?

It’s another aspect of strength that people often forget or neglect because they mistakenly believe that strength training is all about hypertrophy. To understand why this is wrong, we have to distinguish what it means to be a strong athlete or dancer versus what it means to be a strong lifter. Team-oriented strength and conditioning coaches are tasked with developing strong dancers and athletes, not lifters. Often the strongest dancer or athlete in the context of their activity won’t be the strongest lifter in the weightroom.

Dr. Stuart McGill talked about this concept on Eric Cressey’s “Elite Baseball Development” podcast recently using the phrase “mechanical composite;” that is, the pitcher who can throw 100-miles-per-hour isn’t likely to be the strongest person under a barbell, but will be best at expressing composite mechanics necessary to unfurl specific power. It’s not difficult to make a connection between a pitcher and a dancer. The strength coach working with a ballerina isn’t trying to build a Crossfit athlete, but a resilient movement artist with the best mechanical composite possible.

The in-season ballerina workout might include one power movement, one lower body strength movement, two upper body strength movements, and a lot of articular mobility work (controlled articular rotations for ankles, hips, and shoulders, for instance). For comparison, a strength athlete might do a power movement, a heavy lower body movement, lighter lower body accessory movements, and multiple upper body accessory and/or strength movements in the same workout. And while that strength athlete almost certainly also will have mobility needs, they won’t compare to that of the ballerina—and their respective training programs should reflect this fact.

Strength coaches agree that in-season strength and conditioning is critical for keeping athletes both powerful and resilient against injury late in the competitive year. My sense of the dance world is some traditionalists will hear that and think that it looks like heavy back squats and power cleans. What it actually looks like is substituting barbell squats for kettlebell squats in a front rack position for, say, a baseball catcher who needs to balance the need for strong legs with the need for rest given his positioning through a nine-inning game. In a dance-specific context that might mean substituting more dance-specific yoga focusing on functional spinal movement for some of the traditional externally loaded strength exercises, which we’d reduce to the minimum effective dose. The focus would be on maintaining strength—not hypertrophy.

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.