Letter to Dancers: How to think about training
This week I wanted to write directly to the audience of dancers, many of whom continue to have a lot of questions about what they should be doing. “Go to the gym” or “you should be doing cross training” aren’t really enough to get a dancer started. We don’t dive into too many specifics here, but the point of this piece is to give you a framework for how you should begin thinking about your strength and conditioning.
Train high intensity, then back off in season
Dancers probably spend too much time training low to medium intensity cardiovascular fitness—that hour on the elliptical is probably redundant given your class and rehearsal demands—and not enough time training high intensity intervals.
I recognize that at least a part of the pressure to train long and slow cardio is due to body composition, but the more efficient path toward a leaner body is paying attention to macronutrient and caloric intake, rather than spending increasing amounts of time on an elliptical. For trained populations, researchers seem to be increasingly pointing to protein as the critical aspect of developing lean body mass. Rather than thinking of burning away fat from an hour on the elliptical, elite dancers would be better off thinking about developing the high-end heart rate capacity required for difficult choreography.
We really like ski ergometers and HIIT-style bikes for interval training. While the bikes are the best at working maximum effort quickly, the quadriceps demands of these intervals might not be desirable for female ballet dancers. So we’ll split interval days between the ski ergometer and the bikes.
High-intensity interval training doesn’t have to be complex. Ending a workout with five rounds of 10 seconds on, 20 seconds off with a HIIT-style bike will push a dancer’s conditioning.
One thing I should emphasize here: we’re NOT saying that low intensity cardio is useless. What we’re arguing is that this bucket for most elite dancers already is pretty full, so they’d be better of spending more of their time filling the higher intensity bucket.
Once the season starts, one easy way to tell whether you need to continue with a modicum of HIIT training is how your body is responding to the demands of the choreography and grind of the schedule. If you’re finding you can handle things well, reduce your conditioning-specific work to a minimum. One word of advice: try to attach your HIIT training in season to days in which you’re already working. In other words, don’t make the mistake of taking your one day off and filling it with demanding cardio work. Consolidate your stressors and ensure that you’re able to have an entire day off from physically demanding work.
Train immediately in the off season
The performance season is long, difficult, and stressful, so the tendency to want to take a month off from any rigorous or planned physical activity—particularly when many dancers teach during the summer—is understandable. But if you’re serious about excelling in a long-term career, you ought to consider that training in the off season should begin early on. That doesn’t mean you should be going hard and heavy immediately, but you should be getting back into to the gym.
Prioritize movement, realignment, recovery, and assessment. In those first few weeks after the last curtain, you ought to be evaluating where your body is. What hurts? What failed you during the season? What were your strengths and weaknesses? What consistent feedback did you get about your posture or positioning? If you unplug completely, you’ll miss a valuable opportunity to take stock of how your body held up for you and what your off-season training should look like.
This is a good time to begin addressing nagging injuries with your physical therapist, and begin crafting a periodized strength and conditioning program with a good strength coach. Obviously my lane of the road is the strength side of things, but understand that a good strength coach can help you think through some of the feedback you may have been getting throughout the season. You’d be surprised how a seemingly “dance specific” postural issue can be addressed with targeted and thoughtful strength work.
Train throughout the performance season
Some dancers are told that they shouldn’t lift weights during the performance season because they’ll get too “bulky,” but the truth is that abandoning any sort of strength and conditioning work during the season is one sure-fire way of fading toward the end of the performances. Dance, as difficult as it is, is not enough to maintain the resilience against injury dancers need. And if you talk to strength coaches, you’ll find a bit of a coalescence these days around the idea that all athletes need to be doing some sort of strength work during the season in order to maintain peak performance and ward off late-season fatigue.
Reduce the work load to essential movements: This might mean you’re only doing two strength training workouts with two-to-three sets per exercise along with a recovery-focused yoga session. No, you won’t be training as hard during the season (particularly in the midst of a difficult run of shows), but you shouldn’t give up on training altogether.
Reduce conditioning work as needed. Think about what Nutcracker season feels like. You probably don't need to be doing a lot of HIIT when you’re in the middle of it. I know it seems like squishy advice, but the best thing you can do with conditioning is learn to listen to your body. You’ll know when you need to step up your conditioning to meet the demands of difficult work, and you also should learn to be in tune with yourself enough to know when to back off.
Train for power and lift “heavy”
This point is probably where we still have the longest road to travel when it comes to cultural realignment. Lifting heavy weights and training for power shouldn’t be considered optional, let alone negative. By carefully calibrating the amount of volume in the gym, a dancer can dramatically increase their strength without concomitant bulk. This doesn’t mean that every exercise is performed with heavy weight in mind. Here’s a sample program for a preseason female ballet dancer. (This isn’t the entire workout; I’ve just included a portion of it to illustrate a point).
(A) Single leg hurdle hops (3 sets, 6 hops on each leg)
(B) Dumbbell goblet squat (3 sets of 8 repetitions)
(C1) Halk-kneeling dumbbell overhead press (3 sets of 8 repetitions on each side)
(C2) Hollow body hold (3 sets of 30 seconds)
(C3) Foam-roller assisted side-lying windmill (3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side)
We’ll always reserve the “A” slot for something that develops power or jumping and landing. The “B” slot will be for a primary strength movement, which almost always will mean some sort of squat or a hinge (like a kettlebell swing). When you look at C1, C2, and C3, you start to get a picture for how even though this dancer is lifting heavy compared to what she might experience in a Pilates studio, she’s not exclusively lifting heavy. In fact, we’re prioritizing both strength and mobility with this arrangement.
Train your rehab homework
Dance has a high rate of injury, but if you’re a professional you can’t afford to sleep on the homework your physical therapist gives you. This homework is often tedious and boring, but if you attach it to your gym workouts you’ll be more likely to do it. Let’s imagine a male ballet dancer who is coming off of a shoulder injury. What might his gym workouts look like?
(A) Continuous hurdles (3 sets, 5 hurdles)
(B) Safety squat bar reverse lunge (3 sets of 8 repetitions)
(C1) Landmine press (3 sets of 8 repetitions, each side)
(C2) Controlled articular rotations (3 sets of 3 forward, 3 reverse)
We’d still start him with some sort of power work, progress on to the primary strength movement, and then once we got to upper body work we’ll begin pairing his exercises with rehabby type movements. Obviously we wouldn’t even have this dancer do C1 unless he was cleared medically, but once he’s ready to start lifting we like the landmine press as an initial step toward overhead work. And combining that with the controlled articular rotations—which is an unweighted drill—we can begin the process of ensuring he has both the strength and the range of motion he needs.
Train for yourself
Maybe the most important lesson I can leave you with is to train for your body, and your body alone. If you learn the basic principles of working out—power, strength, assistance, mobility, and conditioning—then you can begin to make that framework work for yourself.
If you think of training on a spectrum of rehabilitory work to extreme bodybuilding or powerlifting, what you’ll begin to recognize is that athletic performance training falls somewhere in the middle. Athletes put themselves through movement demands that an untrained 9-5er going through physical therapy never does and also that the powerlifter responsible for only executing three lifts ever does. An athlete needs to be healthy enough to practice and compete consistently but also strong and powerful enough to practice and compete with the required intensity.
If you’re interested in reading more about our approach, you can be the first to find out about our Dancer’s Guide to Strength & Conditioning, coming this Fall 2019. Go here for more information.