Present Tense Fitness
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Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Strength Training "Fillers" for Dancers

Time. It’s a concept we keep coming back to in this space, and for good reason. Dancers don’t have a lot of it, and the finite nature of time is the reason I’m such an advocate for applying team-based strength and conditioning principles to a dancer’s training regimen. We don't think of strength training as “cross training” in our studio. Everything we do—from breathing and focusing on a yoga mat, to explosive plyometric work on the gym floor—is training the dancer for their activity.

In a previous post, I talked about the movements we think every dancer ought to be able to do in a gym space, but I want to expound on this idea and give you more details here. Every dancer we see is going to do some variation of a squat, hinge, push, and pull. And if you look at strength training programs throughout the country, you’re going to see similar exercises.

“But what about being dance specific!” some of the old guard will cry. Athletes are athletes, and believe it or not the needs of a ballet dancer aren’t as different from the needs of another high-level athlete as one might think.

But it would be irresponsible to treat everyone the same way. Is that a contradiction?

No, because we don't think in terms of dance-specific. We think in terms of dancer specific. There’s a galaxy’s worth of space between the two ideas.

People who talk in terms of dance specific tend to think one can just use their very own Google machine to find some program online and pass it out to their athletes. “Here you go! Good luck with this!”

But a person-specific program can’t be downloaded from the web. A person-specific program involves questions like:

  • “What kind of feedback did you get over the summer?”

  • “What’s your biggest weakness as a dancer?”

  • “Do you have any chronic injuries you’ve struggled to keep at bay?”

Regardless of the answers to those questions, every dancer or athlete will do a squat variation or hinge variation. Depending on the individual, that hinge might have to look different from person to person. Younger, hyper-mobile female ballet dancers, for instance, might struggle initially to do loaded hinge variations like Romanian deadlifts or kettlebell swings. So instead they would do a hip thrust variation that doesn’t cause any pain in the lumbar spine. But they’re still hinging.

What makes a program dancer specific is the fillers. Take a look at the framework below.

(A) Power

(B) Primary strength

(C1) Upper body push

(C2) Mobility filler

(C3) Mobility filler

(D1) Upper body pull

(D2) Mobility filler

(D3) Mobility filler

(E) Finisher

The (A) exercise will likely be some time of plyometric work involving jumping and landing with good technique. The (B) exercise will almost certainly be one of the bigger full body lifts, like a squat or deadlift variation. We front load the workout with those lifts because they’re the most taxing on the central nervous system, and we want the dancer as fresh as possible while executing them.

When you get into the (C) work, now you’re going to incorporate the dancer specific stuff. So (C1) might be a landmine press, but based on dancer feedback we’re also going to incorporate side-lying thoracic spine mobility work and wall slides to help the dancer move the scapulae on the rib cage more consistently.

Another example might be (C1) is a half-kneeling overhead press, where (C2) is a specific functional range conditioning exercise intended to increase a dancer’s range of motion, as in a développé. (C3) might be something like controlled articular rotations for the feet or ankles. Dancer One and Dancer Two might have exactly the same (A), (B), and (C1) exercises, but their (C2) and (C3) exercises could be dramatically different based on their individual needs.

Dancer specific is a far healthier and productive approach than dance specific. Between class and working secondary jobs and other responsibilities, a dancer can't waste time following a program designed for someone with different needs.

Coach the person in front of you. That’s really the most important rule we follow.