Present Tense Fitness
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Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Dancers and Posterior Chain Work

If you walk into a large commercial gym, you’ll see a lot of people trying to isolate very specific muscles in a misguided attempt to follow a bodybuilding type split or protocol. So you’ll see very specific deltoid work, or calf raises, or bicep curls. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these exercises, but for the busy 9-5 office worker trying to trim down and feel a little better, they might not be the best use of his time.

During our initial session with a general population client like this, we’ll spend a good bit of time teaching them why they should be targeting multi-joint, multi-muscle exercises, both from a functional perspective and from an aesthetic perspective. For the guy trying to just fill his sleeves with big biceps, he’d usually be better off incorporating heavier rowing movements like barbell rows or dumbbell rows, which simultaneously target the large latissimus dorsi and the biceps.

With dancers, we also incorporate multi-joint, multi-muscle exercises for the same reasons, with the additional consideration that these performance artists already are facing cumulative physical stressors that a bodybuilding type program would only exacerbate without enhancing performance. However, I’ve found myself digging far deeper into functional anatomy while training dancers than at any other time during my career. Maybe I’m just a better coach now who’s paying more attention, but training dancers means we can’t get away with just thinking about “the hamstrings,” or “hip extension” without also digging into the details.

Hamstrings, Knee Flexion, Hip Extension

When we talk about our hamstrings, we’re talking about three specific muscles: the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. All three of these muscles aid in both hip extension and knee flexion, which means if we’re truly going to work the hamstrings, then we ought to be programming for both hip extension and knee flexion.

Hip extension exercises

  • Deadlift variations, kettlebell swings, hip thrust variations

Knee flexion exercises

  • Nordic hamstring curls, bridge with hamstring curl

All of the above exercises “work the hamstrings,” but the hip extension group is asking different function of the muscles involved than the knee flexion group.

More on Hip Extension

What’s interesting about the posterior chain muscles like hamstrings and their function in hip extension is the realization that every dancer we’ve seen has some sort of difficulty getting into a safe hip extension pattern. In almost every case, there has existed either some lumbar hyper-mobility (not a surprise given the population) or an inability to incorporate the gluteus maximus into movements it ought to be playing a big role in. This inability to work hip extension well I would argue is a big reason why we see so many back injuries in dancers across the spectrum. One of my goals as a strength coach is to address this, so let’s take a look at what’s involved in hip extension.

  • Hamstrings

  • Gluteus muscle group

  • Adductor magnus

We’ve already talked about how the hamstrings are actually three muscles, but let’s dial in a little on “the glutes,” which Eric Cressey has likened to playing a role similar to the rotator cuff in the shoulder.

The result is that when you extend your hips with the hamstrings and adductor magnus, the head of the femur can glide forward in the socket and irritate the front of the hip. When you get adequate gluteus maximus contribution, it helps to reduce this anterior stress. In many ways, the glutes work as a rotator cuff of the hip (while the hamstrings and adductor magnus act like the lats and pecs, respectively).

Cressey is focusing here on the glute maximus role in stabilizing the femoral head in the acetabulum of the hip socket, but if we combine this salient point with an understanding of the glute maximus role in hip extension, then it becomes even more apparent why glute work is so instrumental to both dancer health and performance.

The gluteus maximus muscle can become atrophied, and its dominance as a hip extensor lessens, particularly in the individual who stands in a swayback posture, exaggerating the posterior distance of his or her weight line from the hip joint. Decreased activity in this muscle, particularly when combined with decreased performance of the other posterior muscles of the hip girdle, compromises the control of the femur in the acetabulum. —Shirley A. Sahrmann, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes

The “swayback” posture is something we see a lot of in dancers, which makes a lot of sense particularly for the ballerinas who must approximate a version of this posture for so much of what they do onstage. There are some postures into which a ballerina cannot get without exploiting some amount of spinal extension. That Sahrmann quote gets at why we need to be paying close attention to this when we’re thinking about the role of the glutes.

Every strength coach will tell you that they evolve over time, but at this point I can tell you that I’m certain training the posterior chain for dancers is going to be something that evolves for us over time. Dancers cannot afford not to have easy neuromuscular access to these muscles, and yet there is a risk to loading hinge movements in order to target these muscles when the proper work hasn’t been done to ensure sound biomechanics. This is where early off-season work, when dancers are still recovering from the rigors of performing, can be critical to drilling good form as a foundation for loading later in the summer. But if the loading happens before the form is established, strength coaches could inadvertently be steering dancers into injury.

Dancers don’t seem to have as many problems accessing their hamstrings as they do their glutes, so in this case the strength coach has a relatively easier job. One needs to ensure for the hamstrings that the programming is targeting both knee flexion and hip extension in order to fully address the function of this multi-purpose muscle group.


Our Approach

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.