Summary: Traditionally, dancers shy away from the weight room for fear of impeding their training or getting too bulky. In Part 1 of the cross-training articles, we look at what is included in resistance training, why it is an important part of a serious dancer’s regime, and what age is appropriate for resistance training
Urban legend has it that dancers should not undergo any sort of fitness or training outside of dance or dance-related activities. The “Old School” says cross-training in other areas will develop the wrong muscles, take away from the aesthetics of dance by bulking, or it will just impede your training.
Here’s the deal: that urban legend is wrong. Sticking with traditional ways is leading to high levels of injury, and we keep taking classes that don’t actually prepare us for the energy demands of performance (and here and here). So how do we remedy this rut?
Cross-training is easiest explained as “a training program to improve competitive performance in a specific sport by training in a variety of sports”. In this series of articles, we’ll break down different elements of cross-training and why they are important to dancers.
Resistance training—also known as strength training—is a conditioning method that adds a form of opposition and weight under a variety of methods, movements, and tempos. Resistance training encompasses body weight, free weights, weight machines, and resistance bands as tools for training. Contrary to what is frequently tossed around in the dance community, resistance training will not decrease flexibility or impede performance.
When done properly under a well-designed program and with the correct technique, resistance training can reduce body fat, increase cardiovascular conditioning, and decrease injury rate. Additionally, increased muscle strength may help dancers improve their performance and lead to increased bone mineral density.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BULK???
Time to dispel this myth once and for all: resistance training is not the same as competitive weightlifting or bodybuilding. Unless your goal is to increase muscle hypertrophy (size), your muscles won’t rip open your sleeves.
At what age is it safe to add resistance training in?
There is a lot of confusion and crossed-wires on if strength training is safe for pre-pubescent adolescents, even in the research community. The largest concern is long-term injury from microtrauma to the muscles and developing skeleton. Some researchers recommend adding in some resistance exercises around age 7 or 8 for disciplined students, while others are proponents of a wide variety of movements and overall conditioning. While some strength training may be appropriate for young students who are able to control their bodies and take directions, more focus should be placed on motor coordination than on strength production - adding too much stress to the developing skeleton could be detrimental if not done under the supervision of a qualified trainer. It may be best to learn the coordination of bodyweight exercises that could easily develop into more advanced movements as they grow, but incorporate them into a diverse array of movement to prevent too much stress.
What does resistance training look like for dancers?
When adding strength training to your regimen, it is important that your workouts increasingly progress to more repetitions or higher weight, and it stays specific to the demands of your technique or choreography. It is also best to avoid doing the same workout over and over again, as your body will adapt and eventually plateau. Plus, switching around your exercises allows you to target different muscles or different areas on different days. For optimal performance, most athletes incorporate periodization* into their strength training, broken into simple phases:
(Adapted from Exercise Physiology, McArdle, Katch, and Katch)
One complete movement is equal to one repetition, or rep. Reps are usually done in sets. For example, one push-up (from plank position to the fully lowered position back to plank) is one rep. If you’re advised to do 15 reps for 3 sets of push-ups, you would complete a total of 45 push-ups with a rest period every 15.
To avoid bulking, aim for higher reps (8-12). Whatever weight you choose should be low enough that you can complete all the reps, but not so high that you cannot complete more than two sets. While it might be tempting to choose a lower weight and blasting through all three sets in one go, don’t. The higher weight will allow you to gain strength faster, and adding in that rest time is important for muscle recovery.
Incorporating Resistance Training into a Dancer’s Schedule
Here’s where things can get tricky—how can resistance training be incorporated into the day-to-day schedule without increasing overtraining or burnout? The easiest and most attainable is to incorporate resistance training into dance class (yes, even ballet class). Two to three times a week, switch that long drawn out warm-up out for 20 minutes of resistance training, followed by a short barre or center work. If you’re a professional, switch out class time (*GASP* I know) to go to the gym instead**. You’re already dancing over 30 hours a week, don’t increase your workload any more than necessary—remember your body needs time to rest and recover!
But, aren’t you going to give me a full workout plan?
Sorry, I can’t***. If you’re totally new to resistance training, I recommend talking to a certified personal trainer—especially if they specialize in training dancers and understand their specific needs. I also love Science in Dance as a resource for workout inspiration and integrating science into the studio. If you’re desperate for ideas on where to even start, check out something like the ACE Exercise Library.
Let’s all train to dance longer and stronger (literally)!
*New word alert! Periodization, unfortunately, is NOT typically followed in the dance community. It deserves its own post so I won’t go into an insane amount of detail on it here, but it is based around the idea that bodies need time to build up conditioning and peak performance, and can’t perform at their maximum when fatigued right before a performance/game/competition. Fatigue can also lead to injury, so most athletes actually back off of training before their big day or during an intensive season. Keep an eye out for when we dive into this concept in depth!
**A GREAT example of this is Michael Novack of Paul Taylor Dance Foundation.Conversations on Dance chatted with him back when he was a company member, and he talks about switching out class for the gym 3x a week.
***Full disclaimer: I am not a certified personal trainer or medical professional, just a researcher. If you have any concerns about undertaking a new training regimen, please consult a clinician.
Daily Dancer Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to pick up those dumbbells, they will actually help your performance and injury risk in the long run!
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