StEPS: Cross Training Dancers | Carlos Sparxz

Carlos Sparxz Carabello

Cross Training and Dancers

Welcome to Beyond the StEPS

Should you be cross training your students? What in the world does that actually mean to cross-train our student athletes and particularly our dancers? What is the ideal cross training schedule for the summer months ? We have the amazing Carlos “Sparxz” Caraballo* here with us to answer some important questions!

What are the unique challenges that dancers face compared to other athletes? What are those unique challenges dancers specifically are facing?

So there's a couple of different ones, some of the biggest challenges are:


  • There's no off season: Most sports revolve around a season, but dance doesn't really take an off season.

  • I would just say logistical challenges: they've got to be able to budget their time and it's really hard to find that balance 

  • They are good at compensating for what they're not good at: Dancers are incredible and they can do amazing things but they can do their specific things really well and since they're doing these things over and over and over again that causes the body to do some funky things. They're really good at hiding it during their pieces but over time there's like this tiny little layer of like compensation. Let's make it the fake it till you make it kind of thought process 

  • Mental Challenge: Educating them that there is a need behind strength and resistance training. I find that I have to spend a little bit more time educating the student athlete or performance athletes as well as the parents to get them to buy into “I'm asking you to do something different from what you normally do and I'm telling you that it's going to benefit it” that's the hardest hurdle to actually overcome sometimes.

  • When you are trying to educate people about trying something different, how do you explain cross-training to them because it's a very broad term? What exactly is cross-training and why is it so important for athletes and specifically it's importance for dancers?  

    The fitness industry in general (I'm gonna take one for the team on this) we have a way of just throwing out some buzzwords that sound pretty darn awesome and they're really not that complicated. But it makes it sound really cool. Cross training to make things pretty simple, can just be doing something else that is not what you normally do. By signing up for basketball as well as dance or a season of baseball, or where they're exposed to some other form of movement that is not as repetitive it gives their normal body structure demands a break and exposes them to something new. This helps prevent burnout. That's like level one of cross training. What's more traditionally known as cross training would be some sort of resistance training. This could be anything from doing body weight exercises to something that's a little bit more regimented.  I like doing a specific sort of strength training program. For dancers in particular, I think it's super important for them. If you don't have an off season as part of your culture, doing strength training or agility work is so important so there isn't that same sort of diversity of movement.   

    Are there specific things that dancers should be doing to cross-train that enhance or complement their training more than others?

    There are various stages in dance training and that someone who is already familiar with it and wants to advance to the next level should focus on doing the opposite of what they normally do for cross training. As an example, using leg flexibility and leg lines has helped them to develop their leg muscles through repetition. However, the opposing muscles, which are stretched in order to achieve beautiful leg lines, often become weak. This creates a situation similar to a game of tug of war where the joints are in the middle and can be at risk if one side becomes weaker and pulls more, especially when landing or when form begins to slip due to fatigue.One should focus on opposing muscle groups. Specifically, the adductors which bring the legs together are often weak due to the amount of stretching involved.

    The three biggest things that I get when recommending cross training is;    

    1. I'm gonna get hurt

    2. I don't want to bulk up 

    3. It takes my time away

    When people talk about getting injured,  or taking time away from their technique, one of the illustrations that I like to use is if they're a student,  if you want to be respected as an athlete you also have to respect your own training like other athletes do. I'll pick out an example if they're in basketball, use LeBron James or another, you see them doing something, and cross training.  So even if you don't trust me, they're doing something and leading by example. Instead of shooting jump shots they're taking time away from their jump shot shooting to practice and strength train. Work smarter, not harder. 

    Research that we found with Apolla, dancers were injured twice as much as football players from the knee down and 65 of those injuries are due to overuse, repetitive strain, inflammation and if we're injured that much more, than a contact sport what's the missing denominator? Is it cross training? Those athletes cross train, so if our injuries are so much higher as dancers we need to look at why that is? 

    Something very similar to what they do as dancers, like pilates and yoga, what's your take on that for cross training?

    It depends, and I know I hate that answer too. If they are doing nothing else, yeah fine go do that… trying to do something else that exposes you to a different stimulus, doing a different style of dance a lot of times, it's like hey taking some other classes or something or doing something like yoga Pilates it's very similar it's great and it's going to have its benefits and it's going to kind of move the needle, but doing something completely different is going to be able to expose even more movement and more stimulus and your body is going to have to learn how to adapt to even more like chaos if you will and if it's able to handle all of that and when you come back to something that you're more used to it'll be even stronger

    Intensives and workshops that have more classes over a short period of time, often pushed in between breaks for vacations and mandatory technique classes at the studio. How should these schedules be approached to ensure that their bodies are prepared to handle the fluctuations and not be on a consistent schedule? 

    One way to prepare for intense workshops, short vacations, and mandatory technique classes is to respect the demands you are putting on your body. When you're younger, your body can handle it better, but it's better to take advantage of this advice now to stay young. Your body has a hard time adjusting to extreme changes in activity levels, going from zero to 60, then back down to zero, and so on. To prepare, you can incorporate cross-training to fill in the gaps. The ideal balance is to have cross-training two days a week, in addition to your regular activities. However, this may vary depending on the athlete's schedule. A trainer may not have their athletes cross-training more than two times a week, as they are not training them to be lifters, but to be better at their primary activity. During less consistent times, such as the summer, you can use that time for cross-training, for example, during the time between an intensive in June and a boot camp in July.

    How important is it then to continue that cross training during the “on”  time versus the summer when we're using it as fillers?

    What I recommend for the summer is to treat it as an off-season, which provides some flexibility to address any weaknesses. Research or consultation with a coach can help determine which areas need improvement. During the season, you'll be repeating the same movements over and over again, so the off-season can be used to balance out these repetitions. For example, if you're doing a lot of movements in one direction during the season (flexibility based), the off-season can be used to work in the opposite direction (strength based) to help maintain balance in your body.

    I'm gonna give you a very specific scenario: 

    It's the second week of July you have a team of dancers somewhere between 12 and 16

    they're getting ready to start boot camp in August 

    what does a week look like:

    I suggest focusing on resistance and strength training to address specific muscle weaknesses. While participating in other physical activities such as a class or playing basketball can provide different benefits, it cannot guarantee that you will target your deficiencies. Lifting allows you to focus on specific exercises and weights to target certain muscles, and it is why I usually recommend full-body workouts to athletes, including dancers. With consistent practice, the body will adapt and improve, and cross-training will aid in enhancing technique. It will make the movements feel stronger and require less effort, which can lead to better performance. For all those people that are like I don't have time I need to take another ballet class and I can't even get two in and I need three or four and this is going to reduce the output that you have to put forth to achieve that result and essentially be more efficient for you.

    What does a workout look like? 

    I would say incorporate essentially five different things.

    1. Pushing Exercise
    2. Pulling Exercise
    3. Squat/Knee exercise  
    4. Hip/Hinge exercise
    5. Single Leg Exercises

    What's another example besides squats?

    A split squat is another example of a squat exercise. It is similar to the bottom position of a lunge but instead of stepping forward and backward, you remain stationary and just go up and down in the lunge position. It is important to note that split squats are not the same as lunges, as lunges involve a stepping motion.

    For a child who dances five to six days a week and has limited time for rest, it is important to consider how to best incorporate cross training. Is it better for them to do cross training on a day they already have dance practice or is it better for them to take a day of rest and not include cross training on that day?

    To determine the best approach for the dancer who dances five to seven days a week and only has one day of rest, the first step would be to assess their current workload and see if they are already experiencing burnout. If so, then reducing their dance load may be necessary. If the dancer is handling their current load well, incorporating cross training into a dance day may be more beneficial as it would allow them to have more freedom to rest and make it easier on them mentally to not have to go to another location every day.

    If you're a studio director or you're an educator you're like I'm going to throw some cross training in for my kids in between these technique classes. What is considered an adequate amount of cross training time for a dancer who is already busy with school and dance practices? Is 30 minutes enough or is even 15 minutes sufficient to make a difference? 

    When it comes to cross training, a good workout can be achieved in just 30 minutes. Although if more time is available, that provides the opportunity to do even more. However, it's important to make sure that whoever is implementing the cross training, either the dancer or the instructor, is properly educated on what good form looks like. This is especially important for studio owners to consider in order to ensure the safety and effectiveness of their dancers' cross training routine.

    I like to look for people that are certified. A certification does not tell the story of a coach at all but it does tell you that this person was willing to take the time to actually invest in their own education. I think there's merit to what certifications that they have, a couple of the ones that I prefer are from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

    Is there an age that we should start cross-training? An age that's too young to start cross-training with students? 

    In terms of cross-training and a child's age, it really depends on the child's maturity level. If they are old enough to focus in a dance class, then they are likely old enough for cross-training. However, cross-training activities such as resistance training may not be as mentally stimulating as dance classes, so the child should be of a maturity level where they can stay engaged for the duration of the training session. This is usually around Junior High, but some younger children who are highly mature can also handle it. In terms of the best approach, it depends on the child's age and maturity level, with a more focused one-on-one or small group setting being better for older children, and a class atmosphere being more beneficial for younger children who can see others participating and stay engaged.

    What is your response to the concern about starting a cross training schedule for a child and not wanting them to bulk up, as if resistance training means becoming a bodybuilder?

    To summarize, building muscle is a natural result of resistance training and is a key component of achieving an athletic, fit and toned look. Society often places unrealistic bodily expectations, especially on women, but having muscle is okay and can be beautiful. It's important to educate people on this and to understand that building muscle requires time, dedication, and a commitment to training. However, it is not necessary to train like a bodybuilder, just adding some muscle can make a significant difference. 

    What is one action that you want our readers to take between now and next week to make progress in this area.

    My suggestion would be to try out different forms of cross training to find what works best for you. If you're not comfortable with resistance training, look for other options. But if you're open to it, resistance training can be a valuable addition to your workout routine.

    Connect with Carlos:


    *Carlos Sparxz Caraballo is a dancer, martial artist, certified strength and conditioning specialist. As a performer, he's represented United Dance Company Exiles in National and World competitions, videos, live shows, and concerts around the country. He's made appearances in NBC's World of Dance and he has been part of the USA hip-hop dance championships as a three-time silver medalist. As a fitness coach he trains performers, athletes, and general fitness clients. His goal is to optimize fitness and performance through safe and progressive training so that you can be better at what makes you awesome.

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