Strength training in dance
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
This article was published in the magazine from One Dance UK.
It is well established that supplementary training in dance is an integral part of the dancer’spreparation, and often comes in the form of Gyrotonics, Pilates floor or reformer exercises. However, this form of exercise does not always provide the dancer with enough stimuli for strength development. We felt that it would be useful to provide our readers with a brief description/explanation of strength training and strength development.
Strength training has been wrongly associated with excessive increased muscle size, something that could potentially affect the aesthetic look of a dancer, and loss of flexibility, an aspect of dance that cannot be compromised. Both these two myths however are without any scientific justification. In order for an individual to change his/her muscle size to the point of being aesthetically wrong for dance, they would have to doing the wrong type of strength training for a long time and would have to be consuming excessive amount of calories. This is something that rarely happens in dance as the caloric intake is often below recommended levels. The myth about flexibility, is indirectly connected with the myth of muscle size, however there is no scientific evidence that strength training can have a negative effect on flexibility. On the contrary there is evidence that shows increases in flexibility due to strength training, especially developpé height. Gymnasts provide a good example, they are significantly stronger than dancers and have the same range of movement. The feeling of tightness one might feel after a strength session, can easily be alleviated with some light stretching after the session.
All movement can be broken down into six fundamental patterns:
Gait (walking, running)
These movement patterns apply to all human activities including dance, however in dance the focus is more on the aesthetics of the move. Strength training is based on these movement patterns as well. In order for strength to be developed these patterns need to be overloaded for the body to receive enough stress. The body is a reactive system that needs to be challenged to adapt. It needs to be given new stresses and it is through this experience that the body adapts and becomes stronger.
One common question in dance population is where does one start? Strength training load is determined through the training age of the individual and not through his/her chronological age or the percentage of the maximum load one can lift or push. Training age refers to the number of years a person has specialised in one particular activity/sport. So a dancer who is 18 years old, and has been dancing since the age of 8, has a dance training age of 10. The same rule applies in strength training. The same dancer of 18 years old that has no experience in strength training has a strength training age of 0 years. The reason we need to make this clarification is in order for practitioners to keep in mind that a dancer with strength training age of 0 years needs to spend a substantial amount of time in preparing the body for strength overload otherwise the risk of an injury is increasing. Keeping in mind the above movement patterns dance teachers and fitness practitioners need to develop training programs according to the training age of the individual starting with body weight exercises and slowly progress to higher loads.
The main aims of a preparation program should be joint stability and mobility and balancing the muscle imbalances. For the dancer’s joint stability and mobility the focus should be:
Hypermobility needs to be taken into consideration when one applies the joint by joint concept as a hypermobile ankle would most likely need stability and not mobility, or a stiff hip would need mobility for the particular dancer but stability for the hypermobile dancer.
There are no shortcuts in strength development and one cannot pre-determine how long it will actually take but generally speaking if a dancer trains for 1-2 sessions a week and systematically follows a program, initial adaptations can happen within the first 6-8 weeks. Every 6-8 weeks the body would then need a different type of stimuli either by changing the exercises or by increasing the load. It is also important to try and avoid dance specific moves as what is vital is to develop foundation strength before the focus becomes more dance specific.
Strength training should be part of the dancer’s life all through the year, because there needs to be consistency and continuity in order to have the desired effect of strength development. During the summer break and rehearsals it should become a priority. However, when a dancer is on tour, or has a heavy performance schedule, maintenance of strength is essential otherwise detraining of strength can occur.