The benefits of strength training for the novice dancer

Dancers today face choreographic demands that challenge the physical capabilities of the body. To meet these demands, supplementary training for younger dancers can be a beneficial aspect of their training to cope with these physical demands. There are various elements of supplementary training that can be implemented within a dancer’s fitness regime to increase their physical fitness – one being strength training. This can be implemented within the technique class rather than necessarily happening outside the traditional dance classroom. Some dancers are reluctant to engage in strength training, as they have a fear of having ‘big muscles’ or a muscular aesthetic that will reduce the ‘beautiful visual’ of their movement. However, strength training can actually be very valuable in increasing strength and endurance for dancers, which in turn then compliments the aesthetic of the movement.

It is important for dancers to develop strength to enhance their endurance ability to perform. For example, dancers need strength to control their movements, which again will enhance the aesthetic of their movement. Strength training helps to develop core strength, that allows for more powerful movements in performance, controlled lifts with partners and develops a dancer’s overall strength, which helps reduce fatigue. This provides a dancer with a unique detailed awareness of their own body, which may highlight weaker muscles or imbalances, therefore allowing them to train specific areas to avoid the onset of injury.
Throughout my time at University, I was always being told ‘you need to be participating in additional fitness training’ and ‘you need to ensure you’re developing your core’ and I was always thinking to myself, but I do enough exercise! I dance every day, isn’t this enough? Surely, I am building muscle each time I dance? How am I supposed to fit in supplementary training within my busy schedule? And I do not want to become “bulky”! The reality is rehearsals and technique class aren’t enough to meet the cardiovascular demands needed for a dancer. Much of dance class is spent learning and refining movements, with less time spent dancing with full energy and exertion. Typically, in performance, a dancer will be performing ‘full out’ throughout and have less time to rest. Once I started to implement strength training into my regime, I felt and saw a difference.

Research suggests that class and rehearsals don’t reach the ‘physiological intensity of performance’. Predominately classes and rehearsals focus mainly on the aesthetic of movement rather than focusing on the strength and power needed for a dancer, which will prepare them for the more challenging movements. Instead, the article suggests that dancers who do not engage in supplementary training, such as strength training are “simply trying to get through” rehearsals without the strength and endurance they sufficiently need for performance, therefore causing more fatigue or maybe injury. However, increasing a dancer’s strength by engaging in supplementary training decreases the lack of injuries. A dancer will be more prone to injuries when fatigued but by improving overall body strength, it will both provide a measure of protection and improve a dancer’s cardiovascular endurance and step away from this idea of just ‘getting through the performance’.
There are various forms of strength training that a dancer can incorporate into their training, but it comes to a point where it leaves you wondering when can I fit it in? Or what exactly should I be doing in between my busy rehearsal period? However, strength training can happen within the dance classroom but can also happen outside the classroom, either in a gym setting or a quick workout in your living room. It doesn’t have to be something to be afraid of or daunting, the main aim is to actually continually strengthen the main muscles group. In between busy rehearsal periods, technique classes and daily life, dancers may not have time to spend hours and hours on strength training so it is about finding out and focusing on what is right for you and making an effective change. Whether this may be a Yoga class or a Pilates class, or spending some time in the gym on the weight machines.

The term ‘strength training’ should not worry dancers. As mentioned, dancers are worried about becoming ‘bulky’ or ruining the artistry of their movement, however strength training or the likes of lifting weights will not create a ‘bulky aesthetic’ when executed correctly alongside an appropriate stretching programme. For me, my regime is going to the gym and finding the right machines or weights for me and speaking to fitness professionals to gain advice. However, this is obviously not for everyone but it’s beneficial to recognise that strength training or lifting weights will not cause this myth of ‘bulkiness’, as this is usually combined with eating the necessary intake and training to the capacity it requires. From my own research and gaining advice from fitness advisors, strength training is going to increase muscle tone and improve strength with the right technique, without causing ‘bulk’.

It’s suggested that moving less weight and performing more repetitions within strength training will support this. For example, low resistance training, such as using 2kg dumbbells to perform a bicep curl and performing high repetitions, such as 12-15 reps twice will enable this build-up of strength. Young people, such as secondary age dancers, will more often be training using their own body weight rather than additional weights. It is possible to increase intensity and load by changing the position of the body. If we adapt the previous example, performing bicep curls using dumbbells to increase bicep strength, but instead adopt a press up position, students can choose from one of three options to increase the intensity and difficulty. They could be on ‘all fours’, with knees and hands on the floor. To increase the difficulty, they could move the hands forward further away from the knees, creating a diagonal line from shoulders to knees. Or they could support their weight with their hands and feet whilst performing a press up, therefore increase the size of the lever they are moving. It is completely dependent on the student’s own prior training, ability and capacity as to what they will be able to do – if they can perform 12 – 15 of the movement with ease, it’s too easy. If they are struggling to do 5, it’s too hard.

Whilst a dancer’s technique class focuses on teaching dancers the correct technique, doubled with preparing for performance, assessment and giving feedback, it leaves little room to focus on dancer’s conditioning needs. It is therefore recommended that dancers participate in supplementary training outside the classroom. Within the school environment, this can also be a way of promoting a healthy lifestyle and life-long love of exercise outside of school. Teenage students often enjoy Pilates or Yoga exercises, which can also be incorporated into a technique class. Plyometric training can also be incorporated into dance classes by engaging muscles necessary for muscular power and explosiveness such as the quadriceps. Incorporating a more cardio intense workout within the warm up can help to improve both cardiovascular and muscular endurance, and the body’s ability to continue working at a high intensity for longer periods. Finally, allowing students to work in partners to provide feedback for each, identify weaknesses and allow students to provide manual resistance for each other can be an effective notion of strength training.

Increasing a dancer’s overall body strength enables a dancer to become more versatile and allows them to experiment with the artistry of their movement. Strength training allows dancers to meet the needs that dance physically demands. Whether supplementary training is incorporated within the class room, outside the classroom in the gym or at home, a dancer will find what is right for them to build on their weakness and execute their ‘need’. Through research and speaking to professionals will soon build a picture of what is right for you.

References:

Chapter 4: Training Principles and Supplementary Fitness. In Quin E, Rafferty S & Tomlinson C. (2015) Safe Dance Practice. An Applied Dance Science Perspective. Champaign, Ill, USA: Human Kinetics.

Kozai, A. (2012). Supplementary Muscular Fitness Training for Dancers. The IADMS Bulletin for Teachers. 4(1). Available at: https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.iadms.org/resource/resmgr/Public/Bull_4-1_pp15-17_Kozai.pdf

The IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. (2014) 5(1). Special edition on supplementary training, available at: https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.iadms.org/resource/resmgr/Public/IADMS_Bulletin_DT_5-1.pdf