Back Strengthening for Dancers

Background

  • Myth: strength training compromises dance aesthetics
  • Fact: strength improves dance aesthetics (ROM, perceived effort of movement)
  • Performing repetitive movements may lead to compensatory patterns, causing weakness & muscular imbalance
  • Strength training
    • Movement performed with control through full ROM
    • Progressive overload: gradually increase resistance/reps, duration or speed
    • Variety is essential; Same program = same results
    • 6-10 week back strength training program maintained strength gains for 1 year after
      • Improved performance (greater ROM, less fatigue, more “fluid” movements), less chance of developing back pain, correct imbalances

As a physical therapist and strength training coach for dancers are Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises I often hear from dancers that they don’t workout at the gym because

1. They do “enough” in rehearsals and

2. They don’t want to become “bulky”.

I definitely agree that the performers I treat for dance injuries at Royal Caribbean and Celebrity spend a considerable time rehearsing. On average, about 6-8 hours a day for 6 days a week… For at least 1 1/2 months and at most 3 months (longer shows, longer rehearsal process for dancers).

However, if you only train to dance at that level in rehearsals, you can only perform up to that level. Never above. Why? Because you are not training your muscles or heart to exceed those expectations. This is why strength training outside of rehearsals or technique training is so important. 

The below graph demonstrates the difference in level of intensity between rehearsing, performing and strength training. The intensity of rehearsing is often significantly less than the intensity of performing. The difference between these intensities is often the “gray zone” for injury. If you train below the level of your performance, the body will not be capable of handling that much stress.

By engaging in planned & strategic strength training program, we are developing our muscles, heart and brain to execute above what is required to perform.

Performing will be a breeze.

The second issue, “bulkiness” is a combination of

1. Most likely never receiving proper instruction in strength training for dancers (very common in my experience over the past years) and

2. Not understanding how the body works. 

Don’t get me wrong- dancers especially have a unique appreciation for aesthetics & looking really good when moving. Its just the science thats lacking. 

I hope to clear these two misconceptions up.

In an article by Tom Welsh of FSU, “Back Strengthening for Dancers”, he describes how a back strengthening program not only improved back strength (surprise, surprise!), but also improved the range of motion with an arabesque and reduced the risk of lower back injury. 

These gains were maintained for a year after the 6-10 week program was implemented. 

One very important issue Dr. Welsh brought up in the article is “Strength is an explicit element in some athletic endeavors, but it remains a hidden ability in dancers.” 

Well, thats just a nice way of saying that most dancers lack a solid strength training program, for whatever reason.

He later describes what I find very often in dancers, that additional training will result in a loss of beauty and aesthetic appearance in dance. While this is not only a myth, the complete opposite is true!

Prescribing a proper strength training program doesn’t have to be rocket science. But certain principles, once understood, can be easily applied to dancers of all types, ages & experience. 

Other challenges include accommodating time schedules, muscle fatigue or soreness, and program design that includes proper periodization (scheduling) to progress the training while simultaneously reducing the risk of injury.

With the help of a strength training coach (Hey thats me!) who understands a dancers ambition, goals and athletic drive, the proper program can push you, the competitive dancer, to new heights (literally). 

Here are IADMS recommendations for strength training:

IADMS Education Committee Recommendations for Strength Training 

  • Choose an exercise that focuses effort on the muscles you want to strengthen.
  • Use perfect alignment; stop if you begin to compensate.
  • Add enough resistance so you can complete the movement almost 8 times without compensating.
  • Move with control through the full range of motion.
  • Gradually increase repetitions until you can do 12 without compensating.
  • When doing 12 repetitions is easy, increase the resistance by a small amount (~5%) and do as many repetitions as you can without compensating (~8 reps).
  • Repeat the pattern of increasing repetitions, then adding a small amount of resistance until you have a little more strength than you think you need.
  • Perform the exercise two or three times a week to increase strength.
  • Perform the exercise at least once a week to maintain strength.
  • Increase repetitions to 20 or more (without compensation) to build endurance.
  • Consult a fitness trainer for help if you want to build power.

Back Strengthening for Dancers.Tom Welsh, Ph.D., Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, USA. IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. Volume 6, Number 2, 2015