Compiled and written by: Robert Tsai, PT, DPT
In a variety of sports, strength training has been a staple when it comes to improving performance. Culturally, strength-specific training has not been a part of dance training, in part due to stigmas, fears, and myths regarding strength training in the performing arts community.
What if you were able to have more time in the air? What if you had more control of your movements? What if you knew how to prepare yourself to consistently perform the way you wanted to?
At DANCE|PREHAB, we believe strength training should be a purposeful and consistent part of dance training in order to develop our human capabilities, build strong human foundations so that we may dance stronger and dance longer.
In this article, we will take a look at 5 questions:
✓ What is strength?
✓ What do we know about strength in dancers?
✓ What dance-related injuries are associated with decreased strength?
✓ What happens the the human body when we strength train?
✓ What happens when dancers incorporate strength training + general guidelines?
"Strength", put simply, is your body's ability to produce and exert force. Being able to produce power, muscle endurance, and speed to dance efficiently will all have some aspect of strength in them.
Dancers, educators, and parents should understand that improvements in strength, power, and control will depend largely on neuromuscular (nerve-to-muscle or muscle-to-nerve) connections. Signals are sent from the brain, delivered to our muscles via the nervous system to the muscles, to allow the dancer to move, leap, balance, control and sense their bodies in space.
Strength (and increases in strength) will depend several things such as:
- the ability for your muscle fibers to contract.
- the connections between your muscle and nerves/nervous system.
- the ability of your nervous system (aka your brain) to control your muscles.
Additionally, nutrition, adequate rest, and mental health and wellness also play significant roles in performance enhancement.
Note: None of these options are "must have big muscles".
Research consistently shows that dance-only training (particularly in ballet/contemporary forms of dance) do not provide enough stimuli to enhance or increase fitness levels.
Poor aerobic fitness and fatigue is related to dance-related injuries. The faster our bodies get tired, the more difficult it becomes to control our limbs and perform complex movements.
Dancers need to possess different types of strength in order to perform slow and controlled movements (adagios, or sustained choreography), but also produce movements with increased force exertion (jumps, kicks).
For effective strength training, forces utilized must be beyond what that they are accustomed to (in our case, dance-only training). This can be achieved through resistance exercises, or varying the number of repetitions or sets.
With the amount of training and activity dancers are exposed to nowadays, it is not unreasonable to assume that a dancer will at some point in their life sustain some kind of injury.
Studies show that dancers have up to 90% risk of injury during their careers, with the majority - around 75% - of injuries occurring in the lower extremities (lower back, knee, ankle, etc). Inadequate muscle strength and power while simultaneously working in extreme and joint end-ranges increases risks of dance-related injury.
- Reduced thigh muscle strength is associated with increased injury severity in dancers.
- Muscle Strains: Decreased low body muscular power and eccentric strength is a risk factor in dance-related injuries.
(e.g. ability of your muscles to “put on the brakes”, such as landing from a jump)
- Ligament Sprains: Decreased strength may result in over-reliance on structures such as ligaments and joint capsules, resulting in sprains and overuse injuries.
Overuse injuries: Often associated with poor training technique. On top of decreased strength levels, compensations, and poor adaptive strategies, many dancers may only continue to set themselves up for further injuries later in their careers.
Dancers with "snapping hip" or "IT band syndrome" often present with decreased strength AND decreased control of hip stabilizing musculature.
Strength training allows for more nerve-muscle connections to be made. The more nerve-muscle connections we make, the more efficiently and effectively our brain is able to use our muscles.
For dancers, the main goal of strength training is to emphasize the neuromuscular ability of the individual. With the proper training methods, dancers are able to activate and utilize a larger percentage of their muscles to accomplish a performance task or desired movement.
First, some terms!
Our muscle structure consists of:
- Slow twitch fibers - “low level, long lasting force." These muscle fibers are activated with lower loads.
- Fast twitch fibers - “less resistance to fatigue, but are meant for intermittent and high force production, such as lifting and jumping." These muscle fibers require higher loads and demands to be recruited.
*Genetics play a role in how much of each type of of muscle fiber we possess
(eg. professional sprinters = more fast twitch muscles, endurance runners = more slow twitch muscles.
However, strength training is more than just “building muscle”. Something that dancers who are afraid of “bulking up” need to realize is that strength training can be designed to maintain and/or improve neuromuscular function without compromising dance aesthetics.
Muscle contractions to produce movement occur due to the motor unit - muscle-nerve connections. Increases in muscle power are generally a result of...
(1) increasing recruitment of the motor unit (more regions of muscle firing)
(2) increased rate of neural firing (increased overall force production)
(3) greater synchronization and coordination of neural firing (more regions of the muscle firing together.
Through specifically tailored programs, dancers can develop their neuromuscular systems to increase activation and efficiency of muscle groups. Younger dancers would especially benefit from strength and weight training (see article). Several studies have looked at the benefit of strength training in dancers. While the frequency and duration of the specific exercise programs are varied*, dancers who strength trained were able to:
- Increase vertical jump height and also demonstrated improvements in dance-specific performance ability.
- Demonstrate improved jumping endurance.
- Demonstrate improved ability to point feet during a jump.
- Improve performances of extension a la seconde and arabesque.
- Improve in strength and endurance without increased muscle size, preserving dance aesthetic.
Strength exercises are also recommended to assist with building bone density in female dancers to prevent osteoporosis.
While strength training may not look like dance, increased and consistent strength training may provide the dancer with a stronger foundation from which to work. When well-prepared, the dancer can focus on enhancing technique and artistry rather than focusing on ability to complete movements.
"If a child is ready for participating in sporting activities, (generally age 7 or 8), then [they] are ready for some type of resistance training."
"...the act of resistance training in and of itself does not ensure that favorable changes... rather, individual effort combined with a well-designed training program ultimately will determine the adaptations that take place.
Young dancers with pre-existing conditions should also consult a medical professional prior to engaging in resistance training to determine appropriate levels of participation. "Youth with uncontrolled hypertension, seizure disorders, or a history of childhood cancer and chemotherapy should be withheld from participation until additional treatment or evaluation."
- Provide qualified instruction and close supervision
- Ensure exercise environment is safe and free of hazards
- Begin each session with a dynamic warm-up
- Practice all lifts without weights to make sure form and technique are correct. As techniques are mastered, weight can be slowly added.
- Work all major muscle groups including the core. Joint should be moved through a full range of motion.
- Warm up and cool down for at least 10 minutes
- Perform 2-3 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions
- Train 2-3 times per week for 20-30 minutes
- Train for a minimum of 8 weeks
- Include aerobic training along with strength training.
- Brown, A., et al. 2020. Effects of Plyometric Training Versus Traditional Weight Training on Strength, Power, and Aesthetic Jumping Ability in Female Collegiate Dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 11(2), pp.38-44.
- Deleget, A. Overview of Thigh Injuries in Dance. J Dance Med Sci. 2010;14(3):97-102
- Girard, J., Koenig, K. and Village, D., 2015. The effect of strength and plyometric training on functional dance performance in elite ballet and modern dancers. Physical Therapy Reviews, 20(4), pp.233-240.
- Haff, G. and Triplett, N., 2016. Essentials Of Strength And Conditioning. 4th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Koutedakis, Y., et al. 2009. Muscular Strength: Applications for Dancers. Medical Problems of Performing Artists: 24(4), pp. 157
- Koutedakis Y, Stavropoulos-Kalinoglou A, Metsios G. The significance of muscular strength in dance. J Dance Med Sci. 2005;9(1):29-34.
- Koutedakis Y., et al. Thigh peak torques and lower body injuries in dancers. J Dance Med Sci. 1997;1(1):12-5.
- Twitchett, E., et al. 2010. Does Physical Fitness Affect Injury Occurrence and Time Loss Due to Injury in Elite Vocational Ballet Students. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 14(1), pp.26-31.