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"Do dancers really need strength training?"
Physiological, Social, & Cultural Perspectives

Compiled and written by: Robert Tsai, PT, DPT


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"Do dancers really need strength training?"

I came across a recent exchange on social media (yay social media) which centered around the thought, “do dancers really need strength training?” If you know me, then you know I love a good deep dive 😉

The short answer is, if strength training means your overall human self is primed to absorb, react, and learn, and can elevate the quality and effectiveness of your dance-specific training, then why not? 

The longer answer starts with the two thoughts below:

ONE, I do think this is a valid question as it’s easy to see that there are many dancers throughout history that have had wonderful careers without strength training being formally integrated part of their dance training culture and framework, and

TWO, to me this question opens up a few conversations about what strength training can be beyond a physical activity:
What are the conversations that can be facilitated?
What are the experiences to be had that contribute to the dancers’ whole understanding of self?

*Side Note: This article is written in the context and perspective of our work with artist-athletes operating at a pre-professional/professional level before or by high school age. 

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The Physiological Perspective

For many growing dancers, the time periods where we see an uptick of training demand often coincides with periods of significant growth and development. We’re asking dancers to do more and handle more during a time where the human body itself, on a basic fundamental level, is constantly processing new information - what is where, and where is what. Bones growing faster than muscles can adapt so we experience “weakness”. Arms and legs are longer, how do I handle that? How do I balance with a longer torso?

It is during these periods of change that are the best moments to build human physical robustness:
- Bone density and tendon resilience with appropriate loading.
- Increasing muscle strength for bone compression (and therefore, bone density!) 
- Coordination and control to manage movement dynamics. 

By exposing the young dancer to forces and variables beyond dance, we can carefully and purposely help the growing dancers adapt and learn to adapt. With what is known through science and research, we can address known risk factors related to dance injury. 

- Muscle strength for for stability
- Dynamic coordination and control 
- Spatial awareness and proprioception 

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The Cultural Perspective

Strength training is currently not regularly incorporated into the dance training experience in our youth dance communities. While strength training is not a “norm”, we are beginning to see generational differences in the perceptions of strength training in the dance community. 

Farmer, et al (2021) writes “that dancers are aware of the potential benefits of strength to both men and women and believe it is essential to their overall training, whereas teachers are a little more reluctant to agree… the results indicate that teachers do not support [strength training] to the same degree as dancers and do not view the enhancement of physiological parameters such as strength as imperative to the development of the dancer.” 

Particularly in the professional ballet world, there are a growing number of companies who we see incorporating intentional, purposeful, and scientifically-backed and evidenced-based strength training and support to their company members. 

For the growing youth artist-athlete, Mitchell, et al (2021) outlines the social experiences of ballet dancers in relationship to varying rates of growth and maturation, where:
“…having time to adjust was also related to knowing your body and getting comfortable with your body.”
“…dancers also perceived a lack of understanding of pubertal changes relating to teacher expectations of physical function and capacity.”

There are many avenues to have these conversations, and with our intention of curating a movement experience to facilitate these human conversations, strength training opens up these opportunities for dialogue for dancers to further understand and adapt to where they are are so they can set themselves up for where they want to be.

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The Reality of It All...

While the general recommendation is “no more hours than age in years”, the reality is that at a pre-professional and elite level, this is difficult to adhere to because we operate in a culture of “more is better”. 

So for us, the question then becomes this: Are you training with quantity or quality? 

With the influx of individuals dedicating themselves to the progress of dance science and education, we’re able to more confidently make informed decisions about how to prepare our dancers for their possible future careers, hopes and dreams.

Theoretically speaking:
- If being stronger means you can get more quality out of 1 hour of dance training vs 3 hours of dance training and yield the same results, why wouldn’t you do it?

- If being more resilient means you can train for 2 hours instead of fatiguing at 1 hour, why wouldn’t you do it? 

- If establishing strong foundations early on means you can sustain your dance/movement career, and your post-dance career (whatever that may be), why wouldn’t you do it?

It’s only been a few short years working closely with our immediate dance community here in Orange County. but those few short years have extensively informed our approach to what healthcare support possibilities are for the growing artist-athlete, and what those long term effects can be.

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the DANCE|PREHAB Perspective

At DANCEPREHAB, we view strength training for dancers, not only as a physical act, but a space and experience to learn, grow, and build human habits for sustainability throughout the artists’ journey: 

Strength training can help young dancers build robust physiological baselines that have positive lifelong effects.

For many dancers, establishing strong human foundations is “reactive” - we are only placed in these environments and circumstances to learn these things after an injury. In our opinion, the spaces to learn these things can absolutely happen before. We can mold strong dancers and promote sustainability alongside the ever changing physical demand of dance - but we also need spaces to guide them to be strong humans (in all senses). 

Strength training can provide dancers with exposure to fundamental human movement patterns that they might not be exposed to in dance.
In our collaborations with dancers, families, and teachers in the rehab and healing process, there is often a huge amount of time and energy devoted to teaching “basic” human movements - movements and awareness that can be established before hand - squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, etc. Working with dancers who have a solid foundational understanding of movement means we can maximize on efficient recovery and not “learning a new movement vocabulary”.

Being able to expose dancers to strength training also means they can build a different concept of what effort is. How often do dancers get the chance to throw heavy things around? How often do they get to run, skip, jump in human ways?

Strength training can open a space for conversations that dance may not always provide. 

In our immediate community of (mostly) youth/preadolescent movers, the strength training movement experience helps to navigate physical change (and inherently, mental and emotional shifts associated with physical changes). In our current culture of instant gratification, attention-seeking, and perfectionism, we have the opportunity to center progress, consistency, sustainability, and the diligent work. Amidst their ever-evolving dance journeys and lives, these moments provide the space and time for our dancers to be seen and heard.

At DANCEPREHAB, we believe that movement is an experience, and experiences inform the mover. For us, building foundations means that you can extend yourself into various places as you explore your artistry in whatever movement of your choosing. Strong foundations means you can trust yourself to handle and adapt to what is thrown at you. In recovery, we may redirect our attention to the specific area(s) that need care, but we source ourselves from the same foundation to ultimately continue to sustain and foster a forward-thinking training mentality. 

Let’s move!