From American Dancer Magazine, November/December 2015.
Fitness programming can be challenging for dancers because much of the advice in fitness magazines, websites, and journal articles targets sedentary populations or physique athletes.
Dancers have unique goals and it can be difficult to achieve them by following conventional fitness advice. For some dancers, concerns about body composition, excessive muscle mass, flexibility, mobility, athletic power, and training efficiency lead to “safe” decisions that accomplish very little. Others make “extreme” or drastic decisions that result in fatigue or injury.
Optimal decisions are made by defining personally significant goals, understanding the effects of available training practices, and implementing goal-directed fitness plans. Below are three examples of areas in which optimal decision making is important.
FLEXIBILITY OR MOBILITY?
Flexibility refers to the ability to lengthen muscles and mobility concerns the range of motion at the joint. The importance of this distinction becomes clear when you consider the commonly reported problem of poor mobility at the hip. In an attempt to correct this problem, it might seem reasonable to stretch tight hamstrings or hip flexors. Perhaps it also seems logical to hold the stretch for an extended period of time, because doing so might “coax” the muscle into playing along.
If you’ve gone down this road, you’ve probably noticed that your body doesn’t seem to respond as you’d hoped, that it fights back, and that the flexibility you appear to achieve after a good 30 minutes of stretching seems to disappear the next day. Although disappointing, this outcome isn’t surprising, given that the body relies on a protective factor–a stretch reflex that helps to prevent muscle tears.
The “safe” response is to give up and accept what appears to be an unfortunate lack of flexibility that can’t be defeated.
The “extreme” response is to push harder next time, attempt to force that stubborn muscle to respond, and eventually scream in agony after tearing a muscle.
Clearly, neither approach is particularly effective for achieving the original goal. Rather than using passive, static, and aggressive methods to lengthen the muscle, consider dynamic joint mobility exercises that explore the range of motion required for actively performing dance movements. Examples include lunges, hip circles, and active leg lifts.
Also, in some cases, mobility limitations are due to a lack of strength in muscles surrounding or opposing the target muscle. For example, tight hamstrings might be due to weak hip flexors, and tight hip flexors might be due to weak glutes. In these cases, strengthening exercises are more effective than stretching for improving mobility.
WEIGHT OR VOLUME?
Resistance training has considerable value for the dancer. Field experiments have demonstrated that dancers who participate in adjunct strength training programs display greater improvements in movement quality than those who merely “dance more.”
Despite these findings, the practice of resistance training with weights remains controversial. Much of the debate appears to be due to concerns about impaired mobility or developing excessive muscle mass that would be more appropriate for a bodybuilding competition than a dance floor. Given that movement quality and maintaining the dance aesthetic are critical aspects of dance performance, this skepticism is understandable.
The “safe” response is to lift light weights, and to replace barbell exercises that target multiple muscle groups with dumbbell and cable exercises that mimic dance movements. The “extreme” response is to avoid resistance training altogether.
The optimal decision depends on training goals and knowledge of training method efficacy. Although many dancers hope to improve strength, power, and body composition, their workouts don’t match their goals.
Strength is absolute force production. It’s optimally developed through low-volume training with relatively heavy weight. Power is a combination of strength and speed. It’s developed by moving moderately heavy weight quickly and explosively, or through plyometrics and interval training.
Body composition is determined by the proportions of lean and fat mass in the body. Lean mass is optimally developed through moderate-volume training with moderately heavy weight, and fat mass is reduced by creating a negative energy balance through diet or activity.
Unfortunately, the “light weight, high volume” approach favored by many cautious dancers is unlikely to provide meaningful improvements in strength, power, or body composition. This strategy is useful for developing muscular endurance, but endurance is rarely a problem for dancers who practice for hours each day. Goal-directed decision making is important here. The approach to resistance training should be compatible with dancers’ goals.
GENERALIST OR SPECIALIST?
CrossFit, fitness boot camps, and other programs that combine training methods have become quite popular. Most include calisthenics, gymnastics, intervals, Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, kettlebells, and mobility work. For someone with limited workout experience aside from dance training, all-in-one group exercise classes might seem like a “safe” option for improving general fitness. And the attractiveness of achieving then beating personal records can lead to a more “extreme” focus on competition and advanced fitness in all areas.
Although this style of training offers variety, challenge, and camaraderie, the reliance on generalist programming limits its value to athletes. At the highest levels of every major sport, sport-specific training dominates. The same should be true with dance training. Rather than attempting to develop all aspects of fitness in each workout, identify athletic deficits, and develop a targeted training program to address them. There’s nothing wrong with generalist workouts if you find them enjoyable, but for dance fitness development, they’re less than optimal.
Relying on “safe” or “extreme” methods to develop dance-specific fitness is a poor use of time and strategy. Don’t set yourself up for frustration, exhaustion, or injury. Be an educated dancer, make optimal fitness decisions, and give yourself the opportunity to dance your best.
Joel Minden, Ph.D., is Director of the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), lecturer at California State University, Chico, and International Standard dancer. His website is www.joelminden.com.