Strength Training for Ballet Dancers

For those of you that don’t know, I was a dancer from age 3-22. I was classically trained in ballet, modern, and jazz, and when I was in college I learned tap.

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That’s me! Circa 2006

Dance was my life when I was growing up. I wanted to be a professional ballerina when I was little. I danced at least 5 days a week, sometimes 6, taking classes after school and spending my whole Saturday in rehearsals. I was in The Nutcracker every year. My parents must have spent thousands on classes, pointe shoes, leotards, tights, and hair pins.

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Also me. Not sure of my age here, but I’d guess 12

I had wonderful teachers, all of whom are well-respected in the dance world. We used to joke that we saw our teachers more than our families, but it was kind of true! We were with them for so many hours a week they basically raised us. In fact, I wrote my college essay on how dance prepared me for life!

One thing my teachers never really talked to us about was strength training. I believe the subject of using weights and strength training isn’t talked about enough in the dance world.

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Growing up, I never went to the gym. I never worked out. I never lifted a weight. I thought that dance was all the exercise I needed. Let’s just say I surprised a lot of people when I went the exercise science route in college!

It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that strength training could be extremely beneficial for ballet dancers. I had a bunch of injuries growing up that still sometimes bother me to this day-the worst ones being my low back and my knees. When I started doing strength training and lifting weights, those injuries started bothering me less and less. Even though I thought I was pretty strong (I could stand on my toes, after all), I soon came to realize that I wasn’t. At all. My lack of core strength was causing my low back pain. Once I started doing more leg work, my knee pain eased up.

My training was able to fix what years of physical therapy could not. I can now squat almost 200 lbs with no pain. I can deadlift more than double my bodyweight with no pain.

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From barres to barbells!

 

The dancers that I’ve had as clients are always hesitant when I hand them weights. But their results speak for themselves. They become stronger, more powerful, more flexible, and typically have less pain in their joints.

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We were never really encouraged to exercise. We definitely did a lot of core work and yoga-type stuff in modern and jazz class, but we never did anything with weights or resistance. During summer camp, (which was 9-5, M-F, for 6 weeks), we always had nutrition classes and sometimes yoga, pilates, or stretching classes. But why didn’t we strength train?

I decided to ask some dancers for their opinions on strength training as a supplement to ballet training. I created a survey that asked a bunch of questions like:

-Did you ever do any strength training to supplement your ballet training?
-What types of strength training did you do?
-If you did not strength train, why not?
-Did anyone ever tell you specifically NOT to strength train?

Before I get into the results, just wanted to say a quick thank you to everyone who took my survey!! I had a lot more response than I was expecting, which was great!!

I realized as I was starting to get responses to my survey that I should have been a little more clear with one of my questions. Of 16 people, 4 are current dancers and 12 are former dancers. Of the 4 current dancers, 1 does not do any strength training, and 3 do. Of the 12 former, 5 said they never did any strength training and 7 said they did strength training.

Here’s where I should have been a little more clear: when asked what type of strength training they do, almost all the responses were yoga, pilates, or physical therapy exercises. Only 2 people said they used weights.

The definition I provided for strength training was: “physical exercise specializing in the use of resistance to induce muscular contraction which builds the strength, anaerobic endurance, and size of skeletal muscles”.

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I really should have asked if they used weights, resistance bands, or cable machines, because that’s what I’m looking for here. While yoga and pilates are great, and can be considered strength training depending on the type, for this article I’m mainly talking about using weights.

Here’s where the responses got interesting:

When asked why they didn’t strength train, the most popular answers were:
-lack of time due to dance schedule
-lack of knowledge about why they should strength train
-lack of encouragement from teachers to strength train

When asked if they had ever been told not to strength train, I got different variations of the same answer:

“We were always told that dancers shouldn’t be too bulky, and that strength training would bulk up the wrong muscles and ruin our lines”

Can you imagine my eyes rolling? They’re rolling HARD.

In a study done by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in August of 1990, the effects of supplemental weight training were researched on college-aged female ballet dancers over the course of 9 weeks. Interestingly, I could not find any studies that were more recent. However, the results would not change if this was done today.

The study looked at how weight training effected lower body strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, muscle size, and technique. Their training program focused mainly on lower body training. They had 3 weight training sessions per week in addition to their normal 4-day a week dance schedule. The results were:

-15.1% increase in adductor strength
-6.6% increase in lateral hip flexibility
-49.5% increase in anaerobic power
-significant increase in muscular endurance
-overall increased performance in ballet technique and precision
NO increase in limb circumference and size

The study concluded that supplemental weight training for ballet dancers can improve functional leg strength, endurance, and anaerobic power without interfering with the artistic and physical performance requirements of ballet.

So….dancers…..you don’t have to worry about becoming too bulky! Unless you are specifically training to increase the size of your muscles, you will not become “too bulky” to be a ballerina. It blows my mind that people still believe that picking up a weight will automatically make them bulky! And it blows my mind even MORE that dance teachers are still telling their students this. You’re scaring your dancers away from doing something that has the potential to be extremely beneficial for them and for their performance.

Let’s go back to why dancers don’t do any strength training:

-lack of time due to dance schedule: like I mentioned above, I spent so many hours at my dance studio, and none of them were dedicated to strength training. I know how jam-packed dance schedules can get. I’ve lived it! Weight training should be worked INTO the dancer’s current curriculum. Add a 30-min weight training class after their normal ballet class, or take one class out and replace it with a weight training class. Don’t assume your students are going to do it on their own!

-lack of knowledge about why they should strength train: hopefully this article provides some more information for any dancers out there who don’t know why weight training is important for them. I can also be a resource for you if you have any other questions after reading this. I’ve trained dancers in the past, and I’ve seen first hand how weight training is helpful!

-lack of encouragement from teachers: hopefully, if any dance teachers read this, they will start encouraging their students a little more. Again, this is something that needs to be worked into their current training. I hope that dance teachers do some research and educate themselves on the benefits of weight training for ballet dancers. If it’s that you don’t know what exercises to do or how to program strength training, keep reading! I’ve provided some information on that below!

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The type of weight training that ballet dancers do is also important. Dancers should use light to medium (as in, not maximal) weights and do higher rep schemes, meaning 12-15 reps of each exercise. The weight should be heavy enough that your muscles will be tired after 15 reps. If you complete 15 reps and feel like you can do another 10, the weight is too light. If you complete 15 reps and the last 2-3 were hard, the weight is probably good. If you can only get 10 reps, the weight is too heavy.

This helps increase muscular endurance and will not add size to the  muscle.

Make sure you’re hitting opposing muscle groups to keep yourself balanced-combine a lower back exercise with an abdominal exercise, combine a hamstring exercise with a quadriceps exercise, combine a chest exercise with an upper back exercise, etc.

Ballet dancers should supplement their dance training with weight training 2-3 times per week with 30-40 min sessions. Start with 2, 30-min sessions a week and increase as the dancer gets stronger. Use free weights, resistance bands, cables, kettlebells, and balls. Encourage your dancers to join a gym and make sure you give them time to go! Or, purchase some equipment for your studio and add weight training classes to your schedule.

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I hope that this is an eye-opener for both ballet dancers and ballet teachers. Strength training is important for everyone. Just taking ballet classes is not enough! I learned that the hard way, through injury. Since I started working in the health and fitness industry, I’ve tried to help as many dancers as I could! I never had anyone telling me to weight train, helping me weight train, or encouraging me to go to the gym. I always love to see how dancers improve with the help of weight training. I’m happy that most of the current dancers that I surveyed said they do strength training, but I hope that more dancers add weights to their training and aren’t scared of lifting! It will only help you! 🙂

 

If you are a dancer and are interested in getting help to start a weight training program, you might be a good match for my online training. Please shoot me an email or contact me on Facebook to get started!

If you are a teacher or studio owner and are interested in having me come talk to your dancers about the importance of weight training, please let me know! I am more than happy to do a seminar or even teach classes at your studio.

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3 thoughts on “Strength Training for Ballet Dancers

  1. Pingback: Friday Faves 7/29

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