Cross training, where were you?
Through intricate, graceful movements, as dancers we train to deliver emotion – our bodies the instrument. Five years into my career, however, my knee very plainly said, “NO MORE, PLEASE!” In an earlier post we talked about dancing becoming more physically demanding. Ballet companies expect more from their dancers. Genres are beginning to blend. Different styles and different techniques are required. Yet our bodies have limits. How do we push past those limits? What can we do to break that boundary while maintaining good health?
Cross training is an excellent tool – I wish I’d been clued into it when I was dancing. The benefits are numerous: helping prevent injuries, breaking up the monotony of a regular training schedule, improving technique, keeping you in shape during layoffs and company breaks, extending your career, enabling you to be more versatile, increasing endurance, activating less used muscles.
Physical therapist Chris Fisher is a very familiar face around Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. For more than 19 years, he’s been visiting the studios on a regular schedule helping students remain physically healthy while dancing.
Let’s hear what this pro has to say on the subject of cross training.
A New Page: What are the top cross training activities/exercises NEEDED for a dancer’s body?
Chris Fisher: Core strengthening and stabilization of the spine is the most important. This includes mat and/or ball exercises with an instructor to raise the dancer’s awareness of spine position and control throughout the exercise. It helps prevent potential pelvic pain and dysfunction in girls and lumbar problems in males.
ANP: Dancers choosing to weight train worry about bulking up, taking away from the long and lean physique dancer’s bodies are known for. How can a dancer train properly?
CF: I certainly understand their concern. Endurance-focused lifting can improve strength while maintaining a lean look. Lifting should be in the 15-20-repetition range. It’s most important for young men to improve overhead lifting of partners, and a mild bulking of the shoulder girdle region supports an acceptable appearance.
ANP: Similarly, many worry cross training will make the dancer’s body tighter vs. maintaining critical flexibility.
CF: “Give” is good. Cross training such as swimming, biking, lifting, running, yoga, or Pilates will not cause a loss of flexibility, especially because a dancer will still be in ballet class stretching. Pilates is ideal because it incorporates mobility, flexibility and strengthening.
ANP: How does cross training help to avoid injury or come back from one?
CF: Core and spinal stabilization training can improve the dancer’s awareness of spine positional control and prevent stresses throughout normal dance movements. Exercises with a theraband (a latex resistance band or tube that is used for physical therapy and light strength training) help train the dancer to maintain end range hip turnout. This helps reduce knee and ankle pains associated with turning in. When an injury is present and a dancer is unable to perform jumps, they can prepare for jumping on a reformer to work on technique with less compression force. If they haven’t yet been permitted to perform barre in the classroom, working in a pool will help develop strength and mobility.
ANP: What is the perfect cross training ‘recipe’?
CF: First of all, it’s important to not over train. Dancers already take many classes that they shouldn’t add too much extra stress on their bodies. Core work should be performed 1-2x/week. For weight lifting, 2x/week is good. Super-sets are a way to increase strength and endurance by alternating sets quickly from one body part to another, such as rows and squats, 4 sets of 15-20 reps each or press ups alternating with planks. Stay with me here; lots of detail! (laughs) More aggressive strengthening may be performed at times when there are fewer classes. An example is plyometrics, used to improve jumping height. In these exercises the muscles exert maximum force in as short a time as possible with the goal of increasing both speed and power.
ANP: So, you’re having a crazy day that has left you no time to get out and cross train. What simple exercises can be done easily inside the studio without much equipment?
CF: First, I’ll say there is value in rest! The body needs recuperation time, so there’s nothing wrong with resting after a hectic day. With that said, this could be a time to focus on smaller muscles. Ankle theraband exercises or arch and toe exercises are great options since this won’t exhaust the body. If a dancer is concerned about maintaining turnout, they can work on hip stretches and end range turnout resisted exercises in the studio without too much energy. The hall can also be a great place to perform core between classes.
Writer’s Note: Now, there’s a wealth of information! Still craving more, here are two other interesting reads. A recent DanceTeacher Magazine article “Men of Steel” includes very practical suggestions for how male students can build strength while not bulking up. For us girls, here’s a Pointe Magazine “Cross Training for Technique” piece that includes very insightful non-dance exercise tips.