Dance and Weight Training: A Perfect Pas de deux?

Photo courtesy Richard Foster

Photo courtesy Richard Foster

It seems an unnatural partnership. Big, bulky bodies throwing around weights in the gym can hardly complement the needs of a dancer for strength, flexibility, agility, grace, and performance quality. Weight training is rife with stereotypes that have generally kept dancers off of the power racks and stuck on Pilates and Elliptical machines.
Upon closer investigation, weight training couldn’t be a more perfect compliment to dance training.

A basic principle of training (for sport, health, rehabilitation, etc) is called specificity. Essentially, specificity means that the muscles you work out are the muscles that get worked out. An individual who does bicep curls all day long isn’t going to get a strong back; a person who does only crunches might get six pack abs, but not much else. Specificity also applies to types of activities, and the demands of that activity, sport, etc. For example, if you want to get better at running, you run. Want to become better at swimming? Swim. If you want to get better at dancing, dance.

Sort of.

It gets a little complicated here because sometimes a piece of choreography calls for movements that aren’t necessarily covered by a basic ballet class. To truly follow the law of specificity, we need to look at dance differently and dissect our training to ensure it matches the demands of our performances. The beauty in weight training lies in its ability to adapt to the needs of the client.

And clients, in my humble opinion, should include dancers!

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with a few of the top myths about weight training.

Top Three Myths about Weight Training:

1. Lifting heavy will make you big.

Lifting weights won’t make you big unless you follow a specific formula for Hypertrophy (the “get big” program). Women aren’t likely to get big unless they try really, really, really hard, and even then they may only get big with the assistance of drugs. The thing is, an increase in muscular size is attributed, in large part, to the presence of hormones in the body. The way a person organizers his/her training variables maximizes the release of these hormones during exercise, and one of the big players here is testosterone. Women, as I’m sure you are aware, have MUCH less testosterone than men, and are therefore MUCH less likely to get big.

So now that that’s out of the way, you might be thinking: “Men dancers don’t really want to get big either.” Fair, but again, lifting heavy doesn’t make you big. A hypertrophy program dictates a moderate weight, for a moderate number of repetitions, in order to obtain a short to moderate rest period, so the client can capitalize off of that hormone release. Lifting really heavy will require longer rest periods, and the hormone response dissipates during rest. This is a common misconception of many “bros,” too – they lift as much as possible thinking that in order to get big, they have to lift big. Lifting heavy ( > 85% 1RM) will make you strong, not big. And if we are thinking about male dancers here, doing body weight activity only, or rocking out those tiny pink dumbbells does little to prepare them to haul a 125 pound beauty above their heads in an arabesque press.

2. Weightlifting leads to injury.

Sure it can, but if we’re being honest, here, dance causes injury, not weightlifting. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself (again). Let’s get some basic distinctions out of the way before moving forward here:

Weight Training is a catch all term for resistance training – adding a load to your basic body-weight movements in an organized fashion with the purpose of gaining strength, building size (hypertrophy), increasing muscular endurance, or improving power. Injury is primarily caused by trauma, a lack of proper technique, compromising weight over form, overtraining, or a combination of these things.

Powerlifting is a competitive sport consisting of back squat, bench press, and deadlift. The objective is to lift as much weight as possible, so the goal of powerlifting is typically maximal strength (despite the name).

Weightlifting (also referred to as Olympic Weightlifting) is also a competitive sport. These are the men an women in the little unitards hauling big colored barbells over their heads in the Olympics’ late night show. Again, the name is deceiving, because the primary lifts performed in Weightlifting – Clean & Jerk and Snatch – require power (unlike Powerlifting, which requires strength).

Confused? Don’t be. The overall point here is that there are different kinds of lifting weights, and ALL of them have a relatively low rate of injury compared to other sports.

Sports Injuries (Per 100 participant hours in school sports)
Track and Field 0.57
Soccer 6.20
Basketball 0.03
Football 0.10
Gymnastics 0.044
Powerlifting 0.0027
Tennis 0.001
Volleyball 0.0013
Weightlifting 0.0017
Weight Training 0.0035
Source: USA Weightlifting

Dancers are not included here, but if we consider that dance and gymnastics share similar demands, particularly with today’s fancy choreography, we can probably assume that it’s not lifting weights that is getting us injured. Perhaps dancers should avoid playing soccer, however…

3. Dancers should focus on “cardio” for weight loss and endurance.

Weight training is a great way to “tone” the body. It burns fat and builds muscle efficiently, raises metabolism, and creates that lean body that everyone wants. If you consider the demands of dance on the dancer, class and choreography typically call for short bursts of explosive or powerful movements. If we believe in that fundamental principle of specificity (we do), rocking out 45 minutes on the elliptical machine is not going to be helpful in achieving better power or strength.

Cardio training is useful for a dancer when stamina is required. For example, if your choreography involves a continuous jogging and hopping pattern around the stage for 15 minutes, then taxing the cardiovascular system at a moderate intensity is a really good idea. That 50-second Chinese variation in the Nutcracker uses a different metabolic system – it’s essentially a high intensity interval. So, to get better at high intensity activities, you’ve got to train at a high intensity. Plyometric training, kettle bell swings, treadmill sprints, and -cough- Olympic Weightlifting are excellent ways to tax the metabolic pathway you’ll need to utilize in that short variation. Not to toot my own horn, but, toot.

Vocab words:

Hypertrophy – An overall increase in muscular size, brought on by a specific training protocol that capitalizes on the hormonal response to exercise.

1RM – One Repetition Maximum. A basic test of strength in which an individual successfully lifts as much weight as possible for a given exercise one time. 1RM assessments follow a specific protocol ramping up weight to a maximal level over the course of four to five sets.

Muscular Endurance – The ability of a muscle to sustain a moderate level of force for an extended period of time. Endurance training programs typically consist of low weight, high numbers of repetitions, and limited rest.

Power – is defined as a function of force and velocity. With increased power, an individual is able to produce high speed, explosive movements.

Lauren Warnecke
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance dance writer based in Chicago, and regular contributor to SeeChicagoDance.com, Windy City Times, and Chicago Magazine. Lauren is the creator of artintercepts.org, a blog committed to critical discourse about dance and performance, and has written for nationally reputed sites such as Dance Advantage and 4Dancers. An experienced educator, administrator, and producer, Lauren holds degrees in dance (BA) and kinesiology (MS). She is a Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM), and holds specialty certificates in Functional Training (ACE) and Sports Performance and Weightlifting (USAW).
Lauren Warnecke
Lauren Warnecke
Lauren Warnecke

Comments

  1. Ah i love this post! I’m a huge fan of plyometrics and use certain plyometric training to improve my student’s jumps, leaps and balance. I’ve seen great success with it, so hopefully everyone will start to recognize the value it has.

  2. Excellent article! I have a series of fitness classes at my studio my dancers take to improve muscular imbalances, gain strength, speed, and prevent injury. Having danced and weight trained for most of my life, I believe they certainly are a great pair!

  3. Big fan of plyometrics too! Also have known some incredible male dancers that attribute their rapid advance and success in dance to when they started weight training under the guidance of a trained professional. Have to say though, the photo in the article is a bit in poor taste (too say it nicely).

    • My apologies if the photo is found offensive in some way. There is sincerely no innuendo or joke intended!

      • Hi Melanie! One of the points I really wanted to make in the article was to advocate for Olympic Weight Lifting as a complimentary training method for dancers. The form of OWL is completely different than dance, and the photo selected was intended to demonstrate these differences. Perhaps an anterior view would have been preferable, however the original photo exhibited really nice form for the snatch (an OWL lift). You can see this in the video I linked to as well – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhB0xewq31Y – which is a demo of me performing these lifts. We certainly didn’t mean to offend anyone by using a photo from the posterior view!

  4. Gina-Nicole Caputo says:

    Thank you for posting another great article. As a professional performer (a few contracts for major Cruiselines) who has done everything from ballet to belly dancing, jazz to jive, salsa to swing, I can’t agree more on how important it is to build strength. Many dancers, including colleagues that I have performed with, are absolutely clueless on fitness training and have no idea what they are doing at the gym- or are too intimidated to even go to the gym! On my last contract, I did a 20 minute swing show that was harder than doing my Insanity workouts! It’s so important for dancers to know how to exercise and train their bodies properly. THANK YOU for the informative article and for all you do for the dance community!

  5. IT is a JOKE, to see people giving advice in their training videos whilst showing bad technique but then advocating in this video, that other people trying to do olympic lifts need “their assistance”.
    for most dancers olympic weight lifting is way too dangerous and using olympic weightlifting to boost cardio is plain stupid.

    • Thanks for your comment Patrick. I don’t claim to be an expert on Olympic Weightlifting, but I do believe that it could be a useful tool if safely integrated into a dancer’s lexicon. I also didn’t advocate for OWL as a method of cardio- quite the opposite as I mentioned that dancers sometimes focus too heavily on cardio and it has little purpose for them. The fact that you view OWL as too dangerous for most dancers seems, in my view, problematic… Partnering sometimes replicates these movements, but with another person rather than a bar overhead. That seems more dangerous than OWL, So my perspective is that clean and jerk or snatch could be used to train lifts without a partner. It’s not my goal to suggest that dancers should attempt these lifts without a qualified trainer, so thank you for pointing that out. In the future I will make that distinction more clear.

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