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The value of strength and conditioning training to classical ballet training

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

By Dr Paul Sinnadurai.

Level 4 Strength and Conditioning Coach, Olympic Weight-lifting Coach, Youth Training Specialist and Ballet Teacher based in Brecon.

Hello, I’m providing a brief overview of the value of strength and conditioning training for dancers. During my dance training a long time ago, I was fortunate that my school included two S&C classes per week and advised students strongly to attend the gym at least twice per week too. There is still a way to go, however, until all ballet schools recognise the value of S&C to students’ overall development and acquisition of valuable life habits and, of course, it’s of equal value to professional dancers. Elite sportspeople are supported by strength and conditioning coaches but in general, outside a few major institutions, ballet dancers are not.

The foundation of any physical activity is strength first, followed by the activity- / sport-specific skillsets. Grounded in science, strength and conditioning as opposed to straightforward gym training, focuses on improving quality of movement, so it should be considered important for dance. S&C incorporates strength improvements and muscular fitness (conditioning), as well as agility,speed and endurance work. The focus is on improving movement quality through improved strength and efficiency, and in turn reducing the risk of injury. This foundation, and the value of buying into it, is equally true for classical ballet, alongside this performing art’s other essential skills of attention to detail, musicality, interpretation and expression.

Strength (the amount of force a person can apply) and conditioning (achieving the strength output repeatedly with good form, alignment and stability without tiring), complement dance training in the studio. An S&C session will look and feel different from a personal training or gym session, using a variety of methods, equipment and approaches, based on the coach’s judgement and client feedback. Due to the inclusion of weight training and components of Olympic lifting and plyometrics, dancers might be reluctant to embrace S&C initially, fearful of ‘bulking up’ through hypertrophy. Through a well-designed and supervised programme, however, this is unlikely to happen.

“Although there are many mechanisms to potentially reduce sports-related injuries, enhancing muscular fitness and strength using resistance training as a preventative health measure should be considered a cornerstone of year-round, multifaceted training for school-age youth.” (Position statement 2012, UKSCA, NSCA, ASCA.) This is true for classical ballet too, throughout a dancer’s career, and beyond; why not?

When I start with a new client, I carry out an initial movement needs assessment to pinpoint the individual’s strengths, weaknesses, biases and faults in terms of their natural physiology and acquired skills and strengths in relation to their physical discipline, in this case classical ballet. Mindful of the individual’s learning age, actual age and gender, I will prepare a programme, basing all sessions on the fundamental movement patterns and building from there: squat, lunge, single leg squat, bracing, rotating, pushing and pulling, and stabilisation.

Ideally, given sufficient time with a client, the programme will be periodised over several months, incorporating different programmes and focus, including setting performance benchmarks. Periodisation is difficult in classical ballet, however, given the demands of a school timetable or dancer’s rehearsal and performance schedule. The aim, however, is to supplement these demands.

In my experience, the physical areas that ballet dancers are likely to be weaker on include squatting and lunging correctly, general upper body strength in women, thoracic and/or lumbar instability, gluteal and knee instability, the need for better cardio-vascular endurance because ballet is very stop-start and improving jumping and landing mechanics. Classical ballet works the body through specialised ranges of motion rather than all ranges that the body is designed to move through. So, part of my approach is to strengthen those other ranges of motion whilst targeting the individual’s needs, to help reduce injury susceptibility and improve all-round strength.

Nutrition is an essential part of S&C, and the common rule of thumb is that progress = 70% nutrition, 30% exercise. My other suggested rules of thumb are i) never skip breakfast and make it a big, healthy one, ii) eat plenty of health-giving food including protein, iii) have healthy snacks between meals, iv) drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise, v) avoid or significantly limit non-essential foods and drinks, i.e., those with added sugar (sucrose) and vi) try to eat at the same times each day so that your metabolism has a routine.

Sleep is also essential because it is an active process when the brain works with the body to learn, assimilate and incorporate the demands placed on it that day, and to run the body’s ‘repair programme’. We don’t get stronger or fitter during our physical activities, which is when we deliberately stress the body to stimulate neuromuscular changes. Those changes and strength gains happen only when we sleep and rest and eating healthily. I recommend two to three S&C sessions per week, allowing a day’s rest between each, during which the individual can do other forms of supplementary exercise.

Where a strength and conditioning programme is well prescribed, supervised and executed, it is beneficial because it:

  • Prevents or reduces the number and severity of injuries

  • Places lower overall demands on the body and carries a much lower risk of injury than classical ballet or the sport, though sessions can be tough

  • Enhances performance – quicker, stronger, faster, improved balance and agility, enabling more sustained performance (resilience), better adaptations, and faster recovery (robustness)

  • Assists the dancer to master and meet the challenges of dance with greater ease and efficiency, manage and recover from injury and sustain the physique throughout a career.

Provided this way, S&C improves:

  • Muscle and connective tissue strength

  • Muscle mass

  • Basal metabolic rate (more muscle = burning more calories when resting)

  • Body composition

  • Health benefits from more muscle

  • Bone density

  • Strength, power, speed

  • Cardio-vascular fitness, and

  • Self-confidence.

For dancers this can translate into improved:

  • Posture

  • Mobility and flexibility

  • Power development

  • Movement efficiency, and

  • Poise and balance.

Paul Sinnadurai

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