Strengthening the Dancer’s Edge: Workout Routines for Performers

Strengthening the Dancer’s Edge: Workout Routines for Performers

Resist the Rotational Force, Young Padawan!

Like a Jedi must resist the dark side of the force, we as performers are burdened with our own rotational and gravitational forces to resist. The forces are strong, the struggle is real. But if you listen closely, young Padawan, I will explain how rotational forces are trying to scupper your dance moves, and how you can use anti-rotational core training to overcome them. I’ll stop with the Star Wars references now, I promise.

The way we approach core training in the fitness industry has evolved over recent years. In the 90s, we were all about endless sit-ups, crunches, and those sweet six-pack abs. But since then, the way we target and train our core has changed. The boom in popularity of more functional training then led to a revolution in core training.

This change was led by the concept that our abdominal muscles are primarily stabilizers, not movers. So using them as movers to create that crunch motion is not necessarily the most efficient way to train them. Our anterior core muscles, in other words, those muscles at the front of the body including abs and obliques, can flex and rotate the trunk of our body. But their real purpose in life is to work with the other core muscles, including our back muscles and hip rotators, to stabilize our spine – in other words, to prevent movement of the spine, not create it.

This more modern approach changed the way we tackle core training dramatically. Core exercises now tend to focus more on preventing unwanted movement of the spine, as well as moving our body through bending, flexing, and rotating movements like crunches and Russian sits. Isometric holds like planks, V-sits, and hollow-body holds are now more commonly used, and in my opinion, absolutely should form the biggest part of your core-specific training, alongside more compound movements that incorporate spinal rotation, side bending, flexion, and extension with other key elements like pushing and pulling.

Spinal Stability in All Directions

In this article, I want to talk about the exercises we use to train that spinal stabilization. In other words, exercises where we are actively resisting spinal movement. Our spine needs to be able to stabilize in a few different planes of motion, and many people don’t train their core in all of them.

Firstly, the spine can extend (think bending backwards). Secondly, it can flex (think rounding forwards). It can also flex laterally (think bending to the side), and it can rotate (think twisting the shoulders or hips to one side). Our core muscles constantly work to stabilize our spine against these movements when we don’t want them to happen, either when we’re busting out moves on the stage or we’re simply just keeping our body from slumping on the counter whilst waiting in line for a Butterscotch Brûlée latte and marshmallow on a stick in Starbucks. Shhhh, don’t judge me.

So to strengthen our core, we can train it to be stronger at those stabilizing actions. For example, we traditionally train a lot of moves that address the stabilizing muscles for the above three movements. But what about spinal rotation? Many of us miss out on that final component, training the stabilization of the spine against rotation. And being able to hold the body isometrically against rotation is a really useful skill to have for any performer.

Rotational Forces Trying to Ruin Your Lines

Being able to isometrically hold a position against rotational forces is important for performers. Because the stage or pole is vertical by its very nature, we tend to hold on to a fixed point with one, two, or three contact points, so we are constantly fighting against forces pulling us in different directions.

You probably felt it the first time you ever tried to do a one-handed chair spin, tucking up your knees, aiming to glide ever-so-gracefully around the stage. But what happened? Your knees just wanted to turn right back in towards the pole instead, right?

Take another example, the shoulder mount. In a shoulder mount, your body is only supported by the stage on one side. It takes a lot of core strength and upper body strength, of course, to fight against that instability and keep the body in a horizontal position. Similarly, if you go upside down on the stage and remove the contact points with your feet/legs so you are holding with only the hands, like in an Ayesha or a pike-straight edge, it takes a brute amount of core strength to keep your hips stable and facing the way we want them to face, rather than twisting down to the floor or back towards the stage.

Basically, rotational forces are constantly trying to ruin our beautiful lines, not to mention all our nailed-it Instagram photos. To defeat them, our core needs to be really, really good at resisting rotation.

Anti-Rotational Exercises for Performers

There are so many great anti-rotational movements out there, but I just want to focus on a really simple way that you can change a very familiar movement – a basic plank – into an anti-rotational exercise.

Please note that before you begin to add anti-rotational elements to your planks, you first need to be really strong in your basic plank. So if your basic plank is still feeling really challenging, stick with stable isometric plank holds until you are strong enough to start adding the instability of rotation forces. A good goal to aim for is 40-60 second holds x 3 sets. Once my clients are doing that comfortably, then I’d start progressing the plank holds to incorporate anti-rotation strength.

To change a plank from an anti-extension exercise into an anti-rotation exercise, what you need to do is wicked simple – simply take away one point of contact with the floor. This creates instability at one corner of your plank, so your body is now having to resist rotation to maintain its hold in a straight line.

I demonstrate how this works further in the video above, and there is a short example of an anti-rotation plank in the video below – elbow plank with reach. Adding instability to core exercises like this not only builds anti-rotational strength, but it also just generally makes us more dynamic and functional for the stage. It trains our core to keep our spine stable while reacting to movement, different forces, just like we do when we’re in motion on the stage.

I hope you found this article useful, and I’d love to know your thoughts. Hit me up with any questions in the comments. Anti-rotation training has some awesome cross-over benefits for performers, but we are all different with varying mobility and strength limitations, and our own unique training schedules, so we all have different starting points. Get good in the basics first.

If you want to geek out with me more on all the different aspects of core strength training for performers, or want to know how to program your core training, check out my book Strength and Conditioning for Pole available now in ebook and hardcopy. It comes with a huge online exercise library and all the pole sports science nerding you’ll ever need to create a functional training program.

And if you want a 6-week training program dedicated to core strength for performance, check out my 6-week core strength program for performers – it contains all the progress tests, exercise progressions you need, with 3 x super short workouts (15mins each week) that you can do at home with minimal equipment to get your core not just strong, but performance-ready.

Strength and Mobility for Performers

As a retired performer myself and a current instructor, I have become extremely passionate about applying my knowledge as a physiotherapist to the world of dance and performance. Looking back, I see things that were well done, but also become very aware of the gaps that were present throughout my training.

In any sport, you need to train and develop strength in the muscles and movement patterns that are dominant for the specific activity in order to perform. In the instance of performance, this translates to a lot of focus on strengthening and mobilizing the muscles and joints involved in turnout, back extension, and plantarflexion.

Although strengthening and mobilizing these areas is important, it is EQUALLY as important to mobilize the joint into the opposite direction and strengthen the opposing muscles. Any time you have too much mobility and/or the majority of your strength produced into only one direction across a joint, you create an imbalance, and it is only a matter of time before the repetitive stress turns into an injury.

I have seen multiple retired performers entering their 50s and 60s with chronic hip and lower back pain, likely as a result of training errors during their professional careers. Fortunately, it does not have to be this way. With a proper strength and mobility program as an adjunct to your regular classes, the body can adapt and become resilient to these injuries.

Let’s dive into three important areas of strength and mobility that should be addressed in performers, and some sample exercises that I incorporate into a lot of treatment programs.

Turnout City

From the moment you step foot into your first ballet class as a child, to your final performance before retiring those pointe shoes, developing strength and mobility at the hip joint into external rotation is a primary focus. I mean, who doesn’t love looking at a completely flat retiré that continues to extend into a beautifully turned out developpé à la seconde? It is absolutely breathtaking, and it is part of what makes performance, well, performance.

Although it is important to train turnout, it needs to be done properly – turnout needs to come from strength into external rotation at the hip, rather than being forced at the ankles and knees. And it needs to be accompanied by strengthening and mobility into internal rotation, the opposing movement and abduction, to create stability and prevent imbalanced forces which will lead to altered biomechanics at the joint.

Here are three of my favorite less obvious exercises to address the above points in performers:

  1. Side Lying Internal Rotation Reverse Clamshells: This is a great exercise for strengthening internal rotation. Put a ball or yoga block between the knees, squeeze your inner thighs into the ball while lifting the top foot towards the ceiling. Make sure to keep your hips stacked on top of each other.

  2. 90/90 Hip Internal and External Rotation: This exercise hits on mobility. Keep your legs in a 90/90 position as you alternate between lifting the back foot internal and back knee external off the floor.

  3. Banded Lateral Tap Outs: A go-to exercise for strengthening the glute med, which is a huge game player in creating lateral stability at the joint. Keep your knees slightly bent, your core activated, and your knees and toes forward as you alternate tapping your foot side to side.

Bend Yo’ Spine in Half

To create that beautiful arabesque line, you need a combination of strength and mobility into both hip and back extension. Hip extension is important, but will only provide the first 0-30 degrees of extension, which means that the height for the rest of the arabesque line is achieved through extension through your lumbar spine.

Excessive extension in the lumbar spine is not bad in and of itself, but if you are not engaging your deep abdominal muscles and pelvic floor to provide stability, it puts an immense amount of stress on the lower back. When treating performers, I usually find that they are strong in their superficial core muscles (think the six-pack muscles), but extremely weak in their deep core muscles (i.e., the muscles that attach to and stabilize the spine).

Here are three of my go-to exercises for teaching activation of the deep core in performers:

  1. TA (Transverse Abdominis) Activations: This is a foundational exercise for lower back stability – can you activate your deep core? Lay on your back with your knees bent and place your hands just inside your hip bones. Without holding your breath, try and contract the muscles underneath your fingers for a 10-second hold, x 10 reps.

  2. Heel Slides + Leg Lift with TA Contraction: Begin this exercise by activating the TA. With the core engaged, slowly slide out the heel along the floor until straight, and then lift to a hover. Lower the heel back to the floor and return to the starting position. Complete this exercise in both a parallel and turned-out position.

  3. Cross-Body Sit-Up: This is a more advanced exercise, however crucial for developing deep core strength in an extended position. Start with your feet planted and back extended over the exercise ball. Activate your TA in this position before continuing to sit up and reach your opposite arm to opposite knee.

No Floppy Feet Club

Creating that pointed foot, which eventually transitions into pointe work, requires a significant amount of plantarflexion at the ankle joint. Again, although this position is not a problem on its own, problems begin to arise when you neglect the opposing movement, dorsiflexion.

This is specifically important in performers because you actually NEED dorsiflexion to get depth into your pliés, which serves as a foundation for all allegro work. So not only will working on dorsiflexion prevent impingement injuries at the joint, but it will also help you produce more powerful jumps. A win-win scenario.

Here are three exercises targeted at improving dorsiflexion and developing adequate strength in the lower posterior chain:

  1. Knee to Wall: This is a great and simple exercise for improving dorsiflexion at the ankle. The goal is to have your foot as far away as possible from the wall while bringing the knee to the wall. It is important to keep your hips square and your heel in contact with the floor at all times.

  2. Single Leg Deficit Heel Raises: Standing at the edge of a step in a parallel position, let your heel drop as far as possible. From this position, raise onto demi-pointe, keeping your weight equally distributed between all five toes. Slowly lower to the starting position.

  3. Mobilization with Movement: This is a great dynamic exercise for improving dorsiflexion at the ankle. Make sure that the band is around the talus (lower ankle) and that you have decent tension on the band. Slowly lunge forward as you let the band pull your ankle backwards.

Alright folks, that’s it for today. As I say in most of my posts, this seriously only scratches the surface of the depth there is to this topic, but I hope it has inspired you to think about the importance of cross-training and incorporating opposing muscle/movement patterns into your weekly training.

If you have any questions about any of the topics or exercises covered, please feel free to reach out to me – I am always happy to talk. And don’t forget to check out the resources I mentioned earlier, like my book and core strength program, to take your performance to the next level.

Until next time, keep building that strong foundation and developing those healthy habits, even when you have no time. Injury prevention is key, whether you’re a runner or a performer. Break a leg out there!

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