If you’ve been dancing for long enough, you’ve probably heard conflicting opinions about cross training.
There’s debate on everything from what counts as cross training (hip hop is cross training for a ballerina, right?) to whether or not dancers should do any exercise beyond dance — do you really need it to succeed, or is it just another distraction? How can training that’s SO different from dance actually benefit your leaps and combinations? And besides… won’t you end up bulky and inflexible?
Those concerns are certainly valid, but there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding cross training and what it can do for dancers. And today, we’re here to clear that up.
Should Dancers Cross Train?
Let’s start with the most basic questions: should dancers cross train, and if so, why?
Well, here’s an important piece of context: for a long while in the dance world, “cross training” referred to studying multiple styles of dance in an effort to be a well-rounded performer. But in recent decades, training across styles has become commonplace, with most dancers spending time in a variety of disciplines to build a foundation and then honing their specializations. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a successful dancer who hasn’t spent at least a few seasons in ballet, dipped their toes into modern, and tried out a hip hop class.
Because the foundation of dance has been fundamentally redefined, the average workload has increased, requiring dancers to become even more athletic. If you’re going to survive the rigors of multiple classes, cross-disciplinary training, and competitions throughout the year, you’re going to need a more resilient body.
That said, just because more dancers are opting to supplement their training doesn’t mean it’s embraced by everybody. After all, it’s still a relatively new idea.
And — if there’s one thing we know about dance — it’s the power of tradition. No matter how innovative the movement, if you’ve started in a traditional style like ballet, ballroom, or even tap, new methods and processes can be met with resistance. There are still plenty of traditionalists who believe the best training is more hours in the studio, and that encouraging other forms of activity will detract from dance or negatively impact the aesthetic of the body.
However, the reality is that dancers can absolutely benefit from cross training (as long as that training time is spent wisely); many dancers who cross train report not only increased strength and stamina, but also feeling more capable, stable, and expressive in their performance. Not only does it build on their strong foundation of body awareness, but it can provide critical endurance and resilience as dance becomes more challenging.
Let’s look a little closer at how these benefits work before we dive into what effective cross training looks like.
Benefits of Cross Training for Dancers
Most dancers start cross training to get “better” at dance, but that’s an extremely complex topic with many facets. Not only does it encompass the athlete’s physical capacity and injury resilience, but also their artistic ability and mental grit. (Basically, it’s a little bit of everything.)
To keep everything organized, we’re going to break down the layers of benefit you can achieve through cross training.
Building Muscular Strength and Endurance
Dance is certainly a demanding sport, but it’s not the most efficient means of conditioning or building strength. In order to be a top-tier dancer, you must possess the physical strength and endurance to learn new skills and techniques (and practice them!) without fatiguing. Simply put: your progress as a dancer can be limited by either your physical fitness or your skill.
If your physical endurance is what gives out first, then you’re limiting the amount of technique you’re able to train purely based on physical capacity. Gaining greater strength and stamina allows you to train for longer periods of time while staying focused on technique. And remember — since dance isn’t the most efficient method of conditioning, the fastest way to up your game is to increase your muscular endurance or cardiovascular fitness through exercises designed to target those attributes.
Plus, as you work on increasing your muscular capabilities, you’re not just improving your endurance; by strengthening your muscles, you’re also reducing your risk of injury. That may sound like a leap in logic, but it’s pretty simple: stronger muscles, as long as they’re used correctly, actually help to protect your joints in several ways.
Maintaining Proper Alignment
When your body’s capable of actively using the right muscles, it can better maintain joint alignment (thus avoiding detrimental positions or movement).
Dance requires a lot of extreme, high-impact, and arguably unnatural positions. Few of us naturally walk in turnout or spontaneously grand jete in day-to-day life. In order to hit these positions repeatedly without creating excessive wear-and-tear, you have to ensure that you’re using muscles and tendons to keep your joints aligned, absorb landing forces, and recycle that energy into propulsion. It may sound obvious, but it’s hard — and because it’s hard, the body will look for shortcuts in your movements, often resulting in bones and ligaments absorbing forces they’re not designed to absorb.
Consider a backbend: if asked to lean back as far as possible, most people will passively bend into their lower back to gain added flexibility. This causes the vertebrae of the spine to pinch together and apply pressure unevenly on the intervertebral discs, which can lead to pain and damage over time. However, if the back bend is performed using the core to control the movement (rather than relying on gravity or pure flexibility), the lower back can maintain a neutral position, keeping pressure distributed more evenly across the disc.
Using your muscles to keep your joints in check is a vital concept that applies nearly everywhere in the body. Engaging the glutes can help protect the knees, and using the right upper body muscles will keep the shoulders happier in the long run. Similar effects can be seen in the ankle, knee, hip, and other high-use, weight-bearing joints.
It is, of course, harder to perform movements with deliberate control and muscular engagement — it’s much easier to rely on gravity or passively throw yourself into movements. But, that’s where cross training comes in. As you train the muscles around these joints, you’re creating protection for the spaces in the joints, keeping bones tracking the way they’re meant to, and taking strain off of passive structures like ligaments and bones.
Improving Bodily Awareness and Artistic Expression
Alright, so the injury resistance is stellar, but there’s another hidden bonus: if you’re focused in your training (and what dancer isn’t?), you’ll notice an improvement in your brain-body connection.
That’s right — cross training heightens your awareness for how your body moves. As you practice moving through your range of motion deliberately and with good alignment, you’re teaching yourself about how various muscles work throughout your movements. And even though your cross training is fundamentally different from your dance movements, the knowledge about how your body moves will translate, leading to a greater depth of knowledge when learning new patterns and techniques.
The best part is that all these factors come together to build what every dancer wants: increased artistic expression. When your body moves in safer, stronger patterns and you’re not limited by physical endurance, you’re better able to execute all the choreography you can dream up. It’s truly building yourself a stronger foundation to elevate your dancing.
So, What Is Cross Training?
At this point, it might be worth asking…what is the cross training that’s bringing about all these benefits?
Up to this point, cross training has been kind of a vague idea — all we really know is that it involves venturing outside the studio to spend time developing physical skills that aren’t dance.
And it truly is that varied; ask ten principal dancers what their cross training routine is, and you’ll likely receive ten different answers. And really, that’s fine. There are hundreds of ways to cross train. For some people, this looks like running and weightlifting; for others, it might be a HIIT class followed by yoga.
What you do for cross training doesn’t matter so much as why you do it. The reason routines vary so much between dancers is that each individual may have different weaknesses they’re trying to address, or simply have different preferences in how they get there.
All that to say: if you’re going to cross train, don’t start with figuring out what activity you’re going to do. Start with defining your goals, and then the activity choices will naturally follow.
Setting Goals to Inform Your Cross Training
This brings up the tricky business of how to set specific goals for your cross training.
There’s a lot of overlap between the benefits discussed above and potential goals you can strive for. But while the potential benefits of cross training are somewhat vague (injury prevention, for example), goals should be much more concrete in order to define the focus of training (like strengthening muscles around the ankle to create better control en pointe).
To determine your goal, start by understanding why you’re seeking cross training; how you proceed can vary greatly based on your initial motivators. Many dancers start looking outside the studio for one of three reasons:
- You’ve been injured and need physical therapy to help rehabilitate before returning to dance.
- You’re seeking a performance edge and don’t feel that more hours in the studio will cut it (or feel physically restricted from completing all your desired training).
- Your teacher or coach points out a specific weakness unrelated to technical skill and suggests some level of cross training (this one can definitely sting).
The first motivator is reactive (responding to an injury), and the injury will dictate the scope of the exercises. After going through a physical evaluation, your therapist will design the most optimal program to get you back in the studio based on your injury, what caused it, and the demands of your current training.
Conversely, the second two motivators are more proactive and performance-based. If you’re in the market to take your skill to the next level, it’s time to get more specific about what you need and want. Take some time (by yourself or with a coach) to examine your dancing, identify weak points, and think about your long-term goals. (Disclaimer: this can be an uncomfortable process, but once you identify areas for improvement, you have new opportunities for growth.) If you’re struggling to pinpoint something specific, you can try completing the following sentence: “Dancing would be easier if I could just blank.”
Once you have your goal, you can start to narrow down your program options. Generally, there are three areas of focus: strength and endurance, flexibility, and control and stability. Each of these categories will help you to select a specific program or cross training activity to suit your needs — so let’s get to reading.
Muscular Strength and Endurance
If your cross training goal requires greater aerobic capacity, increased force or power, or training longer without your muscles fatiguing, you’ll want to focus on developing a baseline of cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength. This will establish a groundwork for longer practices and more resilient muscles, as well as protected joints (though that will cross over with flexibility).
Let’s first review your endurance. Cardio has perhaps the most varied options for training. You can do everything from running to swimming to rowing — basically anything that gets you out of breath. For dancers, the best type of cardio is steady-state training, as this most mimics the demands of a long rehearsal or performance. Steady-state simply requires a continuous level of effort (think swimming laps) as opposed to explosive or variable energy output (like sprinting the length of the pool repeatedly).
Muscular strength, however, typically serves one of two purposes for dancers: either you want to improve your performance by becoming stronger and more endurant, or you’re looking to counteract imbalances and prevent injury (or do both at the same time).
And despite all the benefits of strength training, many dancers shy away from it because they don’t want to end up bulky or inflexible, but that’s a major misconception. You can stay as flexible as you want, as long as you’re diligent about it. And, people who appear muscular look that way as a result of specific training and eating habits — and that goes way beyond the occasional weight lifting.
However, that doesn’t mean you aren’t doing some serious strength training. In order to build muscular strength and power, you must lift heavy weights. There’s no way around it. (Yoga won’t build the type of muscle you need for landing a leap.) A good strength training program will challenge you to perform compound lifts (which are just lifts that use more than one joint at a time) with progressive, heavy weights.
This will probably feel like a pretty big change from your usual training, so it’s important to seek a professional coach to guide your progressions and avoid injury. The unfamiliarity of this training may cause you to feel skeptical about how well strength work translates into dance… and the reality is that strength training isn’t necessarily a direct translation. Instead, it’s all about strengthening those supporting muscles that aren’t as active during conventional dance positions, but are still necessary for proper form and execution.
Working with a physical therapist or a trainer who specializes in working with dancers will ensure that your training program not only caters to the muscles you need for dance, but keeps you balanced as you develop more muscle.
With positions becoming more extreme, flexibility is certainly in the spotlight as part of training, but it’s also a double-edged sword. Training flexibility often conjures images of long static-stretching sessions, pushing for oversplits and greater spinal flexibility. And that’s certainly part of it — but stretching muscles and getting comfortable in deep ranges of motion is part of a delicate balance.
If you become too flexible without developing sufficient, complementary strength, your joints can suffer, and your tissue can become more vulnerable to injury and strain. And, if you only strength train, you’ll develop enough joint support, but lack the flexibility needed to move into necessary positions. The key being that, in order to obtain optimal dancing biomechanics, you’ll benefit most from a combination of strength and flexibility.
Since we already covered the basics for strength work, here’s some insight into flexibility…
Stretching should focus on lengthening the muscles, which requires pushing warm muscles to the end of the range of motion and holding it for several minutes. (However, make sure that you’re stretching the muscle, rather than your nerves. As you sit in the stretch, look for the burning sensation to decrease over time. If it gets worse or doesn’t ease, you’re likely putting tension on the nerve and should back off slightly.)
Along with lengthening your muscles, you want to focus on increasing your active range of motion, as there’s a big difference between passive and active flexibility. It’s easiest to explain through example: passive flexibility is when you’re static stretching by standing on one leg with your back against the wall while a partner lifts your free leg as high as it will go. To envision active flexibility, remove the partner from the scenario, and imagine that you’re raising your leg as high as you can with no help.
Most people have a greater passive range of motion, which is generally okay — until it’s not. It becomes a problem if you have to throw yourself into a movement (or rely on momentum) to reach your desired range of motion; this makes you more likely to strain or sprain your muscles. This is because a lack of active range of motion often results in a lack of control in your movements, including stopping when the force becomes too much.
To develop active range of motion, activities like Pilates, Gyrotonics, and certain types of yoga can be great. You can also work with a specialist to develop specific exercises unique to your needs. As you work on transitioning between different positions, you’ll want to pay attention to bracing your core, moving your joints carefully, and reaching the end of your active range of motion with each repetition.
It’s worth noting that this type of cross training can be very frustrating — it can be slow going and take a lot of time and focus to see changes. However, the time is well worth the benefit gained.
Increased Control and Stability
As we combine muscular strength, endurance, and active flexibility, adding proper control is what helps create true stability in your body. The primary objective in developing control is knowing how to practice deliberate and intentional motion, thus removing any reliance on gravity or momentum to achieve your movements.
In order to develop control, you’re working on mimicking sport-specific movements and activating specific muscles through a given pattern of movement. This can be particularly challenging, as it may require you to re-learn an already familiar movement with a new focus on specific muscles (and how to better integrate them into said movements). Usually, this is best emulated with movements similar to dance positions.
And while it may be challenging at times, it can be particularly rewarding as your knowledge of how your body moves (and should move) increases with practice. Developing muscular control also contributes significantly to the reduction of injury risk — by actively using muscles through an entire movement pattern, dancers are better able to control and protect their joints, as well as actively absorb force rather than letting it passively apply to structures.
Control and stability programs nearly always require the input of a professional. Working with a biomechanics expert can help you identify which muscles should be used to execute specific movements, and they can provide you with the sports-specific exercises needed to develop the movement properly. Exercises may look similar to a strength program in that they require sets and reps, but the focus and goal of the movements will be to increase the use of appropriate and stabilizing muscles, rather than increasing strength and endurance in large muscle groups.
Settling on a Cross Training Program
Alright, now that you have all the criteria for considering a training program, it’s time to actually pick what your cross training will look like.
Once you have your goals set, consulting an expert is always a good idea, whether it be a personal trainer with dance knowledge or a biomechanics specialist. They can help you understand how certain common positions in dance can put you at risk, and help you to identify areas for improvement (or reinforcement). They can also help monitor for overtraining, and will know when you’re ready to move to a harder exercise.
While there are common areas to start with in most dance positions (backbends or extensions, releve, landing leaps, etc.), each style of dance presents unique challenges and should truly be assessed on a stylistic or individual basis. This ensures that you’re doing exercises that are effective and truly serve you.
All this means that (you guessed it) there is no one size fits all all training program. Not all dancers should run, and not all dancers need to train stability in the ankle. If we tried to put together a program that worked for ALL dancers, it would take WAY too much time — and we already know that you spend plenty of hours in the studio. You need efficiency and targeted exercise to get the most out of your cross training.
It’s likely that the merits of cross training will continue to be debated for decades to come, but hopefully this article has provided clear enough benefits that you’ll consider venturing out of the studio for a couple of hours a week.
While there may not be one perfect program for all dancers, it’s important that your program works for you. To determine if your program is functioning as it should, you can try asking yourself the following questions:
- Does this activity directly relate to my goal?
- How much extra time am I devoting to cross training? Is this reasonable?
- Is this negatively impacting the time I have to train in the studio, either in energy or execution? (For instance, if you’re too sore for class, you probably need to adjust your activity level.)
- What would success look like in this program, and am I making progress towards it (even if it’s slow progress)?
- Do I enjoy this activity, or do I dread cross training?
Each of these criteria provides feedback on tailoring your program not only to your goals as a dancer, but to you as a person. If you dread your cross training, it won’t be effective long-term because you likely won’t stick with it. Similarly, if you’re not seeing results, it can be discouraging. Keep an open line of communication with your trainer and your dance teacher (and yourself) to make sure that whatever you’re working on is actually serving you.
Best of luck in your cross training journey, and we’re always here should you have questions! In January, we’ll be breaking down some useful exercises for building strength and stability in common dance positions. See you then!