Dance is a grueling and demanding sport. The hours spent training rival those of competitive endurance athletes, and during competition season, you may as well move into the studio for all the time you spend there.
But, despite the hours spent practicing technique and perfecting choreography, sometimes those studio hours aren’t quite enough to fully round out your training. At critical junctures in a dancer’s progression, such as pre-pointe or before taking on flighty choreography full of leaps, cross training can help prevent injury, increase resilience, and provide the necessary muscular stamina to make it through the season.
However….figuring out where cross training should start is a complex and often overwhelming question. There are hundreds of exercises, circuits, and training programs to choose from, and when barre work is your forte, picking exercises that will give you the best bang for your buck isn’t straightforward. Plus, who has time to spend on a full exercise routine when you’re already putting in more studio hours than you can count??
So, we’ve done the legwork (no pun intended) for you. In this article, we break down the best starting exercises for dancers looking to increase coordination, stability, and injury-resistance. We’ll also explain why we’ve chosen these exercises to focus on — don’t skip that part; understanding why you’re training a certain way can help you get more out of it!
Let’s get to work!
Why Dancers Should Cross Train
We’ve already briefly addressed this in the intro, but anytime we ask dancers to step outside the studio, it’s worth reiterating (we dive into the long answer in this article). Spending time on physical skill and strength development outside of the studio can provide a host of benefits to dancers of all ages.
Primarily, properly executed cross training reduces the risk of injury by ensuring that the appropriate muscles are activated and doing work throughout dance-specific movements. When the right muscles are working, stress and impact forces are absorbed by pliable muscles and tendons, rather than relying on ligaments and joints — structures not designed to absorb force.
As muscle activation and control increase, joint spaces are also protected, allowing for a freer and more controlled range of motion through back bends, extensions, leaps, and even arm lines. By utilizing your body’s structures in their appropriate roles, you open yourself to a new level of artistic expression.
Plus, the more you train your muscles, the stronger they get, meaning that fatigue or endurance are no longer the limiting factors in practice or learning a new technique. So in actuality, spending time outside the studio will actually allow you to spend more time in the studio (and help protect you from injury)! That’s a pretty great deal, right?
The Importance of Sport-Specific Movements
All of the above is well and good, but the key to reaping the benefits is to focus in the right areas and execute the cross training program effectively.
This is true for all sports — while a soccer player may build stronger legs by following a jump training progression, they stand to gain more by following a program specific to the common movements in their sport, such as cutting and deceleration. As such, dancers should have programs designed around, you guessed it, common movements for dance (such as releve, leaps, and backbends).
Taking it one step further, programs can be tailored to the needs of the individual. Each dancer may have different goals or areas of improvement that they’re striving for; a coach or a biomechanics professional can help you to identify potential injury risks or areas for cross training specific to your dance study. (This step can be especially important for dancers with a history of injury or who are preparing to take on a more challenging level, such as pointe.)
While specific programs will definitely require tailored attention and expert input, general (but still dance-specific) exercises are easier to impart. So, without further ado, the following sections will pinpoint primary areas for dancers to focus on, as well as some corresponding exercises.
Primary Areas of Focus for Cross Training
Without sounding like a broken record, dance requires an immense amount of strength and control in the muscles. The positions demanded are extreme, and it can be tempting to rely on gravity to “throw yourself” into certain positions for greater flexibility or range of motion. That may work short term, but in the long run, you won’t be developing the necessary balance or control needed to keep your body happy and healthy for a lifetime of movement. The following areas aren’t the only culprits, but they’re a solid place to start in terms of building strength and security for your body.
Eccentric Abdominal Control
Posture is essential for the presence and poise required of dancers, whether it’s gliding through the air with a leap or performing a triple pirouette. If the requisite flexibility or strength isn’t up to par, each of these postures has the potential to put strain on the lower back and damage the vertebrae or intervertebral discs. Without adequate flexibility though the hips and core, you’ll end up using your lower back to create extension, rather than maintaining the neutrality of the spine.
While most dancers have the flexibility down pat, the muscle control to stabilize the spine is equally, if not more, important. Being able to control extension allows you to maintain length through the spine (who else is tired of hearing the instructor tell you to pretend there’s a string on the top of your head?). Not only does this create a better looking line, but it’s actually safer for your vertebrae and discs, too.
This control is achieved through activating the deep muscles of the core and developing eccentric strength.
But before we dive into defining this “eccentric” element, let’s review what we mean by your “core.” In its full definition, your core is made up of several muscle groups spanning the bottom of the rib cage to below the hips; though for the purposes of this topic, we’re going to primarily address the abdominals. There are several bands of muscle in your abs, some running horizontally, some diagonally, and some vertically. It’s common for people to over-rely on the vertical set of muscles (rectus abdominis), but in order to manage the internal pressure created in the core, it’s essential to engage the deeper bands of horizontal and diagonal muscles as well.
As for the second element, once your core is active, it’s time to focus on training eccentric control. Muscles can contract eccentrically (while they’re lengthening) or concentrically (while they’re shortening). For instance, in a bicep curl, the bicep contracts concentrically to lift the weight towards the shoulder, but eccentric strength is required to lower the weight back to the starting position with control.
The same is true for your abdominals. You want to be able to maintain control as you extend backwards to avoid compressing the discs in your lumbar spine (think movements like a backbend or an arabesque, where you extend your legs behind you).
Lower Leg Stability and Control
If there’s anything dancers are known for, it’s impeccable leg and foot strength. In order to leap, turn, and ronde through a performance, you have to have an incredibly strong lower body and demonstrate enough control and stability to execute complicated figures.
Developing the requisite muscle control requires specific attention on muscle groups in the lower leg that are often overlooked by more general fitness training. Dancers should focus on exercises for the peroneals, posterior tibialis, anterior tibialis, and intrinsic foot muscles.
But, not everyone knows what all those muscles mean (or why they matter), so here’s a quick breakdown:
- The posterior tibialis and peroneals are muscles deep in the lower leg that act as a stirrup to stabilize the foot. The post. tib. travels from behind the shin to the inside of the foot to prevent the foot collapsing too far inward, while the peroneals travel down the outside of the lower leg and foot to help with foot eversion.
- The anterior tibialis is the muscle group on the outside of your shin and the front of your leg; it contributes to maintaining balance over the medial column (your ankle and first two toes) as you rise into releve.
- The intrinsic foot muscles are in the body of your foot and help to support the arch and provide “recoil” when the foot splays out during impact. The foot is an incredible flexible structure with a lot of small bones, allowing for a great amount of articulation and shock absorption. If the muscles in the foot core aren’t active, the bones and tendon structures are left to absorb the impact without active, muscular support.
While these muscle groups are small, they are mighty, and they can be the difference between stability en pointe and a future of ankle injuries.
Coordinating the Trunk and Foot
It would be remiss to discuss the importance of the core and the foot stabilizers without talking about the coordination between the two.
Being able to activate and maintain muscle engagement at different points in the foot, leg, hip, and core without compensating at another part of the body is a fundamental skill for dancers and paramount for the long term health of your body. (Of course, the same logic applies to your core and upper body, but that’s often less challenging for dancers.)
If you’re unable to activate your core in a variety of positions, you won’t be able to maintain core control as you execute dance movements, leading to compensations or reliance on other muscular or skeletal systems. In turn, these compensations can result in a diminished freedom of movement or even strain and injury.
That means that as you work on developing foot control, it’s important to be aware of what your upper leg and core are doing at the same time. While your primary focus should remain on the muscles you’re working (for instance, activating the tibialis anterior during a calf raise), you should check in every few reps to make sure you’re not locking your knees, arching your back, or otherwise compromising your posture.
It may initially feel tedious, but it’s well worth the effort; over time, maintaining proper activation and alignment will get easier, allowing you to focus on expressing yourself in dance (without worrying about injury or form).
Cross Training Exercises for Dancers
Let’s be honest — while the “why” behind cross training is important for building a foundational knowledge of movement, you’re probably here for some actual exercises…
And we won’t make you wait any longer! Without further ado, here are a few examples of beneficial exercises for dancers starting to cross train. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a great place to start connecting with your body and getting used to new movements.
For Core Control
Core control exercises are all about developing and maintaining a connection to the deeper muscles in your abdomen, allowing for better stabilization and protection of your spine.
Weighted Dead Bug
To perform a weighted dead bug exercise, start by laying on your back and bending your knees so that your feet are flat on the floor. Engage your core by first flexing the muscles just inside your hip bones (place a finger just inside the point of your hip and focus on flexing the muscle underneath), then place a hand on the bottom of your ribcage and think about pulling your ribs down into the floor. You should feel engagement throughout your abdomen, as if you were bracing for a hit to the stomach.
Once your core is engaged, lift your legs one at a time until your thighs are perpendicular to the floor and your knees are bent at 90 degrees. Concentrate on keeping your lower back on the ground and not allowing your ribs to flare open.
With a weight held straight above your shoulders, alternate lowering each leg to touch your heel to the floor (while maintaining the bend in your leg). As you build endurance and comfort with this level of activation, you can lower both legs at once, or practice straightening the leg as you lower it.
Sit Ups Over Ball
Once you’re comfortable with engaging your core, you can start to apply the skill to more active movements, like back extensions.
Using a yoga ball (or swiss ball) and a weight plate (or dumbbell), position yourself so that you’re sitting on the edge of the ball with your knees at 90 degrees and your feet firmly on the floor. With the weight held to your chest, extend backwards until your body is flat, keeping your core engaged.
From there, allow your upper body to continue extending around the curve of the ball while maintaining muscular engagement (that engagement is key; don’t just relax backwards). Then, initiating the movement from your core, return to neutral and back to the starting position.
For Pre Pointe and Ankle Stability
While pre pointe is mentioned specifically due to the age of many dancers in these programs, as well as the demands that pointe places on the structures of the lower leg, all dancers can benefit from these exercises to increase balance and control.
The short foot exercise is simple in theory, but deceptively difficult. Starting with the foot flat on the floor and relaxed, your goal is to engage the foot core muscles and lift the arch of the foot — without rolling to the outside edge or pressing your toes into the ground. Think about drawing the base of your big toe towards your heel and sucking in the arch of your foot like you would your stomach. In the final position, you should feel equal pressure through three points of your foot: the medial ball, the lateral edge away from the ankle, and the heel.
This exercise can take a while to get the hang of, but the good news is that there are few limitations on how many reps you perform. You should start practicing in a seated position, and as you gain control and confidence, you can transition to standing practice, and eventually single leg work.
Calf Raises with Ball
To perform this exercise, you’ll need a small ball — about four or five inches in diameter — with some weight to it. A small toning ball works well.
To begin, stand with your feet in parallel (no turnout!) and place the ball between your heels and ankles. Maintaining the position of the ball, rise onto your toes, and then return your heels to the floor. As you rise, focus on keeping your weight in the ball of your foot and in line with your first two toes, and strive to keep your ankle in line (don’t let it collapse outward). It can be helpful to perform this exercise in a mirror to ensure that your ankle stays aligned the whole time.
Banded Ankle Walk
Once you’re comfortable reaching releve with your weight in the inside ball of your foot, it’s time to challenge your ankle stability further.
Place a small looped resistance band (start light!) around your feet. Stepping wide enough to just place tension on the band, press into releve. Maintaining tension on the band, step out to the side with one foot, and then return to your starting distance by stepping your other foot in. It’s important to not let the band pull your other foot into place — actively resist the band to help strengthen your muscles. Throughout the entire exercise, concentrate on keeping your ankle in alignment and your weight stacked over the medial column of your foot.
This exercise is a great time to check in on the rest of your posture. You may find yourself flexing your quads or arching your back to help with balance, rather than keeping the quads relaxed, engaging the glutes and core, and standing tall.
For Stability and Coordination
Once you have activation through the legs and the core, you have to build coordination between the two. After all, being able to use your muscles is great, but if you can only engage your core when that’s all you have to concentrate on, it’s not going to be very functional during dance! It’s challenging, but don’t worry! With some focus and practice, it’ll be second nature in (almost) no time.
The Pallof Press is anti-rotation exercise named for its inventor, Dr. John Pallof. The exercise helps you maintain core engagement and alignment through the lower body while performing a simple movement — a press.
To perform the Pallof press, you’ll need a resistance band anchored to a wall at about hip height. Grasp the band in both hands and move away from the wall until there is light to moderate tension on the band. Your shoulders should be perpendicular to the wall where the band is anchored.
Once the band is under tension, take the starting position by engaging your core and hinging at the hip to enter a slight squat. Your back should be neutral and you should have a slight bend in your knees, and your foot should be engaged with the ground (as in the short foot exercise). From this position, slowly press the band away from your body with both hands, but don’t allow the tension on the band to create rotation or compensation throughout the movement. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Statue of Liberty
The statue of liberty exercise is great for engaging the glutes while focusing on having active muscles in a “tall” posture. To perform this exercise, all you’ll need is a wall, counter, or other surface at least waist high.
Standing with your shoulders perpendicular to your surface, lift the leg closest to the wall to hip height and press your knee outward into the wall. Rather than using the muscles in the lifted leg to perform this action, focuson squeezing the glute in your standing leg to drive your lifted leg out and maintain constant pressure into the wall.
Once you’ve set that position, lift the arm on your standing leg side straight up, so that it’s extended above your head (like raising your hand in class). While in this position, focus on keeping your glutes engaged and your core tight — resist the urge to bend into your low back or let your ribs flare out.
And there you have it! Seven exercises that can benefit every dancer — and a great way to get started in the world of cross training.
It may be difficult and frustrating at first; waking up and activating muscles is a challenging process, and as a dancer, you’re probably used to being in tune with your movement. But, the benefits are absolutely worth the time and effort. You’ll be building a stronger, more resilient body that will actually allow you MORE freedom of movement and expression in your dance.
And the best part is, it doesn’t have to take a ton of time. Start by incorporating one exercise from each group above into your training routine; it can be as little as 3 days a week at first. Work on 2-3 sets of each exercise, with 10 exercises in each set. Add them into your warm up or tack them on to your cool down.
As you get more used to the movements and form a habit around taking time to do your exercises, start increasing the frequency or volume, and before you know it, you’ll be reaping the rewards!