Cross-training is a hot topic. What should you do? What shouldn’t you do? Exercising outside the studio can improve your overall fitness, but be careful to pick workouts that will benefit your dancing without building bulky muscles or putting you at risk for injury. Read on to see what kinds of cross-training experts recommend for dancers.
For strong technique, you need a strong core, and basic Pilates exercises will give you this stability. “Strengthening your core reduces stress on your lower back and improves spinal and pelvic alignment,” says Tara Hench-Berdo, Pilates instructor and owner of Body-N-Mind Pilates Studio in Carlisle, PA. “It helps your arms and legs move with ease, which will translate into your dancing.” As you gain more limb mobility during your workout routine, you’ll have better extension and a freer movement quality. Pilates also helps you determine which parts of your body are weak, tight or overstretched. Because the exercises target specific muscles and joints, they make you more aware of your body so you can work to prevent future injuries.
Yoga will help strengthen and elongate your muscles. Its focus on the intrinsic muscles of the feet is especially good for tappers. “Tap dancers have so much stability in their core, hips and thighs, but their lower legs have to be loose and agile,” says Michelle Rodriguez, physical therapist and founder of the Manhattan Physio Group. “It would benefit them to be in an environment where they have to be barefoot and working on their balance, using their feet more.”
“Swimming is amazing because of the tremendous amount of decompression that happens when you’re in the water,” Rodriguez says. “It allows you to move your joints without the effects of gravity.” Because there are so many different strokes to choose from, dancers with tight upper bodies don’t have to shy away from the pool. Try doing the backstroke to stretch the front of your chest and strengthen the back of your torso and shoulders. (The breaststroke is confining and will make your chest tighter, though it does offer great benefits for hips and legs.) For a cardio workout, run underwater or tread water in the deep end to get your heart rate up without creating joint pressure like pavement running.
Cross-country skiing builds cardiovascular strength and is good for working in a parallel position. “Ballet dancers tend to think they need to be turned out all the time, but that’s not true,” Hench-Berdo says. “It’s good to work in parallel, or even turned in. Turning out all the time can overstretch the hips and make them weak from overuse.” Downhill skiing is also good for strengthening internal rotation. But remember, a small crash on the slopes can sideline your dance career, so suit up with a helmet and all the necessary safety gear.
Biking is ideal if you want to strengthen your quads and glutes, but dancers should ride at a lower resistance to prevent bulking up their thighs and legs. Rodriguez recommends sitting upright rather than riding a road or racing bike, because leaning forward on handles for a long period of time shortens the muscles in front of the hips. “Work on maintaining a nice upright posture and breathing,” she says.
Running, particularly long-distance running, is not great for dancers because of the constant pounding on your joints. “If you’re looking to do something that complements your overall fitness or improves your recovery time, running is not ideal,” Rodriguez says. Try going for a brisk walk outside instead. “On a treadmill, the ground you’re walking on is moving, so the mechanics in your body are different than when you’re out on the street going for a walk,” she says. Plus, you’ll get all the benefits of sunlight and vitamin D. After being cooped up in the studio for hours, your body will crave the fresh air.
If you’re looking for a good alternative to running, try the elliptical machine, which will give you a solid cardiovascular workout without the high impact. “You’re in a parallel environment and you can vary the grade,” Rodriguez says. “The machine can be flat or inclined and you can increase the resistance.” If you’re on a machine without handles that move, work on your balance by not holding onto the sides. “Swing your arms as if you were jogging,” Rodriguez suggests.
Strength Training (Weight Lifting)
Weight lifting is a great way to build strength. “There are a lot of misconceptions about weight training,” says Emery Hill, athletic trainer at Houston Ballet. “People think that if you lift weights, you’ll get big musculature. But it can be very beneficial as far as being able to lift or be lifted, or to hold your position, because you have more basic strength.” If you’re lifting to get strong, lift a heavier weight with fewer repetitions—more reps with a lesser weight will build bulk. Hill recommends doing no more than three sets of 6–8 repetitions of each exercise when you’re off-season or in a rehearsal period. As you get closer to performance time, do just one or two sets of each so you don’t tire your muscles.
It’s possible to overdevelop your calves on the StairMaster, since most people tend to do it on the balls of their feet. Try walking actual flights of stairs instead, Rodriguez suggests. Or, if you’re set on using the machine, keep it on a light resistance setting. “You’ll get cardio work,” Hill says, “but you won’t build up a lot of quad or calf strength.”
When it comes to cross-training, “set specific goals,” Hill says. Break down your schedule into six-week training periods to allow yourself time to accomplish each goal. Working out this way narrows your focus and makes it easier to stay motivated. But know when to limit your cross-training so you don’t burn out. “Getting in that extra hour of exercise could put you over the edge when you’re already taking class, rehearsing all day and performing,” Rodriguez says. Be smart about how you cross-train—your dancing will reap the rewards.
Wear supportive shoes when you're walking, running or working out at the gum. A good pair will correct imbalances and keep you stable.
Be aware of your alignment, especially in parallel positions. Always keep your knees in front of your hips and directly over your toes.
Cross-train your body in a way that complements your style of dance. If you're turned out all day, work on staying parallel. If you don't usually lift other dancers, strengthen your upper body with weights and swimming.
Do everything in moderation. Cross-training should create a good sense of symmetry and balance i your body to help prevent injury.