Muscular Strength for Dancers

Muscular Strength for Dancers


There are several components to physical fitness including strength and flexibility, both of which are necessary for a dancer. Flexibility allows for increased range of motion and accomplishes the aesthetic of dance. Muscular strength creates speed and force, making for more powerful movement. It is evident through research that dancers are not as strong as they should be to support their flexibility and technique. Media often highlights dancers in overly stretched positions to amplify flexibility, but rarely are dancers encouraged to engage in muscular strength training. A balance between muscular strength and flexibility needs to be understood and encouraged in the dance world to ensure that dancers are properly trained to promote health and career longevity.

Movements such as jumps, floor work, partner work, or adagio (slow controlled movements) require muscular strength for control, graceful execution, and safety.  Commonly dancers are forcing positions, which compromise alignment in order to achieve the pleased aesthetic of dance. A 2010 study discussing stretching for dancers stated that having too much focus on increasing flexibility and range of motion without developing the muscular strength to do so effectively is often problematic and not successful (Wyon, 2010, p. 11). For instance, when performing a développé, if a dancer has adequate muscular strength in both the gesture leg and the supporting leg he/she will less likely develop common hip injuries. Muscular strength provides support to the joints for the dancer so as  not to compromise alignment and to increase position stability.  This allows the dancer the ability to maintain the position for longer. For dancers to have more control of their movements, specifically when in a hypermobile position, muscular strength offers support to the joints making for safer landings, effortless movement and decreases the likelihood of soft tissues injuries.

When incorporating a balance between muscular strength and flexibility, it must first be understood what muscular strength is and the science behind the training of it. When a muscle applies speed and force against a resistance it is demonstrating its strength. Muscular strength training activates the brain to recruit more muscle fibers to work against the resistance. When resistance is added over a period of time, the muscle fibers and neural pathways begin to adapt, making the muscle more efficient and stronger.

There are various strength-training principles such as specificity, overload, recovery, and adaptation, which must be applied to any training program for the program to be effective and produce results. Specificity is focusing on the muscle or muscle groups associated with the action to gain strength. Overload includes intensity, duration and frequency of training. If overload is done properly, with recovery included, adaptation of the body will occur. These concepts are important to understand for training to be successful.

Dancers often take part in Pilates or yoga due to their similarity to dance; they help build muscular strength and endurance, and focus on joint mobility and flexibility. Both are considered bodyweight training, meaning the weight of the body is the only resistance. Over time, the weight of the body will not be enough to overload the muscle and will not be varied enough for muscle adaptation to occur. Pilates and yoga are beneficial for dancers; however, they often focus on the same muscle groups as dance technique. This can be problematic if variance is not included because stabilizer muscles are not strong enough to support the action muscles and are often engaging the same muscle groups as dance, which can cause  overuse injuries. It is not being recommended that dancers stop engaging with these forms of physical fitness, but that dancers should consider utilizing a more varied routine of muscular strength training to increase overload and avoid muscular imbalance and overuse.

Numerous studies have outlined that dancers either believe their technique class offers enough physical training or, and more significantly mentioned, that they do not have enough time to participate in supplementary training. There are several exercises that can be incorporated into a dancer’s routine that are at a zero to low cost, can be done in a short amount of time, and do not require a large space. These few exercises outlined below are relevant to dancers and target various muscle groups. It is recommended that these be done after a warm-up. They can be performed before a class to prepare the muscles, but do be cautious to avoid overuse and exhaustion.

  1. Squat: specific to the posterior and anterior leg muscles, as well as providing ankle joint mobility. It can be done in both parallel and turned out positions, which can vary the medial and lateral thigh muscles. First rule of thumb, do not liken this to a plié! Alignment is slightly different, and there is a different intent to the movement.
    Example of a Squat. Photo by Sutton Anker.
    Example of a squat. Photo by Sutton Anker.
    1. Parallel: Legs are slightly wider than hip width apart, hinge at the hip joint allowing for the pelvis to move posteriorly, 90 degrees at the knees, knees track over toes. Arms can be placed on hips, held above head, straightforward or to the side. Don’t move too quickly when flexing and extending the knees.
      1. Challenge: Do a few reps, then hold at the bottom of the squat. Hold weights for additional resistance (do so gradually!)
    2. Turned out: Legs are slightly wider than hip width apart, do not go to your full turn out. No hinging forward at the hip, the pelvis will drop directly down. 90 degrees at the knees, knees track over toes. Arms can be placed on hips, held above head, straightforward or to the side.
      1. Challenge: Do a few reps, then hold at the bottom of the squat. Can do small pulses to engage the medial thigh muscles. Hold weights for additional resistance (do so gradually!)
  2. Lunge: focuses on quad and hamstrings with pelvis in flexed and extended position. These can travel or stay in place.
    1. Stepping forward to make 90-degree angle at knee joint, tracking knee over toes. Be sure knee does not go over line of toes. Both legs stay in parallel. Arms can be placed on hips, held above head, straightforward or to the side.
      1. Challenge: When transitioning out of the lunge, lift the back leg directly behind slightly (avoid too much movement of the pelvis), guide the leg through while balancing/stabilizing, and lift the knee up to the chest, then step forward. This will work on stabilization of the standing leg as well as increase muscular strength of the hamstring and increase flexion of the hip joint.
  3. Bridge: Low impact, core stabilizer and hamstring.
    Photo by Sutton Anker.
    Example of a bridge. Photo by Sutton Anker.
    1. Lying on the floor with knees bent, feet stable on the floor and knees parallel. Lifting the pelvis directly off the ground (avoid too much pelvis tilt) until hip joint becomes neutral or flat. Slowly bring pelvis back down to starting position. Palms are facing the floor directly to the side to offer support.
      1. Challenge: Hold at the top of the bridge after a few reps. when holding can lift foot directly off the ground, making for one fully extended knee. Be sure the knees stay in alignment with each other and avoid the pelvis rocking from side to side.
  4. Weights and Kettlebells: Full body muscular strength and additional resistance. These will also add variance to the routine and the various techniques will avoid overuse of certain muscles and joints. If you are a first time user of these pieces of equipment it is recommended that you review safety and proper use with a fitness professional. These can be purchased at a limited cost online or at a local gym.

There is an assumption that muscular strength training will “bulk up” and overly define muscles, which is traditionally not an ideal look for a dancer. When adding weights to a training program the trick is to do a high amount of reps with a lower weight. Overload is still applied to the muscle through frequency and duration, but the intensity level is moderate enough to avoid overly defined muscles, avoiding the weight lifter look. Implementing a consistent muscular training program will produce noticeable physical changes, but will be highly beneficial to the dancer.

A 2015 study asked dancers their perceptions on the significance of certain components of physical fitness, and how much they engage in them. Seventy nine percent of the 109 dancers perceived muscular strength to be “very important”, however, only 25% of the dancers “regularly” engaged in muscular strength training (McLeod, 2015, p. 65). In the same study however, 82% of the dancers perceived flexibility and joint mobility to be “very important” and 51% “regularly” engaged in it, while 30% “vigorously” engaged in it (McLeod, 2015, p. 65). Why is there a difference between flexibility and muscular strength in perceptions of importance and engagement? Media trends could be a factor. Social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook amplify extensions and hyper-flexible positions, which potentially negatively encourage dancers to recreate these positions without the physical ability to do so. The difference could also be due to lack of understanding in the significance muscular strength plays not only in technique but also in supporting flexibility.

Muscular strength plays a vital role in the longevity and success of a dancer. Muscular strength allows the dancer to have the physical capacity to leap at great heights, perform complex diverse movements, and to safely increase and stabilize his/her range of motion and extended positions. By providing information on muscular strength and how to incorporate it safely and effectively into a training program dancers will have a longer, healthier career. So the next time you go into your stretching routine, consider adding ten minutes of muscular strength training to support and develop your body’s full potential.

McLeod, H. (2015). Self-reported ratings of importance and engagement level in supplementary training for selected fitness parameters among pre-professional and professional contemporary dancers (Unpublished master’s thesis). Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
Welsh, T. (2009). Conditioning for dancers. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
Wyon. M, (2010). Stretching for dance. The IADMS Bulletin for Teachers, 2(1), 9-12.

Sutton Anker is originally from Littleton, Colorado. Sutton’s love of dance took root at a young age when she began dancing at a local studio. This passion carried into college where Sutton earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Dance concentration of Science from the University of Wyoming and recently completed her Masters of Science in Dance Science from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, UK. Sutton has performed in various productions throughout her college and professional career including From the Ashes: A Cinderella Ballet, Duet and Power/Full (a Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane Dance Company production), The Nutcracker, Boxed Set, The Little Mermaid and Six Songs from Ellis. Her technical background includes training in ballet, release technique, Horton, modern, tap, jazz, vertical dance, hip-hop, and pointe. Alongside Sutton’s passion of performing and teaching, Sutton has concentrated her studies and interest in the field of Dance Science. Sutton has presented at several Dance Science international conferences including the 2010 Performing Arts Medical Association conference with her research Specific Stretching for Individual Needs, and the 2013 International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) Conference presenting her research Effect of Mirrors on Dancers’ Ability to Learn Movement. Sutton is excited to announce that her M.Sc. thesis, An Investigation of the Pedagogical Rationales for Current Mirror Use in a Ballet Technique Class was accepted to the 2016 IADMS Conference in Hong Kong.

Sutton is teaching in the Denver Metro area and pursuing a career in dance and wellness education. She is driven to share her passion of dance to all levels and ages of dancers and non-dancers. Sutton loves everything Colorado has to offer and plans to dance her way around the world.