Weight training for dancers is certainly not a new concept, but it is one that comes with a bit of uncertainty, and even a little controversy. Traditionally, dance conditioning & cross training programs include methods like pilates, yoga, and body weight exercises. While these are all great options (especially if you don’t have access to gym equipment), they are missing a few key elements that weight training can provide. Weight training is extremely important for any athlete, and dancers should be no exception!
Why should dancers weight train?
If you are looking to make gains in your performance, weight training is one thing that can take you to the next level. It is shown to increase muscle strength, endurance and reduce overall risk of injuries (1). Almost all athletes use weight training as a way to improve their performance, so why not dancers? There is some argument that weight training is not “specific” to dance and doesn’t take into account the aesthetics, however, weight training can create just the foundation needed for improving aspects of your performance that have been lacking.
You are only as strong as your weakest link, and if you are struggling to make it through a dance because you are out of breath or your legs are too fatigued to jump one more time, making it look pretty will be the last thing on your mind. Basically, without having a good base of muscle strength and endurance, it is nearly impossible to focus on your aesthetics. You are also far more likely to get injured as you fatigue, and weight training is the perfect way to help to combat against this. So really, the better question is, why aren’t dancers weight training more often??
Barriers to weight training in dance
Fear of “bulking up”
“I don’t lift weights because I don’t want to get bulky.” Sound familiar??
This is such a common statement heard in the dance world, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, “bulking up” is actually A LOT harder than you might think. It requires a specific training program with the right number of sets/reps, weight progression and attention to nutrition. So in short, bulking up is not an issue for someone lifting weights a few times per week.
Not knowing where to start
Because weight training is not a traditional form of cross training in dance, most don’t feel very confident in their ability to walk into a gym and lift weights. There is little guidance given to dancers at any level in regard to weight training, so it can be intimidating knowing where to even start. As with any type of cross training, it is extremely important that you take the time to learn how to do it properly to avoid injuring yourself. This can be done with help of a personal trainer, physical therapist, or athletic trainer. It is not completely necessary that this person be specialized in dance, but certainly is an added bonus if they are!
As you can imagine, weight training requires having access to the right equipment. This may be a gym membership, having an at-home gym setup, or a family/friend who has one. Not everyone has access to this, or the financial means to make it happen. If that is the case, there is absolutely nothing wrong with utilizing other methods of training. Resistance bands, exercise balls, or body weight exercises are still highly effective ways to strength train, especially if that is all you have access to.
The benefits of weight training
Increased muscle strength
Increased muscle tone and appearance
Increased muscular endurance
Increased cardiovascular capabilities
Increased muscular control and coordination
Stronger, healthier bones
Better power and speed
Plus… It’s fun!! Lifting weights has been known to make a few people feel more like a badass ;-)
Weight training results in a large recruitment of muscle fibers, and therefore increases muscle strength and endurance more than body weight exercises alone. For instance, when we compare body weight squats and deadlifts to weighted squats and deadlifts, there is significantly more trunk muscle activity with the later (2). Over time, this equates to more strength and stability, both of which are essential to improving your dance performance.
There also has been evidence to show that resistance bands are less effective at providing the same amount of muscle fiber recruitment throughout the entire range of motion, unlike using free weights, because the resistance changes throughout the exercise (3). Resistance bands are a great tool for dancers, because they are cheap and can be easily transported in a dance bag, but if this is all you are using for your strength training, you may be missing out. Time to grab those dumbbells!!
A quick note on other forms of cross training for dancers...
It is important to note that, while effective for building strength, weight training is only one aspect of cross training. It should in no way be a replacement for other, more dance specific, types of training, such as pilates, barre work or jump training. It should instead be used as a compliment to these other methods to enhance your results. This is what will build a well-rounded dancer, who is more resilient to injury and capable of taking their performance to the next level!
Interested in learning more about how to weight train? Join me in my FREE VIRTUAL WORKSHOP: From Pointe Shoes to Barbells
Lauerson J, Bertelson D, Anderson L. The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. B Journal of Sports Med. 2014; 48: 871-877.
Hamlyn N, Behm DG, Young WB. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1108-12.
Vegard M. Iversen, Paul Jarle Mork, Ottar Vasseljen, Ronny Bergquist & Marius S. Fimland (2017) Multiple-joint exercises using elastic resistance bands vs. conventional resistance-training equipment: A cross-over study, European Journal of Sport Science, 17:8, 973-982
Baechle T, Earl R. Weight Training: Steps to Success. Human Kinetics: 2019.