Cross Training for Ballet Dancers

If you’ve ever read Pointe Magazine, you’ll recall that cross training is one of the most-discussed tools for improving your technique by professional ballet dancers, ballet medicine specialists, and physical therapists.  It is rocking the ballet world!  So, let’s take a closer look at cross training, why it works, and how you can access it.


Cross training basics

Put simply, cross training is the use of other sports or exercise programs to train yourself as a ballet dancer without doing ballet.

As a ballet dancer, it’s very easy to get fatigued and your muscles to be exhausted very quickly.  When you want to do extra training to continue getting stronger, this can be difficult when you would die if you took another ballet class that day!  (You’ve already taken three!!)

Cross training is a way around this major struggle and a way to nourish your muscles as a healthy person, not just a healthy dancer.

Dancers are highly focused on conditioning, building, and stretching your external rotator muscles, which are used for turnout.  It is a nice break to work in parallel, and it builds muscles dancers don’t usually work, like your quadriceps, hamstirngs, and hip flexors. Exercising and utilizing these muscles is often frowned upon in ballet training, but they are really needed to support your movement in the background, especially for skills like big jumps.

So, we will now go through a few different kinds of cross training and describe them and give the pros and cons!

Pilates

This is the most basic and most universally accepted form of cross training for dancers . Pilates works your “ballet muscles” in addition to your quads, hip flexors, and hamstrings. It’s all about full-on, all-over-the-body conditioning to improve your endurance and muscle mass.  I would say the heaviest focus is on your abdominal and core muscles, which is a must for ballet dancers to develop to be safe and successful.

There are two types of Pilates – mat exercises and exercises on a specialized Pilates machine called the reformer.  I prefer mat exercises because they are more accessible and easier to manage, plus they are basically free!

Pilates also focuses on your breathing, which can work wonders for your stamina during all of ballet class, but especially jumps.  The underlying, natural abdominal engaging is on the exhale, and the release on the inhale.  It’s a great skill to learn.

Pros of Pilates:

  • Develops core
  • Uses breathing techniques to improve stamina
  • Can be done without equipment

Cons of Pilates:

  • Doesn’t develop leg and arm muscles as much
  • Some methods require expensive equipment

Yoga

Yoga is an ancient practice used to connect the mind and the soul to the body.  It focuses on a deeper inner connection and imagery to inspire movement and create a greater sense of determination and relaxation in your every day life.

Physically, yoga focuses on breathing and flexibility and a bit of core work to practice moving from your center and accessing release and mobility in all of your body’s joints.

Yoga is fantastic for reaching those hard-to-get muscles that ballet dancers need to be flexible to achieve the things you do every day.  Sometimes, these impossible-to-stretch muscles can only be relaxed by breathing and meditation techniques.  Yoga is perfect for this.

Additionally, dancers with tension problems or stress duirng dance class, and even performance anxiety, can benefit from yoga by relaxing and calming their minds and bodies.  Again, it has fantastic mental benefits in addition to physical ones.

Pros of yoga:

  • Can help with stress, anxiety, and tension
  • Improves flexibility
  • Uses breathing techniques to connect movements

Cons of yoga:

  • Doesn’t strengthen as much as it stretches
  • Classes are harder to access and cannot be implemented into warm up routines or strengthening regimens, etc. as easily
  • Time consuming

Swimming

Many dancers also thoroughly enjoy swimming for cross training.  Swimming is fantastic because it is completely impact-free, which is awesome for male ballet dancers especially, who do lots of big jumps and have a lot of pressure on their joints from standing and working in the ballet studio all day.

Swimming strengthens the entire body, including the core, back, arms, and legs.  It works a lot of muscles that dancers don’t typically work, which is fantastic for buidling underlying strengthening msucles for more endurance-based and athletic steps like jumps and the coordination needed during advanced steps like pirouettes and fouettés.

Swimming strengthens your arms for port de bras, and the mens’ arms for lifting.  This is a vital cross-training tool for male ballet dancers.  Women can also benefit, as arm strength is beneficial and universally accepted as healthy in every day life.  Again, be healthy as a person, not just as a dancer.

Pros of swimming:

  • Exercises arms and entire body
  • No impact
  • Uses resistance training to build overall strength and endurance

Cons of swimming:

  • Difficult or expensive to access
  • Involves holding your breath, which can develop bad habits in dancers
  • Doesn’t work on flexibility

Running

This is the only cross training method I wouldn’t 100% recommend.  Running is high-impact and only develops the quads and glutes, which are muscles that ballet dancers need for jumping, but almost nothing else.  And while it works wonders for your overall endurance and cardiovascular health, running will hurt a dancer more than it will help.

The cardiovascular benefits of running are outstanding, and it can improve your stamina during long jumping or petite allegro combinations very quickly.  Many dancers are attracted to this endurance-spurt, but the high-impact characteristics of running as cross-training for ballet dancers outweigh the benefits.

Running also heavily develops the quadriceps and the glutes, and strengthens almost no other muscle groups besides the calves.  This heavy calf work can cause Achilles tendonitis, which is already a very large problem among ballet dancers.  Running can cause horrible injuries which ballet dancers don’t need to add to their regimen of worries.

Pros of running:

  • Great cardiovascular and endurance benefits
  • Easily accessed in every day life
  • No equipment needed

Cons of running:

  • Very high impact
  • Develops quads and glutes
  • Creates injuries such as Achilles tendonitis and plantar fascitis
  • Doesn’t build flexibility or use breathing methods

Biking

The final cross-training method I will talk to you about is biking.  This is one of my favorites because of the cardiovascular and muscular benefits.

Biking is awesome because it lightly develops your quads and glutes, but it also strengthens your hamstrings, inner thighs, core, lower back, and even your arms.  Plus, constantly peddling gives you a good cardiovascular and endurance workout as well.

The uphill/downhill intervals and the breaks from peddling and using certain muscle groups are perfect for keeping long, lean thighs and a lengthened appearance for dancers.

Plus, you can get out an enjoy the world around you and the outdoors without breathing super hard and feeling forced into anything.  You can actually go somewhere!

Also remember that biking is 100% impact-free, so it is great for your joints and ideal for male ballet dancers who need a break from jumping and landing on hard surfaces.

Pros of biking:

  • Develops endurance
  • Strengthens many muscle groups
  • Completely no impact and safe

Cons of biking:

  • No breathing patterns to connect movements
  • Doesn’t develop flexibility
  • Requires equipment and space

I hope this is very helpful to you!  I’ll see you on Wednesday with a new blog post.

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