While resistance training, and specifically resistance training with weights, has become commonplace in the training regimens of many sports, it still seems that among artistic athletes there is a pervasive belief that resistance training is not for them and will not be beneficial to their practice.
So let's break it down, what is the benefit of this kind of training for dancers, gymnasts, acrobats, aerialists, and other artistic athletes, and how do we best incorporate it into a training regimen? While these disciplines do not traditionally incorporate, and often used to discourage resistance training, research studies continue to show that the benefits of an appropriately applied resistance training program outweigh any potential risk.
Resistance training done as part of a sport-specific training regimen has been shown on numerous occasions to reduce risk of both overuse and acute injuries. One study has even shown that when appropriately applied, strength training halved the risk of overuse injury in athletes.
Like we talked about before, resistance training can be used as a means to train the body to be able to tolerate the loads and forces that are unavoidable in sport. It helps us to build good movement patterns that promote proper and efficient body alignment for take offs, landings, overhead control, etc., in a safe and more controlled environment.
In artistic sports, though much of what we do is done with body weight, during take offs, landings, and dynamic movement, we are often asking our body to absorb and translate forces equal to multiples of that. Weight training allows us to systematically load and adapt our bodies to be able to handle these forces, e.g. the high loads on arms and legs of tumbling, jump landings and dismounts, and the high force overhead upper body traction seen in gymnastics and certain aerial apparatus.
Here's an example of how to put this into practice: Your athlete or student is unable to do a body weight pull up, which is a foundational movement for circus athletes and gymnasts. To supplement the body weight training of band-assisted or eccentric pull ups, incorporating exercises such as a lat pulldown (with a machine, or with a band) can help build up the strength for the full pull up.
Here's another one: For an acro porter or a cheerleading base, rather than conditioning by pressing their partner overhead, over and over again and after having done so in practice, performing a conditioning set of 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps of 60-85% of a one rep maximum can still allow one to increase their strength and therefore their performance ability while staying within a safe amount of total load, and decreasing the risk of developing an overuse injury.
As well, proper resistance training technique teaches 360 degree core bracing strategies and can be used to slowly expose the spine to increasing loads. This can help gymnasts, acrobats, and figure skaters protect their lower backs during force translation of landings.
Follow this link to download your free Periodization Template for the Artistic Athlete, a printable resource to help you plan your training to prioritize recovery and optimize performance!
Cross Training Benefits the Body and Mind
Maintaining variety in your training regimen is important to help avoid burnout, and maintain overall body fitness. Many artistic sports have elements that are performed predominantly with one side of the body, leading to an imbalance in strength and or flexibility on that side. Cross training with resistance training helps to mitigate these imbalances by providing an oppourtunity to train both sides equally.
Let's take the example of a circus performer in whose straps act they perform a sequence of dynamic beats on their right side. While they may train their left side equally, the right side is going to get more reps regardless as that is their performing arm. In a conditioning session, they may then add in oblique pull ups, or single arm rows to bias more to the left side and keep their strength even.
Aside from the reasons discussed above, this added variety in training also helps to mitigate risk of overuse injury by giving the body a break from its repetitive sport specific movements while still training its fitness. Keeping variety in your training regimen increases the body's ability to adapt to new stimuli and learn new skills. Cross training allows us to condition other aspects of our fitness that are important for overall body balance, but may not be the basis for our sport.
Increase Strength, Power, Speed, and other Aspects of Fitness
Appropriately applied and implemented resistance training programs have been shown to increase several aspects of performance in dancers and other artistic athletes. All artistic athletes have to be strong, never mind for injury prevention as previously discussed, but simply to be able to perform the movements and skills required for these sports. Certain skills will require high levels of power output and flexibility, and performing routines requires both cardiorespiratory and muscular endurance. Neurological control and coordination are needed too to allow for more efficient movement and therefore increasing power and amplitude of skills.
Resistance training can be used as an adjunct to sport specific training to help improve these aspects of fitness and therefore enhance performance in these sports. For example, increasing strength of the quadriceps muscle group via a leg extension exercise translates to improved strength for leg extension in fouettes; increasing power via training an explosive front squat can improve jumping ability in dancers, gymnasts, and figure skaters; and increasing flexibility by incorporating exercises such as Romanian dead lifts or Nordic hamstring curls which will increase dynamic control, muscle length, and active flexibility of the hamstrings.
Improving core control as part of a targeted exercise program, for example adding weighted carries to a training program, has also been shown to increase dynamic stability in dancers, allowing for better control during turns, jump landings, and take offs.
Going back to our first example of a porter: using weights to train their overall upper body power development will allow them to better toss their flyer. Adding in dynamic core control exercises will help make their movements more efficient as they will be better able to brace the core and translate force during their skills.
How to Incorporate this into my Training Regimen.
When deciding on how to implement resistance training into your training regimen, it is important to consider not just the time of the season that you or your team are in, but also how it fits into your training throughout the week. Training age, (as well as biological age) of all participants must also be taken into account when designing a program for a team or individual.
Heavy/high intensity resistance training should be used during the off season as a means of increasing fitness and prepping for the on-season. Pre-season resistance training should continue to build, but decrease in intensity and frequency. It should become more sport specific as regular sport training commences. During the competitive season, resistance training should be designed to maintain strength, develop energy systems, and prevent injury.
For circus performers and professional dancers, this can be a little bit more difficult as on and off seasons do not exist in the same way they do for organized sports. Performers should try to incorporate resistance training into their training regimens, for at least one day per week, and tailor it's intensity based on their total workload for the week. Increases in training intensity and changes in overall training goals need to be designed around their contract schedules.
Let's be clear here, should resistance training replace your usual sport specific conditioning? No way! But it can and should be used as an adjunct to our training to help decrease risk of overuse injury, increase overall strength and power, and prevent burnout.
Want to talk about how best to incorporate resistance training into your or your team's training regimen? Contact me here, and let's chat.
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