So new research has come out showing the importance of continued (but not strenuous) strength training. Maintaining muscle is important for everyone as a way to stay healthy and fight excess weight gain, but it appears to be especially important for women, who generally live longer than men but are more prone to conditions that weaken the body, such as osteoporosis. NPR recently reported on how weight training can help women live stronger and better for longer. Strength conditioning is a common element of many different sports and fitness routines, and ballet is no exception!
Though ballet dancers may not hit the gym to work with barbells every day, the exercises that we practice in class help to maintain muscle condition and improve strength. In many ways, we use our own bodies as weights, especially to help strengthen hips, legs and feet. After all, that “toe lift” noted in the NPR article? It’s a rélévé! An important building block for turns and traveling steps, as well as a great way to condition and tone muscles from the toes on up.
Other commons balletic elements can help to improve strength: port de bras, especially in adage combinations and practiced slowly at the barre, builds muscles in the arms, shoulders, and upper body. Proper comportment (the carriage of the body) improves core muscles, especially abdominal muscles. Tendu and fondu condition the legs, and all those pliés? Great for hips, thighs, and the lower abdominals.
Many dancers (from beginners to the pros) will do additional strength training to help build and sustain muscle through the body, including workouts with light free weights, Pilates (which is great for both strength, coordination and flexibility) and additional forms of exercise, like swimming or jogging. The MSU Group Exercise and Recreational Fitness programs offer many different classes that complement ballet very well, so for those wishing to move a bit more, I highly recommend checking out the class options on campus. I find that working with small free weights at home for about 15-20 minutes each day helps improve my personal fitness and makes it easier to transition to more challenging exercises at the barre or en centre (especially when performing adage). That may seem like a short amount of time, but it builds up to better fitness in the long run. As Joan Crockford of the American Council on Exercise notes in the NPR article, “for general muscular fitness, one to two sets of 12-15 reps with a weight that feels challenging at the end is a good rule of thumb.”
An important thing to remember when conditioning (or really doing any exercise) is not to overdo it. This is one of the reasons we spend a lot of class at the barre: it allows the dancer to fully warm the muscles up while being supported. The barre is also an important tool to use while building strength incrementally through the application of proper technique. Slow and steady wins this race: practiced conditioning, done on a regular schedule and at a comfortable pace, will lead to a stronger body (and lessen the possibility of injury).
Bottom line: train often, train comfortably, and keep those muscles strong for as long as possible! 🙂