Strength training for South Asian dancers
By Jatin P. Ambegaonkar, PhD ATC FIADMS CSCS
Watching a good South Asian dancer is breathtaking. Being a good South Asian dancer is hard!
South Asian dancers often practice 6-8 hours daily and perform 2-3 times per week with some performances lasting over 2 hours. The dance steps performed often push dancers’ bodies to the limits and can increase dancers’ injury risk – especially when fatigued. Dancers should thus have good muscle fitness to perform well and not get injured.
Muscular fitness is a continuum from power to strength and endurance.
A typical South Asian dance performance (e.g. kathak) requires dancers to have a wide range of muscle fitness from anaerobic power to perform quick explosive movements (e.g. powerful tatkars in drut laya) to aerobic endurance to perform slow and sustained movements (e.g. a slow ‘chal’ or steps in ‘vilambit laya’).
South Asian dance has strong cultural, and spiritual roots via a gurukul or gharana system.
While South Asian dance teachers are experts in their art, they often have no formal education in exercise science or medicine principles.
Thus, South Asian dancers’ physical demands may often be overlooked. In this article, I will discuss:
1. What is strength training,
2. How to perform strength training,
3. Tips when performing strength training, and
4. Myths about strength training
WHAT IS STRENGTH TRAINING?
Strength training is a form of physical exercise where individuals use some form of resistance (e.g. body weights, free weights, bands, machines) when performing muscular contraction.
HOW TO PERFORM STRENGTH TRAINING?
There are many modes to perform strength training.
Irrespective of the actual mode of training, there are some common principles that dancers should remember to correctly perform strength training.
All strength training exercises are done in combinations of
Sets (a group of repetitions of a specific exercise followed by rest), and
Reps (repetitions or the consecutive number of times you perform the same exercise
The basic principles of all strength training programs are all covered by the acronym FITT- VP (Frequency, Intensity, Time, Type, Volume, and Progression).
All strength training programs will vary these principles when performing the exercises.
1. FREQUENCY – HOW OFTEN?
Not more than 3 days per week, especially if exercising one part of the body per day. Allow for 48 hours (2 days) of rest before exercising the same muscles again
2. INTENSITY – HOW MUCH WEIGHT?
This varies based on whether you want to improve strength or endurance.
To improve strength, perform exercises that you can consecutively perform 2-10 times without rest.
To improve endurance, perform exercises that you can consecutively perform 11-20 times without rest.
3. TIME - HOW MANY TIMES?
Again, this varies based on whether you want to improve strength or endurance.
To improve strength, perform 2-3 sets of 2-10 repetitions, with a 2-minute rest break between sets
To improve endurance, perform 3-5 sets of 11-20 times with a 1-minute rest break between sets.
4. TYPE – WHAT TYPE OF TRAINING?
The types of training include using the person’s Own body weight, Free weights (e.g. dumb bells, resistance bands), or Machines (e.g. leg press or bench press machines).
The type may also be the actual modes of varying the exercises sets and reps. Some types include, but are not limited to
Circuit training - where you exercise the whole body in one session but change the exercises every 30-60 seconds
Split training – where you train only a couple of muscle groups one day and another group on separate day – Upper body and lower back on Day 1 and Lower body and upper back on Day 2).
5. VOLUME IS THE PRODUCT OF FREQUENCY, INTENSITY AND TIME.
As you become stronger, you can alter the Frequency, Intensity and Time of the training program, but end up with the same total workload volume.
For example, a dancer can do 4 sets of 5 reps (for strength) for 30 seconds each OR 2 sets of 10 reps (for endurance) for 1 minute each of squats to perform the same total volume of 20 squats over 2 minutes.
This means that as you get stronger, your body will adjust to each of the other components of the FITT principle and you will gradually need to progress to increase one or more of the components (e.g. the weights or the number of repetitions) to become additionally stronger.
TIPS WHEN PERFORMING STRENGTH TRAINING
1. BEGINNING A PROGRAM
Start strength training SLOWLY. It is better to use lighter weights and perform lesser repetitions so that the body gets used to exercise
2. PARTNER WORK
Work with another dancer or partner who can assist if you feel uncomfortable when exercising, or the weights or volume of exercises are too much
3. WARM UP AND COOL DOWN
Always warm up AND cool down for at least two minutes EACH to allow muscles to get ready for exercise (warm up) and then start to relax (cool down) after the exercises
Do NOT hold your breath when strength training
Breathe OUT when PUSHING against resistance (i.e. lifting weights) and
Breathe IN when RELAXING the resistance (e.g. putting the weight down)
Maintain proper form – it is better to SLOW down or stop exercising if you feel that you cannot maintain form – as exercising using bad form can cause injury
MYTHS ABOUT STRENGTH TRAINING
1. STRENGTH TRAINING IS DANGEROUS – NO
In fact, taking part in a regular and well planned strength training can increase the force produced by the muscles, the endurance, and size of the exercising muscles and help dancers improve their performance and reduce their injury risk.
2. STRENGTH TRAINING WILL REDUCE FLEXIBILITY, AND INCREASE BODY BULK – NO
Strength training can provide multiple benefits to dancers. Some of these benefits include increased bone, muscle, tendon and ligament strength and improved cardiac function.
Participating in proper strength training can also help maintain dancers muscle and bone mass, and reduce the amount of body fat and improve their overall health.
In fact, researchers have noted that taking part in a strength training programs increases dancers’ fitness (Koutedakis et al. 2007), and that dancers with more strength have lesser injuries (Koutedakis et al. 1997).
3. STRENGTH TRAINING WILL WORSEN YOUR DANCE TECHNIQUE - NO
In fact, researchers have noted that taking part in a strength training programs can increase dancers’ performance aesthetics (Koutedakis et al. 2007) and fitness training is beneficial for dance students to achieve a better performance (Angioi et al 2009).
4. DOING OTHER PHYSICAL ACTIVITY THAN DANCE WILL WORSEN DANCE TECHNIQUE – NO
In fact, athletes cross train - i.e. take part on other activities than their sport to reduce the overall strain on their bodies.
For example, cricket players often play football, and football players often swim so that the muscles that they use for their sport get a break.
Similarly, dancers should also take part in other activities to avoid muscle imbalances.
Like all dancers, South Asian dancers need good fitness levels to successfully meet the rigorous demands of their art.
South Asian dancers should proactively take part in strength and supplemental training program to improve their performance and reduce their injury risk so that they can enjoy long productive dance careers!
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