6 Cross-Training and Conditioning Myths for Dancers Debunked

July 27, 2020

Despite what you may think, when it comes to being a strong, healthy dancer, “all ballet, all the time” shouldn’t be your motto. We spoke with Vanessa Muncrief, chief physical therapist for Ballet Austin, from Baylor Scott & White Institute of Rehabilitation, to dispel some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding cross-training and conditioning for dancers.

Myth: It’s safest to stick only to ballet.

If you’re afraid that training in other sports may increase injury risk, think again. Muncrief points out that dance is pretty much the only discipline that trains mostly within its sport. “Soccer players don’t only do soccer,” she says, “and football players train in a wide variety of activities.” It’s only in the last decade that the dance world has warmed up to the idea of cross-training. “It’s quite helpful for decreasing injury,” she says. While you don’t need to run out and join a sports team, going for a bike ride or a swim, instead of squeezing in an extra ballet class, will help your body find better balance and recover from the demands of dance.

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Myth: Class and rehearsal alone build up enough stamina for performance.

“Dance is a fairly anaerobic activity,” says Muncrief, noting how class and rehearsal stop and start frequently. “You’re working really hard, but you’re not necessarily challenging your cardiovascular system.” To build up stamina for lengthy performances, she recommends professionals do 20 to 30 minutes of cardio four times a week during the off-season. When your rehearsal schedule ramps up and you have less time and energy for rigorous workouts, find pockets of time to prioritize aerobic training in between rest and recovery. That might mean a taking brisk walk or using a recumbent bike if rehearsal lets out early.

And aerobic exercise isn’t just about being able to make it through a performance without getting winded. Cardiovascular endurance is also important for reducing injury risk. Muncrief mentions that 80 to 90 percent of injuries occur when a dancer is fatigued. “We want to keep dancers out of that fatigued phase,” she says.

Myth: Running is dangerous for ballet dancers.

If it’s done the right way, it can be an excellent, safe stamina booster. Make sure you’re running with parallel alignment in the hips, knees and ankles—instead of the external rotation you’re used to in ballet. Though Muncrief says she wouldn’t recommend running for dancers of all styles, it’s different enough from ballet to bring balance to the body. If you do jog, go every other day, not daily.

Muncrief leans over a physical therapy table, writing into a binder.
Vanessa Muncrief. Jordan Moser, Courtesy Ballet Austin

Myth: Ballet dancers should always turn out.

In the quest to achieve near-180-degree turnout, you might think the more time you spend in external rotation, the better. Not so, says Muncrief. “It’s actually really good to balance it out.” Why? If you’re using external rotation constantly, you’re only bearing weight on one area of your ball-and-socket hip joints. This wear and tear puts you at risk for femoral acetabular impingement syndrome. “Save external rotation for ballet class, and everything else should be neutral,” she says, including walking.

Myth: Weight lifting will make dancers too bulky.

Dancers often worry that strength training will cause them to bulk up or lose their balletic physique, but Muncrief encourages them to reframe this thinking. The goal of strength work is to be able to lift your own body up off the ground—or lift another dancer—as choreography requires. “We don’t want you to go bench-press or do snatches,” she says. Instead, focus on lifting two- to three-pound weights with high repetitions. “That’s going to build your endurance and not necessarily give you bulky, heavy-duty muscles.” She also recommends Pilates for sculpting a lean physique while building core strength.

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Myth: There is no such thing as too much stretching.

“That is absolutely wrong,” says Muncrief, who warns that overstretching can lead to irreparable ligament damage, making your joints less stable. “Once a ligament is torn or overstretched, it doesn’t necessarily rebound to where it was before, like a muscle.” Hold a stretch for 30 seconds, four times, and then move on. And save any static stretching for once you’re warm, such as after barre or once class is over.