Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Improving Dance by Getting Stronger

by Emily Socolinsky, SSC | June 01, 2017

strength improves dance

As a former dancer (20+ years of dance, ballet and modern), I did not understand the true nature of what “getting stronger” meant. It took me twenty years to finally start training with a barbell. Strength made the biggest difference when I returned to dance. Not physical therapy when I was injured. Not endless hours of cardio. Barbell training. I knew this was something that all dancers were missing. But how could I convince my fellow dancers to do this?

Before I opened Fivex3 Training, I taught ballet in the afterschool TWIGS program at my former high school. It was there that I met Emily, then 9 years old. I stopped teaching in the TWIGS program about three years ago as the gym got busier, but I kept in touch with the teachers there and visited the school from time to time.

Emily had auditioned for the high school in 8th grade and was accepted. However, the summer before her freshman year she injured her back, suffering a spinal stress fracture at L5. This put her out of dance classes for nearly the entire first year of high school. For seven months, twice a week, she went to physical therapy to help strengthen her back. Eventually, she was allowed to start dancing again, but in the course of a year she had fallen very far behind the rest of her class, was weak, and was very susceptible to future injury. Theoretically, she was “healed,” but she was still suffering through high levels of pain whenever she danced and she felt no control over her body as a dancer. Her teachers continuously insisted she get stronger, but gave her very little idea as to what that entailed. All in all, she was feeling pretty lost.

Then one day last spring, I was visiting the high school and by chance, ran into Emily, now a sophomore. When she told her dance teacher that she had seen me, her teacher suggested that she contact me about strength training.

emily trains for dance by squatting

Emily joined my general fitness program (bootcamp) in August of 2016, attending twice a week. This was an easy way to get her into the gym, to see if she was interested in the work we do, and decide if she was going to stick with it. She loved it. It was a mental and physical break from her dance classes and it allowed her to create a training habit. In October, I suggested she try coming in one Saturday morning to try out the Starting Strength program as I knew that the program would be much more beneficial to her than the bootcamp class.  I had earned Emily’s trust over time and as a result, she agreed to try barbell training without any hesitation. 

We started just once a week as her schedule allowed.  She did the squat, alternated press and bench, and deadlifted. It was slow going. Nutcracker rehearsals, a sore ankle and multiple performances stalled her progress during the month of November and December. 

Then, on January 10, 2017, Emily rolled her foot in a pair of pointe shoes one afternoon rehearsing for a spring dance performance. Her doctor told her that it was just a bad foot sprain and she was put on crutches so she could keep weight off of her foot. Emily was expecting me to tell her to stay home and rest. Instead, I told her that there was still plenty that she could work on and I encouraged her to come in and train what she could. After about a week of benching, seated presses and reverse-hypers, Emily was off her crutches. By the following week, she was wearing her Chucks and walking normally again. The bruise was now only slightly visible. We started her box squatting so as to not put too much stress on the foot or ankle. She was able to press so she pressed. She deadlifted. She benched. I recommended that Emily get a doctor’s note that would allow her to start her dance classes again as her foot was getting better. Since she was able to train, it was now important to begin rehabilitating her foot again and this meant taking classes. By the end of the January, she was back in her dance classes and found that she hadn’t fallen terribly behind in her dance training.

The last time she was injured, she missed half a year. Now she had missed just two weeks.

training the bench press to improve dance performance

Since her injury, Emily has been training consistently three times a week, squatting every session, alternating her press and bench, alternating her deadlifts with chin ups and power cleans. Although her body weight has not changed too much (she still weighs a tiny 90 lb), she is beginning to eat a little bit more. It has not been an easy battle. Like many dancers, she has never really been talked to about the necessities of eating enough and eating healthy while being an athlete. Emily is more likely to want to add weight to her bar than an extra piece of chicken to her dinner plate. Her best lifts today are a 107.5 lb squat, 45 lb press, 60 lb bench and 135 lb deadlift for sets of three. Not too bad for two months of solid training. The following is her novice linear progression program:

PressBench PressPress
DeadliftChin-upsPower Clean

Since beginning her program and returning to class, Emily has noticed great improvements in her dancing. Her balance is better and her strength has greatly improved. Her teachers have commented that her overall technique has improved, including everything from her turns and her body alignment, to the height of her legs in grande battement. Although she is supposed to do planks in modern class while the boys do push ups, Emily instead does push ups, much to the chagrin of her teachers who frequently remind the girls that they should leave it to the boys. As Emily noted, she should have been set back by her foot injury, but coming back from her injury this time was almost seamless. She has never felt better about her dancing or more confident in her abilities. She came into the gym one afternoon to tell me that the head of the department called her out in front of the class to demonstrate a frappé exercise on relevé (standing on the ball of her bad foot) and told the class "it was the best she'd ever seen in the school." This is something that has never happened to her during her three years at the school.  She no longer gets tired after long taxing combinations as her endurance has increased and she is able to hold her legs up higher for longer periods of time without feeling exhausted or sore the next day.

Most recently, Emily was encouraged by her dance teacher to continue to attend rehearsals for the spring dance concert as she was improving so quickly in her classes. The solo that she had to give up in January due to her foot injury became hers again thanks to her strength and perseverance. Even though Emily has only started strength training, the beneficial changes are already apparent. The little bit of strength she has acquired over the past few months have helped to create not only a better dancer, but a stronger and more confident kid.  

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