Preventing Injury: The Importance of Cross Training

Most dancers would say that dance reflects, affects, and motivates every avenue of their lives. It’s our passion, our love, our job, our resource, our therapy, our safe place, our means of health and fitness, and our means of joy. It’s our light and our journey. I used to feel like dance was so much of these things that I quite possibly might not need anything else. I let it consume me and enjoy being consumed by it as most dancers do. But when injury took it away not once but three times, I started to see its fragility. I started to see that while my body had always taken care of every aspect of me, I hadn’t been taking care of my body. I took my body for granted. Feeling invisible, having never experienced so much as a broken toe until I was 21 and tore my first ligament, I danced from sun up to sun down, at the drop of a dime, in ice cold temperatures without warming up, and trusted my body to rejuvenate itself on the little bit of sleep I allowed it. I never thought twice about what my (lack of) conditioning regimen, rest, and nutrition choices were doing to my over-used and under cared for body; mostly because it was working for me, until it wasn’t anymore. That’s when I learned the importance of actively practicing injury prevention. There are many things you can integrate into your current training routine to prevent injury. Let’s start with the importance of cross-training.

The concept really is that simple: A severe imbalance of conditioning equals muscular imbalance which equals higher risk of injury.

Let’s be honest the last thing a dancer wants to do after a 10+ hour rehearsal day is to jump on a spin bike, hit the weights at the gym, or swim some laps. But cross training is extremely important for a dancers body when it comes to preventing injury. Why? Well, picture something as simple as bending your knee and kicking your heel to your butt. Your hamstring is flexing while your quadricep is stretching. If you were to repeat this action over and over for an extended period of time your hamstring would become incredibly strong while your quadricep would be long and weak causing a muscular imbalance. Now imagine that same thing happening to your rotators, your adductors and abductors, your hip flexors, your stomach and back…etc. All the muscles in your body react the same way to overuse and repetitive movement and eventually there is muscular imbalance all over the body. Now imagine you’re performing as rehearsed when you slip. You try and catch your fall but your feet land inverted, a position your body has never been in before, or not nearly as much. Everything grips and fights to catch you but the muscles responsible for that inverted position are weak and simply not prepared to protect you. Your joint takes the hit putting your cartilage, ligaments and bone in danger of breaking and tearing.

The concept really is that simple: A severe imbalance of conditioning equals muscular imbalance which equals higher risk of injury.

The solution is also that simple…

Cross training helps to target the muscle groups we don’t focus on when we’re dancing. Some forms of cross training can be more complementary for a dancers body. Riding a bike or taking a spin class is a great exercise for your hip and knee joints. It also helps with range of motion and firing up the quadriceps. Yoga and pilates are popular and well balanced forms of cross training for dancers. Swimming is one of the best workouts you can do. It works so many different muscle groups at once and also helps with endurance and is a zero impact activity so it’s insanely gentle on your joints. Strength training, including resistance and weight lifting, can be a controversial form of cross training as there tends to be a stigma based on the fear that it will make our muscles bulky. But it’s actually immensely beneficial to a dancer’s body and, when done properly, the “bulking” doesn’t stand to be true. Dr. Nick Cutri, creator of Sugarfoot Therapy, actually stresses the importance of weight lifting for dancers. He teaches that it won’t make the muscles significantly bigger, instead it will teach them to fire at their fullest capacity. The weight challenges the neuromuscular activation of the muscles encouraging them to reach a stronger and quicker activation. Dr. Cutri adds low weights and multiple reps to his conditioning program and even adds weights to his jump training in order to prepare the trunk for proper stabilization when landing. The weights also help to gain endurance which is another key element to nurture when training with injury prevention in mind. Interval training can even be incorporated in studio work to boost the endurance we need while performing. In order to keep muscles and joints long and flexible make sure to pair your strength training with dynamic stretching. The balance of both will ensure you keep the fear of getting “tight” or “bulky” at bay.

Swimming is one of the best workouts you can do.

Through out all training, whether it be classical dance training or a cross- training of sorts, be precise about your alignment and make sure to stretch into any places that are causing tightness before and after your activity. Getting a sports massage or even just taking the time to work into the tight spots of your soft tissue with therapy balls will help to release muscular tightness that can pull on your joints and cause more imbalance giving you relief and helping to prevent injury.

Check out Sugarfoot Therapy for cross-training and injury prevention conditioning online circuits that are created for dancers by Dr. Nick Cutri, his wife (and killer dancer Katie Schaar). Instagram: @sugarfoot_therapy

About the author

Jaimie Goodwin has been working as a professional dancer for over ten years. You may know her from shows such as SYTYCD, DWTS, or Shaping Sound Dance Company. After overcoming multiple serious injuries she has become an advocate of preventative care and wellness for dancers.