FULL TIME DANCE: TIPS TO MAINTAINING FITNESS DURING CHRISTMAS BREAK

For a full time dancer it’s often hard to know how to approach a long rest period and find the perfect balance between allowing the body to rest and recover whilst maintaining fitness and condition. If managed well a summer break can be used to rest the body and also allows an opportunity to improve on other areas. At times of the year when workload is high any auxiliary strength and conditioning has to be treated as second priority. Summer break can open up time to work on building strength, power and other aspects of fitness that improve a dancer’s aesthetics or their body’s ability to cope with classes, rehearsals or performance loads.

After an initial period of recovery or active rest it is best to begin preparing the body for what it will go through in the months ahead. Below is a guide to the main areas dancers should consider when planning a holiday maintenance regime:

DANCE The only way to really prepare yourself for your return to dance and maintain your dance fitness is to continue at least SOME dancing whilst on break. Compare your endeavours as a full time dancer to that of a runner training for a half marathon. If a runner went into an event with no training they’d hope to be able to physically complete the race but would have to deal with the high probability of a below potential performance, poor recovery and the high risk of sustaining anything from an annoying niggle to a more serious injury.

It’s crucial to recognise the effect that all the jumping, landing and leaping and general impact in that the choreography and class work has on the joints and soft tissue. Like any form of sport or activity the soft tissue has to adapt to the load over time and any sudden increases in dancing load leave the dancer at risk of developing niggles and injuries that could easily be avoided. It is easy for dancers to fall into the trap of ignoring these principles and feeling they are able to physically cope and keep up with what’s required of them when they return. In addition to the injury risk concerns from a performance point of view the only way to maintain dance specific fitness and technique is to keep up some dancing in your time away from your full time training.

ACTIVE REST: In most cases it is recommended to treat the first 1-2 weeks of an extended break as a period of ‘active rest’ in the same way that an athlete would approach the start of an ‘off-season’. When workload has been high and the body has been pushed to it’s limits it is imperative to allow some time for both soft tissue and the neurological system to recover. Active rest involves light movement or activity that places minimal stress on the joints and physiological system so that the person is able to keep moving without eliciting a level of stress that hinders the recovery process. It can be as structured as a pilates or yoga class, light cardio or gym session or can be as casual as going for a jog on the beach or playing frisbee with friends.

Active rest is advised over passive or complete rest for a number of reasons including but not limited to:

* Enhanced recovery process due to increased blood flow etc.
* Decreased muscle tightness and general stiffness
* Hormonal responses that contribute to mood regulation
* Helps maintain strength, fitness and range of motion
* Decreases likelihood of niggles or overuse injuries when dance or exercise is resumed.

AEROBIC FITNESS: The point of maintaining aerobic fitness is not only to ensure you can make it through a class or a routine. Increasing aerobic fitness also has a massive impact on your body’s ability to recover both day to day, week to week and when rehearsal or performance volumes increase. Working on this area requires a combination of aerobic cardio (i.e running, bike, rower etc) and also full body weights based training incorporating bodyweight to light weight exercises, high volume with minimal rest. These sessions could be circuit style sessions or class based and exact intensities depend on exactly which component of the cardiovascular system you are wanting to improve.

CORE STRENGTH, FLEXIBILITY: These are all areas that come naturally to a lot of dancers however even a small decline in any one of these things can increase the risk of injury or have an impact on aesthetics or control of movement. Incorporating a combination of activities such as yoga and pilates can be a good option and it is also advisable to maintain a regular routine of stretching and flexibility right through the break. Additionally methods such as foam rolling, trigger ball release and voodoo banding can be used to help maintain soft tissue and generally joint mobility.

STRENGTH & POWER: There is huge variability here depending on your style of dance, your current areas of strength and your areas in need of improvement. Areas of focus can include:

* Joint control & stability
* Lower Body Strength & Power
* Upper Body Strength and Overhead lifting abilities
* Core strength and overall control
* Force transfer
* Jumping and landing mechanics

As a full time dancer it’s wise to think of at least the second half of your break as an opportunity to build yourself to be able to comfortably handle and recover from a full dance load. This could be done with a combination of class work (perhaps including alternative styles to what you do most of your training in), work in the gym or even other outdoor activities or exercise. Everybody’s holiday maintenance plan will look a little bit different depending on individual strengths and weaknesses, predominant style, body type etc. Regardless of how you choose to approach it you should see it as an excellent opportunity for rest and rejuvenation as well as a chance to improve in areas you cannot focus on when your classes, rehearsals and performances are priority.

Overcoming Flexibility and Mobility Plateaus in Gymnasts – Part 2: Shoulders and Upper Body by Sami Gurdon

Part two in our series of overcoming flexibility issues in gym sport athletes looks at shoulder flexibility and thoracic mobility. There is a lot of overlap in these two areas and both hugely affect overhead movement, handstand positions as well as posture and body lines. Like most sports gym sports involve a high volume of repetitive sport specific movement patterns. As a result there are muscles which become hugely over dominant and if the opposing muscles aren’t given some consideration in the strength and conditioning programs and appropriate mobility exercises aren’t implemented. When these areas aren’t accounted for postural changes can occur injury risk increases and skill execution and performance can also be affected.

THE BASICS: (Recap from part one)

General principles to consider are that mobility issues generally arise from either shortening of muscles being created by:

    • Sports specific repetitive movement patterns
    • Muscle imbalances: expected in almost all athletes – but must be managed if excessive to what’s required.
    • The body’s protective mechanism if it detects an unstable joint (very important to increase strength and stability and keep stretching to a minimum here).

There are many skills in gymnastics that require fast and forceful shoulder flexion (or ‘closed’ shoulders). This movement contributes to the overdevelopment of the chest and anterior (front) shoulder muscles which can cause the humeral head to shift forward creating the rolled shoulder posture that is all too common in gymnastics. As well as possibly leading to shoulder pain, stability issues or other movement dysfunctions this can also lead to poor thoracic mobility which creates further in achieving an open shoulder line in handstand positions. With the right approach to strength and conditioning and flexibility/mobility programs these issues can be addressed which will both improve performance and reduce the risk of overuse injuries of the upper limb and lower back.

SHOULDER FLEXIBILITY:

Shoulder flexibility is a very important for gymnasts given that the handstand is the most fundamental body position required by the sport. When a correct handstand line cannot be achieved the gymnasts ability to perform a skill correctly is heavily compromised. Poor shoulder flexibility contributes to deficiencies in technique, deductions in competition and often creates compensations elsewhere.

As mentioned in part 1 in this series muscle tightness and joint restriction and flexibility issues can be caused by strength imbalances OR by the neuromuscular system protecting an unstable joint. When trying to overcome shoulder flexibility issues with athletes it is very important to determine the underlying issue to ensure it can be addressed both effectively and safely.

Shoulder flexibility issues can be caused by 3 main areas in gymnasts:

    • Shoulder stability issues can be the cause
    • Tight Lats – can be purely due to volume or can be due compensatory movement patterning
    • Pecs – over-dominant in gymnasts affecting humeral head position and posture

Performance and Skill-related Issues:

    • Poor handstand lines
    •  Poor bridge position
    • Decreased repulsion off hands in tumbling, vaulting etc
    • Decreased power in release skills on high bar and uneven bars
    • Tendency to bend elbows
    • Tendency to throw head when trying to open shoulders

Injury Concerns:

    • Shoulder instability and rotator cuff issues
    • Shoulder pain, overuse injuries and acute shoulder injuries
    • Wrist and elbow pain
    • Increased stress on lower back in back handsprings and other skills involving shoulder and hip extension

Solutions:

The shoulder joint is structured to allow movement through a very large range, as a result stability is compromised. When the following principles are implemented gymnasts can actually be among the best athletes when it comes to achieve a balance between the strength and range of motion in this challenging joint.

Strength and Conditioning Programming:

    •  Rotator Cuff Strengthening and shoulder stability work
    • A balanced strength program including a strong focus on posterior shoulder strengthening (I.e Tricep and Posterior Deltoid strengthening)
    • Perform strength exercises through their entire range of motion with good form
    • Eccentric strength exercises to lengthen muscle fascicles (i.e Overhead straight arm skull crushers with slow eccentric phase)
    • Strengthening overhead movement and strengthening end ranges of motion

Flexibility, Mobility & Self Release strategies:

    • Soft tissue self release: for example trigger ball Pec release, foam rolling Lats etc.
    • Stretches that increase muscle length but limit the strain on joint capsule, ligaments etc.
    • Stretching shoulders in more than just the extension and flexion plane of movement
    • Incorporating isolative lat stretches, pec stretches as well as Scapular mobility work

THORACIC MOBILITY:

Thoracic mobility is slightly different to shoulder flexibility and refers to the mobility and range of motion through the upper back. Poor thoracic mobility is common in gymnasts and contributes to the rolled shoulder and rounded back posture. It can cause issues in skills requiring trunk rotation and/or extension and affects handstand lines.

Limited thoracic mobility can place excessive strain on the lower back in skills that require extension as the body has to compensate for the lack of movement further up the spine. When the extension is isolated or concentrated to one region of the spine the risk of issues such as lumbar stress reactions and fractions, facet joint irritation and other injuries increases.

Performance and Skill-related Issues:

Refer to list above as there is significant overlap for thoracic mobility and shoulder flexibility issues and the affect that they have on skill acquisition and execution. In addition to this list poor thoracic mobility can create additional shaping issues and can lead to slight deficits in twisting skills as well.

Injury Concerns:

There is considerable overlap in injury risk for both thoracic mobility and shoulder flexibility.

    • Lower back injuries such as lumbar stress reactions, stress fractures, facet joint injuries etc.
    • Overuse injuries of the wrists can occur due to poor overhead positions and altered joint angles in contact positions.
    • Shoulder pain and overuse issues
    • Poor Scapular mobility and function
    • Neck tightness or pain

Solutions:

When trying to address this area there is a need to incorporate rotation based thoracic mobility exercises as well as extension based ones; this is an area that tends to be a bit overlooked in some programs.

    • Thoracic extension over foam roller (foam roller sitting under shoulder blades)
    • Pec stretch and chest openers laying long ways on foam roller
    • Pec, lat and abdominal stretches
    • Quadruped thoracic spine mobility exercise
    • Windmill and Archer rotational stretches

CONCLUSION:

As gymnasts hit the age of accelerated muscle growth it is important to ensure that the gain in strength and muscle mass is complimented by adequate flexibility and mobility work as this is when they become more susceptible to the types of issues outlined in this article. It is important to look at what can be improved both on the team and individual level as there is huge variation between athletes based on factors such as body type genetics and individual skill sets.

Investing the time to work on implementing these things into the S&C and flexibility and mobility programs will improve aesthetics and body lines, strengthen handstand positions and will create a more coachable body to learn new skills and fine tune technique.

For more information on this topic please consider reading part one in this article or contact Sami at the clinic.

Overcoming Flexibility and Mobility Plateaus in Gymnasts – Part 1: Lower Body by Sami Gurdon

Most people assume that gymnasts all have amazing flexibility or that they achieve their flexibility by spending hours holding splits, bridges etc. Whilst this may be more common for certain gymnasts with a particular body type, this is not always the case leaving the athlete to either struggle to hit lines with the desired aesthetics and/or execute skills proficientlyAlternatively they may develop massive compensation patterns whereby more mobile joints take up the slack and allow the range of motion to be achieved. Whilst this may seem great from a performance point of view it places increased stress on those structures and increases the risk of injury.

This article examines the adverse affects of having restricted range of motion in joints and advises on alternative ways to address them other than just the stock standard batch of static stretches found in many programs. Developing an understanding as to why your athlete is so tight or mobile then tailoring their strength and flexibility programs around this can produce profound results and can also make skill execution far easier.

THE BASICS:

General principles to consider are that mobility issues generally arise from either shortening of muscles being created by:

  • Sports specific repetitive movement patterns
  • Muscle imbalances: expected in almost all athletes – but must be managed if excessive to what’s required
  • The body’s protective mechanism if it detects an unstable joint (very important to increase strength and stability and keep stretching to a minimum here).

ANKLE & CALF MOBILITY:

This subcategory includes the calf muscles (both the Gastrocnemius and Soleus) as well as the ankle joint itself. Excessive calf tightness is very common in gymnasts due to the aesthetic requirement of toe point in skills as well as the jumping and take-off mechanics required and the high volume of explosive running, jumping and tumbling. Poor dorsiflexion range of motion creates significant compensation in landing positions. This creates issues in both at the ankle as well as other joints that experience more force as a result.

 

Performance and Skill-related Issues:

  • Poor squat patterning = poor landing positions
  • Reduced ability to control landings (increasing likelihood of steps and other landing deductions).
  • Issues with force transfer in tumbling leading to inability to hit correct positions and/or loss of power.

Injury Risks and Concerns: 

  • Rigidity and poor shock absorption in landings causing more force to be applied to joints further up the chain (i.e knee, hip and/or back).
  • Can contribute to a myriad of overuse injuries and growth related syndromes such as Sever’s Disease, Achilles Tendinopathies as well as calf strains and other acute injuries to the calf and achilles.

Solutions: 

  • Calf Stretches – bent and straight knee
  • Foam Rolling and Trigger Ball to self release muscles
  • Voodoo Banding – calf and lower calf (Soleus)
  • Powerband Ankle Mobility Stretches
  • Massage therapy and other manual therapies on a semi-regular basis using techniques such as trigger point release, active release therapy (ART) and tissue lengething massage.
  • Eccentric strengthening exercises to promote muscle lengthening when range is quite restricted.

ANTERIOR HIP MOBILITY:

Hip mobility can be surprisingly poor in gymnasts due to very high repetition of sport specific skills and drills requiring explosive hip flexion such as kips, saults, in-bar circle skills etc. This can cause tightening and shortening of the hip flexors (Psoas major and Iliacus) as well as Rectus femoris which can restrict hip extension, create hip capsule tightness and can also contribute to excessive anterior pelvic tilt.

Poor hip mobility and hip flexor tightness is a major factor in all of the lower back injuries that are seen commonly in gymnastics. This is due to the anterior pelvic tilt created that places the lumbar spine in more of lordotic curve (archy back) as well as decreasing the hip’s ability to dissipate force meaning more force goes through the lower back.

Performance and Skill-related Issues:

  • Poor hip extension: affecting ability to take-off, reach any stretched or open positions in layouts etc.
  • Decreased ability to hit split positions: affecting jumps, leaps, walkovers, aerials etc.
  • Limits efficiency when tapping in skills – decreased power in tap and/or compensation in lower back.
  • Poor handstand shape and therefore in-built deduction for body lines in many skills requiring handstand or straight hip position.
  • Poor posture and limited ability to achieve upright position when running.
  • Inability to achieve full hip extension also inhibits power production in everything from running and jumping to tumbling and taking off.

Injury Risks and Concerns: 

  • Lower back stiffness, pain or injury (lumbar stress fractures, facet joint irritation etc.). This is due to the fact that when hip extension is required but is limited by hip flexibility the lower back will arch more to take up the slack. This can create a hinge point whereby the lower back is taking more of the load than what is ideal.
  • Inhibition and weakness of opposing hip extensor muscles (glutes, hamstrings etc) which can cause deficits in lower body mechanics and/or can contribute to a number of hip, knee, back or ankle issues.
  • Inhibition of the deep intrinsic core muscles or lower abdominals affecting pelvic control and leaving the lumbar spine vulnerable.
  • Muscle strains of the anterior hip muscles.

Solutions: 

  • Hip flexor and quad stretches with assistance of Powerband
  • Programs should include a variety of isolative hip flexor, adductor and quad stretches and avoid just focusing on going straight into long duration holds in full split positions.
  • Soft tissue self-release strategies such as voodoo banding , foam rolling and trigger point therapy.
  • Eccentric quad strengthening to promote increased muscle length.

LOWER BACK STIFFNESS: 

Gymnasts generally have good mobility in lumbar flexion/extension (and in some cases are hypermobile) but can be restricted in forward bending and rotational movements due to tightness in posterior chain muscles such as glutes, piriformis etc. Hamstrings can also be tight but more often than not in gymnasts these other muscles restrict the movement of the hip and pelvis creating the PERCEPTION of hamstring tightness when in actual fact they are not to blame.

Solutions: 

  • Lumbar rotational stretches
  • A variety of glute max stretches as well as piriformis* stretches – figure 4 stretch, pigeon stretch etc
  • Trigger ball release of glutes and piriformis*
  • Back extensor stretches
  • Lat Stretches – these can be overlooked but are one of the most overused muscles in gymnastics; maintaining good range in Lats can impact the hip, lower back and shoulder line in handstands.

*Piriformis is the muscle right in the middle of the buttocks that physios and massage therapists often stick their elbows into and can make a HUGE different to hip movement and ‘hamstring’ flexibility.

CONCLUSION:

It is very important to individualise for each athlete and veer away from using a one size fits all technique with your team. An approach which enhances performance in one may lead to injury in another so it is important to consider the needs of each gymnast. Something else to consider is that there are variations dependent on body type and genetics; for a gymnast with hypermobility your focus should be more on strengthening and stabilising joints to increase performance as too much stretching will actually inhibit them and leave them more susceptible to injury.

Whilst the temptation is always there to cut down time on stretching and mobility work in favour of skill development, spending adequate time on both the flexibility and conditioning side of physical prep will ensure you are left with a far more ‘coachable’ body.

Strength and Conditioning for Handstands with Sami Gurdon:

First and foremost it goes without saying that the most important thing when it comes to developing a perfect handstand is practicing the handstand itself along with appropriate regressions, progressions and drills. Even top level gymnasts and acrobats take years to develop this skill and spend countless hours a week maintaining it. In addition to this there are many strength and mobility markers that affect a person’s ability to create and hold the perfect handstand line that can be tackled.

CORE CONTROL: 

For athletes that can achieve a good handstand line but are unable to hold it core control can be the issue. When the correct core and abdominal engagement cannot be achieved it can potentially lead to that poor control through the mid section that can create an arch in the back or tip the athlete off balance.

Areas to look at to address this issue are:

  • Isometric Holds: for example plank variations with a focus on a slight posterior tuck of the pelvis (tucking hips under) whilst drawing the belly button into the spine (very important!!).
  • Lower Abdominal and Transverse Abdominus: Often overlooked by gymnasts and cross fitters, these two muscle groups are often under developed in these populations due to over development of hip flexors and upper abs with all the explosive hip flexion required. These muscles are vital in maintaining a neutral hip position that will assist in achieving a correct handstand line so strengthening them will result in improved handstand control.

SHOULDER FLEXIBILITY: 

The athlete must be able to achieve an ‘open’ (180 deg) shoulder line both actively and passively. Deficits in this area can’t always be sorted out by stretching alone as the tightness can be caused by poor mechanics or muscle imbalances etc.

  • Flexibility:Stretch Lats and Pecs in isolation in addition to the usual shoulder flexion stretches (performed in both internal and externally rotated positions).
  • Other issues: Contrary to popular belief closed shoulder lines in handstands aren’t always to do with flexibility as such – often the flexibility issues are a byproduct of strength imbalances or poor Scapular positioning or issues with shoulder stability. Incorporating shoulder stability exercises as well as a lot of retraction based exercises can help correct this problem as well as including more exercises for posterior shoulder development (e.g. Posterior Delts, Triceps, Lats) in the strength program. All three of these things will help to ‘open’ the shoulder line

HIP MOBILITY & STRENGTH:

  • Flexibility:Cross-fitters and gymnasts alike are all prone to anterior chain and hip flexor dominance and this must be heavily accounted for in the stretching and mobility program. Ensuring that there are isolated quad and hip flexor stretches in addition to deep lunge and split-based stretches will ensure that the athlete can achieve the open hip position more easily without having to muscle through tightness.  Best results will be achieved by utilising static, dynamic and PNF stretching in addition to tools such as voodoo banding, trigger ball and power band assisted mobility work.
  • Strength:As mentioned previously overdevelopment of anterior musculature (quads, hip flexors, pecs etc) can inhibit efforts to achieve a good body line. Ensuring that this is balanced out by glute and hamstring development along with the appropriate lower and intrinsic core work will not only improve the handstand line but will also help in developing optimum force production of the lower body in running and jumping.

In summary it’s vital to spend time both practicing the handstand hold itself whilst also incorporating some more targeted strengthening and flexibility exercises into your program to ensure you are developing a body that is more capable of achieving the correct body line.

Medial Knee Pain in Dancers with Sami Gurdon – Part 2 – Exercise Interventions

Shot of a sportswoman being helped with a knee injury

In part 2 of our video series we take a more in depth look at exercise interventions and progressions for medial knee pain in dancers. We also address the issue of keeping the dancer active whilst rehabbing knee pain as often their rehearsal and performance schedules simply do not allow rest.

Topics covered:

00:06 – Exercise Interventions for medial knee pain in dancers

00:26 – Phase 1 – Muscle Activation

1:25 – Phase 1 – Muscle Activation – Example Exercises

2:42 – Phase 2 – Compound Muscle Strength

3:33 – Phase 3 – Compound Strength with introduction of depth work & end range strength

4:22 – Rotational based movement & advanced proprioception exercises

6:08 – Conditioning Program – Upper Body Exercises

7:25 – Conditioning Program – Lower Body Exercises

Medial Knee Pain in Dancers with Sami Gurdon – Part 1

 

 

In this video series by our Exercise Physiologist Sami Gurdon we examine the unique issues faced by dancers that can result in medial knee pain and discuss how this can be rectified with an appropriately constructed exercise intervention.

In dancers we find that the development of medial knee pain is usually caused by their excessive ranges of motion and lack of strength at end ranges of motion. In contrast to this we find that in general populations medial pain can more likely be attributed to muscular tension (in adductors, sartorius etc) and instability due to muscle imbalances and poor force dynamics.

Rehabbing medial knee pain in elite dancers poses a couple of issues – we need to rehab the underlying issues of the knee pain, take into consideration the fact that in most cases their volume of training will not stop and also ensure we take active measures to ensure that we maintain fitness, flexibility and mobility as well as proprioception and balance.

0:40 – Causes of medial knee pain in general populations

1:10 – Causes of medial knee pain in dancers

1:32 – Dancers – Strengths vs Weaknesses

2:32 – Occupational postures in dancers

See part 2 in this series for a more in depth look at exercise interventions and progressions for medial knee pain in dancers.

Snatch

Snatch is a complex olympic lifting movement that incorporates overhead stability and large lower body muscle recruitment for power production. It’s a crucial exercise for upper and lower body coordination and motor unit recruitment at higher velocities. It is important for athletes that require fast twitch muscle fibres and muscle recruitment at high speeds in power based sports.

 

Overhead Skull Crushers with Thoracic Extension

DB Skull Crusher 1

DB Skull Crusher 2

DB Skull crushers with thoracic extension is a unique exercise to encourage segmental stability through the thoracic spine. It’s also crucial in the strength development of the clavicular pectoral fibers. This exercise is very important for athletes working into overhead extension such as pole vaulters.

 

 

 

 

• Lying on back, glutes tight, core on feet behind knees
• Start with arms extended straight above chest
• Maintain core, slight arch of thoracic spine
• Lower arms behind head to shoulder level
• Flatten back, squeeze chest, raise arms to start position

Bird Dogs

Bird dog exercise for sports performance enhancement
Bird dog is a good sports performance exercise
Stage 2 of the bird dog exercise for sports performance enhancement
Stage 2 of the bird dog sports performance training exercise

Bird Dogs is an exercise that develops lumbo-pelvic stability and encourages greater integration of upper and lower body myofascial chains. It is an excellent exercise for athletes that require crossbody action or rotation such as rowers or swimmers.

 

 

 

● On hands and knees
● Brace core
● Raise alternate arm and leg to straight position
● Arm by ear leg straight without arch in back

 

Upper Abdominal Crunches

Upper Ab Crunches Position 1

upper-ab-crunches-2

The importance of strengthening abdominal musculature carries great value from a functional point of view. The upper abdominal crunch is one that is crucial in supporting the rib cage and providing segmental stability through the thoracic spine. So, as a result, it’s perfect for athletes who work through triple extension in exercises such as power cleans.

 

• Lie flat on back, knees bent, hands in front of face

• Suck belly button towards spine, flatten back
• Crunch, lift head and shoulders off ground