Upper Body Strength in Dancers
Updated: May 21
Originally researched and written by Haydee Ferguson of True Potential Physiotherapy Summarized here by Richelle Stevenson, LAT
What do your arms have to do with it?
As this experienced physiotherapist explains, "Dance is a full body activity. From the tips of your fingers and toes through to deep within your abdomen, everything gets used." Dancers are quick to jump into exercises which improve their flexibility, but often ignore upper body strengthening because they do not see a direct connection within ballet. However, strength in your upper body can translate to higher jumps, better turns and stronger balances. Ferguson explains, "A turn cannot successfully be completed with droopy elbows, jumps will not get far off the ground if you are tensing your shoulders and neck mid-air and forget trying to perform contemporary floor work without stability through the shoulder-girdle." Not only will a stronger torso and upper body assist you in executing dance movements with precision, they can help you avoid chronic injury by evenly displacing force within muscles.
What Muscles are involved?
There is more to strengthening your arms than doing bicep curls with dumbbells. Actually, strengthening the rotator cuff is more important in many ways, especially for dancers. The rotator cuff is a group of 4 muscles which surround the shoulder joint to stabilize it as well as "rotate" it, hence the name. As you can see in the image below, the bones within the shoulder do not create a very deep "ball and socket" on their own. This is necessary so the shoulder can move in such a large range of motion allowing us to reach far and in a variety of directions; however, this mobility predisposes the shoulder to many injuries, including dislocation. The rotator cuff is a major contributor to helping the humerus (arm bone) stay in the socket (the glenoid fossa). As the author states, "A strong rotator cuff allows arms to appear light and expressive but also stable for weight bearing during complex choreography, lifts and acrobatic work." This is imperative during partnering and especially for aerial artists. Flip to Meet the Magna Team to meet our own Aerial artist on staff!
When conditioning, it's tempting to think of each muscle separately, strengthening just your calves to help your relevé, or just your hip external rotators to help your turnout. However, each muscle is connected with a tissue called fascia and can thereby affect multiple areas of your body. For instance if your neck is tight, you will lack some hamstring flexibility; if your oblique abdominals are weak, you'll lack strength in your retiré. As the author explains, "You will find that by incorporating some upper body strength and stability exercises into your conditioning programs your technique and expressive ability will significantly improve!"
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What's the BACK got to do with it?
by Carlie Huberman, SPT
When dancers think about back strengthening, they usually find exercises for their lower backs to help their arabesque. While this is beneficial, dancers need to do a great deal more for their backs and upper body! Did you know that back strengthening is massively important for partnering? And not just for the men lifting, but for women supporting their position with their upper body.
Who does this affect? Traditionally mostly male dancers are involved in the heavy lifting of partnering, however as contemporary and modern continue to develop, all dancers should be strengthening their upper bodies. Regardless of whether you are lifting a fellow dancer or being lifted, back and shoulder muscles need to be engaged! This is particularly important for the rotator cuff, the latissimus dorsi and lower trapezius muscles (also known as your lats and traps). Ever heard your teacher say "press into your partner's hands" when attempting a lift? This is because without engaging these muscles, your lift will have no stability (just as states in newton's law) and you will not be protecting your joints. Why does back and arm strength really matter? Our clinician, Carlie Huberman, just completed research around the country looking at shoulder flexibility and strength in aerial artists. Her research dives into many medical avenues but one element to look at today is Scapular Dyskinesis. This term refers to the manner in which your shoulder blades (scapula) slide along your rib cage with arm movements. When the muscles and joints involved in this complex movement are not balanced, or working effectively, you can become vulnerable to injuries! She found that tightness in your neck (upper trapezius muscle) often leads to immobility in your ribs, scapular dyskinesis and ultimately significant shoulder and spine injuries. In other words, if your shoulder blades are not moving correctly the small muscles and joints in your upper body can end up bearing more of a burden than they are designed to. To prevent scapular dyskinesis, begin by strengthening the lower trapezius and anterior serratus.
How do I strengthen this? Here is one exercise you can do to help stabilize your scapula. Begin on your back on a foam roller with light weights in each hand. Keeping your core engaged, "punch" or push the weights up towards the ceiling and then slowly allow your shoulders to retreat towards the ground again. Repeat for 2-3 minutes. Be sure to keep your shoulder blades pulling down your back throughout this exercise!