For years we have admired the incredible ability of ballet dancers to move into positions that most of us could only dream about. “The Splits” was a party trick performed well by so few – mostly dancers, gymnasts, and calisthenics adolescents – and cases of extreme flexibility always bring a “wow” from any crowd.

But there has been a big shift in thinking over the last decade and more, and most of the change has been initiated within our own Australian Ballet under the guidance of Principle Physiotherapist Sue Mayes.

Why the need to bring about change? Well, there were a few reasons – ballet dancers have traditionally had a high incidence of injuries especially to the lower back, hips and feet, all areas which require enormous flexibility in professional dancers. And many of these injuries were unfortunately longer term injuries. With extreme flexibility comes a hypermobile joint – or perhaps it is best put the other way around: with a hypermobile joint comes extreme flexibility.

It has been thought for many years that a heavy reliance on stretching was necessary to maintain joint mobility for a dancer. But with so much mobility and flexibility (particularly on joints that undergo significant stress and loading) these joints require enormous control and strength to protect the range through which they move. And an emphasis on stretching was certainly not reducing injury rates in dancers.

In fact it is quite possible that many of the extreme stretches (for example, holding prolonged stretches in “oversplits” may have been contributing to injuries, as paediatric and adolescent growth plates can be highly stressed in these positions).

When the Australian Ballet introduced a new strength regime for ankles and calves, there was an amazing reduction in ankle injuries and calf tears. This was despite the associated education for the dancers to stop stretching their calves at the same time they increased their strength focus. More strength and less stretch meant less injuries!

But even though we know now that strength is crucial for ballet dancers, they can’t just go to the gym and pump weights. Dancers are extraordinary athletes who require an extraordinary array of skills – and getting strength work correct is critical. Strength exercises need to be a combination of high loads (to condition and protect against the enormous loads that dancers produce and absorb) and lower repetitive loads (to protect those mobile joints through full range through thousands of movements).

And in more interesting physio/scientific facts – strength work (performed the right way) can actually increase flexibility in muscles, it seems even more effectively than stretching itself. And whilst we’re on evidence, there is little to no evidence that static stretching is effective in a warm up, or as an injury prevention tool, or even to improve flexibility.

In other words, if you get your strength work right as a dancer:

  • You will reduce injury risk to critical areas like the spine, hips, legs and feet
  • You may actually find yourself with more flexibility than you had before, plus…
  • You will get stronger!

And it’s quite ironical that the muscles that the Australian Ballet physio team found most critical to strengthen were the muscles that dancers most thought they had to stretch: hamstrings, spine and trunk, calves, and adductors (inner thigh). It may take time to change, especially for so many dancers who are so used to stretching being a part of their program, but at least make sure you have a dance appropriate strength program to begin immediately – you will notice the difference!

So my take home message for ballet dancers:

“Getting strong should take precedence over getting long – make sure that appropriate strength work is a regular part of your training program”!

Anthony Selby

SSPC Physiotherapist

APA Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist

Masters (Sports & Exercise Physiotherapy)