Do you need back strength or back flexibility as a dancer?
First, let's make sure we know what these terms mean:
Strength is defined as, "the ability of the neuromuscular system to produce internal tension to overcome an external load" (Clark et al. 2019).
Flexibility is defined as "the normal extensibility of all soft tissues that allows the full range of motion of a joint" (Clark et al. 2019).
One of the biggest questions I get from dancers is... "how do I improve back flexibility?"
Normally, what they are referring to is the arch in their back for things like acro tricks, cambrés, arabesque, etc. They want to be able to do all of these tricks so they force their backs into these unrealistic positions for their body's capabilities. That's when you see those crazy stretches on social media 😣
What they actually need is... back STRENGTH and MOBILITY (referring to the actual joints in the spine being able move in a greater range of motion.
Most dancers and dance teachers get these terms wrong, creating a very confusing path to actually go about gaining more strength and mobility. Where do you start? Do you google "how to get more back flexibility?" If so, the results may be confusing.
As a dancer doing various competitive dance styles such as ballet, jazz, acro, contemporary, etc, you DO need back strength, mobility, and flexibility.
Most dancers put an emphasis on the arch of the back (strength) and less on the rounding of the back (flexibility). And then they complain of back pain at such a young age because they never stretch those muscles. 🤦🏻♀️
What I tell my 1:1 dancers is that they need just as much movement in the rounding position of the lower back as they do the arching position. Some examples of these exercises include:
Cat and cow
Supine knees to chest
These exercises will help to stretch these muscles and perhaps provide some counter-movement to the constant contraction when you're in class.
One of my favorite lower back stretches is called the "number 4 stretch." (It probably has other names, but this is what I call it!)
I posted an Instagram reel recently explaining how to do it. Click here to watch - it feels SO good for my body and hopefully it will for yours too!
The main takeaway here is to move your body in all different directions. If you're doing a lot of arching, try some rounding of the spine. If you're doing a ton of rounding or tucking, try arching the spine throughout your day.
Especially as young dancers, you should be able to move your body however which way you'd like without pain. If you are experiencing any pain, especially in the lower back, I recommend seeing a physical therapist right away.
Lastly, if you want to learn more about flexibility and strength exercises, you can learn a TON of them by joining my next round of my online group training program called, "Get Stronger | Dance Longer."
Learn more about the 12-week full body strength & flexibility program and get on the waitlist for round 2 by clicking here!
Clark, M., McGill, E., Lucett, S., & National Academy of Sports Medicine (Eds.). (2018). NASM essentials of personal fitness training (6th edition). Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska: https://www.pexels.com/photo/confident-young-sportswoman-strengthening-back-muscles-during-training-4498277/