A huge misconception among dancers (and women in general) is that lifting weights makes you "bulky." The tendency is to think that the minute you pick up a 10-pound dumbbell your biceps will be bulging like the models on the covers of fitness magazines. But this couldn't be further from reality. Let's explore some of the reasons why you shouldn't be afraid of lifting, and more accurately, lifting heavy.
We've all heard the training advice to lift light weights for muscle tone and heavy weights for muscle mass. Guess what? That's a myth, or at least it's all relative to what the terms "light" and "heavy" refer to. In most cases, the "light" weights people have in mind when hearing this would equal very little, if any, results at all. No matter what you are training for, the intensity has to be high enough (whether through the weight load itself, form, exercise design or volume) to create sufficient stress on the body. So, whether you are trying to gain muscle size or tone, the weights you should use would most likely be considered "heavy" to most people. It's just a matter of how "heavy" of a load to use along with program design to elicit the results you desire.
Next, at the risk of drawing a generalization here, many of the body builders and professional athletes you see nowadays are taking some kind of performance-enhancing supplement that allows them to build an unnatural amount of muscle mass. So, our perception about what is possible with strength training is significantly skewed. If you look at the female body builders in the pre-drug era of the early 1980's, their physiques looked a lot different than they do today. Early contest winners such as Rachel McLish and Kike Elomaa had a much more petite, feminine look which became obsolete once drugs entered the picture. So, if these women who made training and lifting a full time job in an effort to get as big as possible still looked feminine and relatively not bulky...you probably don't have to be concerned about cross-training with weights twice a week to build strength as a supplement to your ballet career.
Another important point to consider is that it's not easy to put on muscle. In fact, it's really hard. Many people will not be able to tap into the capacity to work out hard enough to see gains without significant coaching and practice. It can be scary to push your body that hard, but having someone there to coax you through it can make a big difference. Plus, knowing the right way to push your body is a key factor. There's truth to the saying "no pain, no gain," but not all pain will lead to positive outcomes. There is definitely a right and a wrong way to push your body, and knowing how to stress your body to get results versus damage is a huge factor that will lead to your success as a dancer.
Next, we have to talk about the role genetics play on the ability to gain muscle. Adult women in general have only about 5-7% of the normal range of testosterone (one of the primary hormones needed for muscle building) than men have. That amount can vary from person to person as well as fluctuate at different times in your life, but just this simple gender difference means you have way less potential for muscle growth right from the start. Besides testosterone, there are other hormones and genetic factors that will influence how your specific body will put on muscle such as your ratio of slow-twitch to fast-twitch muscle fibers, muscle and tendon length, bone structure, muscle attachment points, ect. Depending on these traits you were born with, everyone will not only vary in terms of their genetic potential for muscle growth but also in how that muscle looks on their bodies.
Now, all that being said, the type of training you do also plays a significant role in how your muscles develop and the overall look to your body. Through exercise design, you can can focus on either maximizing muscle size or strength. Without going into too much detail about the routines themselves, most dancers are going to want to train for strength without gaining "bulk." While these are not mutually exclusive factors and there is some size gain when training for strength and vice versa, this is where having a trainer comes in handy for designing a program that keeps you on track towards your actual goals. Let's face it, none of my Bulletproof Ballerinas have had goals of wanting to be epic weight lifters or gym buffs. While some of them do fall in love with the physical challenge and the way lifting makes them feel...their main objective still remains leveling up with their dancing. Knowing how to give them strength that will transfer directly over to their technique without excessive "bulk" is the key to elevating their dance careers. And, that's exactly what the Bulletproof Ballerina method of dancer specific cross-training is designed for.
Finally, there are lifestyle factors like nutrition, recovery, stress, workout habits and consistency, current fitness levels and whether you are a newbie or experienced lifter that will all impact the way your body responds to strength training. Even if all these factors are under ideal conditions, it is still extremely difficult to put on enough muscle mass to look "bulky" as a woman. And, the benefits that this extra strength will have on your dancing will far outweigh your fears of gaining a little extra muscle.
As you can see, while there is science behind all this stuff, it's not a black and white issue since there are so many variables involved in how your specific body will react to strength training. But, with a little awareness and program design, you can totally stay on track towards your goals and reap the game-changing benefits that cross-training can have on your dancing. Here's something that is certain, though - your fear of waking up looking like a She-Hulk after one session of lifting heavy weights can be dismissed.
If you want more help with cross-training for your dance career and a program design to meet your specific goals, send me an email! I'd love to hear your story and help you get to your next level!
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