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Stabilization vs. Activation

The unfortunate reality in the fitness world (as with many things in life) is that there is almost always a trade-off when you start attacking multiple agendas. As my coach and guru (aka boyfriend;) always tells me, you can’t serve two masters at once. In other words, if you have 2 goals, you can’t put your all into both at the same time. One of them will have to suffer. So, you have to prioritize what your greatest goal is in the moment. Otherwise, you get half-a$$ results with both of them. For example, it’s ludicrous to focus on fat loss and muscle development at the same time. Your body just doesn’t have the capacity to get noticeable results in both areas simultaneously. If you try to do both, you end up with minimal results in both.

This is often why people get so discouraged with their New Year's resolutions. They charge full blast into their workouts at the gym while trying to follow a super strict diet plan in their fervor to get fit. For all the hard work they put in, they see barely any results in both fat loss and muscle gains and resign themselves to being failures. Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strength train while on a diet or vice versa. You just have to keep in mind what your priority is and then adjust your workouts and diet plan to fit that singular goal. Remember my post on goal setting? This is why the periodization approach works so well for dancers...because it allows us to have multiple goals within the year while ensuring we are effective in our actionable steps to pursue each goal individually at the right time.

Today, we are going to talk about the trade-off between stabilization and activation in terms of your muscles during your workout. Long story short, if you have to focus too much on stabilization, you can’t focus enough on activation to get the results you are actually looking for when it comes to cross-training.

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We’ve all seen the popular videos of dancers on the BOSU balance trainer balls, holding an arabesque, extension, or passé for an extended period of time while the standing leg works to stabilize the body. Admittedly, these feats are quite impressive and entertaining. But, I’m not sure if you want to consider this as your main form of cross-training. I’m not saying this balancing practice has no benefit. And, I’m sure you can get really good at it if you do enough repetition and spend enough time with it. But, when it comes to achieving the results that will really benefit your dancing, this might not be the most efficient way to go about it.

In terms of goals, most dancers who get into cross-training (or, are told they need cross-training) are looking to enhance their strength, whether they know it or not. Enhanced strength is the underlying factor that will improve jumps, turns, extensions, stamina, speed, even balance. And, 99.9% of dancers out there would like to improve in at least one of these areas in their technique. Hence, their reason for pursuing cross-training in the first place.

Here’s the problem with using balance practice and other stabilization exercises as an exclusive form of cross-training. If you have to focus too much on stabilization and not falling over, you don’t get to focus enough on muscle activation. Muscle activation is key to ensuring your cross-training gets you results instead of just wearing out your energy stores. It is what creates the tension in your muscles against a resistance and gives you your actual strength gains. Sure, stabilization is important too, especially for dancers with hypermobile joints. But, for the majority of dancers that I work with at the gym, strength trumps stabilization in terms of where our cross-training priorities lie for getting them the results they need to level up in their dancing.

I do use certain exercises that are done on one leg that require micro-adjustments to stay on balance, strengthening the muscles of the foot and ankle in particular as well as the whole body’s coordination and connection. And, depending on what your goals are, these types of exercises can make up a big portion of your program. But, your workout also needs to incorporate exercises that allow you to feel stable enough to generate sufficient tension in your muscles to create physical changes in your body. Often this involves two feet being planted on solid ground, or even being locked into a machine that isolates a certain joint and builds tension through a safe range of motion.

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Go ahead and have fun with your balancing practice. If it’s a game for you or you enjoy posting videos of it, great! Carry on! I’m merely suggesting that you think about your cross-training in a different way. Sometimes, the things that look like they will be beneficial for your dancing (holding an arabesque while balancing on a wobble board) don't necessarily transfer over to actual results in your dancing. Figure out your underlying goal with your cross-training, and then seek out help with developing a program that will help you achieve that goal as efficiently as possible. When it comes to cross-training, often the exercises that look least like ballet will help you the most.