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Intensity - Part 1

How Hard Should Your Workouts Feel?

Whether I'm teaching a Bulletproof Ballerina Blast class or setting a dancer up with a Custom Fit workout for her to do on her own, I get a lot of questions about how much weight to use on each exercise. I wish there was an easy answer to this seemingly simple question, but of course, there is not. It's complicated.

We've talked before about there being no magic number, and that applies here, as well. While it isn't possible to prescribe a certain amount of reps, sets, or weights that can be applied universally to everyone that will work consistently over time, there is a useful indicator that will ensure success with your workouts - intensity. In one sense of the word, intensity can be used to describe how a workout feels; how much effort it takes to perform an activity. Intensity happens to be a very important factor in determining the adaptive response your body will have post workout. In simpler speak, it determines whether or not your body will get the desired benefits from the work you put in.

Dancers have incredible poker faces. Our whole careers are built on making things look easy and effortless. We might be up on the stage with bloody toes, burning muscles, sweat-drenched bodices, and fire in our lungs...yet, we make the audience believe we are ethereal fairy princesses floating across the stage in complete bliss. But, when you are cross-training, you've gotta let go of that facade.

Basically, if you can hold your composure and look pretty while doing it, you're not working hard enough. Your workout should look and feel nasty. Not nasty in the sense that you are flailing all about with terrible form and complete disregard for the health of your body...but the effort behind it should feel nasty. Your movement should be focused and controlled to the point where you can't think about anything else. All your attention needs to go into completing that next repetition without any divergence. In other words, don't worry about looking pretty. In fact, let yourself feel ugly.

You see models working out all the time in ads with their perfectly glistening bodies and composed facial expressions or videos of dancers holding a 2-pound pink dumbbell in front of a mirror trying to hold a pose and look balletic. You might be tempted to think that is what constitutes cross-training and attempt to mimic it with your own workouts. But, if you do look like these models while working out...I hope you are okay with not getting results for yourself. This type of workout is nowhere near intense enough to transform your body and achieve your goals. It's the equivalent of child's play and ego building. As a dancer trying to get to the next level in her technique, you need to build your body, not your ego.

The stuff that will truly change you and make you a better dancer is going to look and feel ugly. We are talking red-faced, blotchy skin, shaky muscles, grotesque facial expressions, heavy breathing, grunts and noises galore. It should feel like survival mode. When you are running away from the tiger chasing you in the wild, you aren't going to care what kind of noises come out of your mouth as you run for your life. That's how the effort behind your workouts should feel (as you perform the exercises in a calm, focused, calculated manner, of course). It may not be pretty, but trust me...it sure is empowering!

I usually do my Bulletproof Ballerina workouts with no music for 2 reasons:

  • One is because I want the workout to be a Zen-like experience where you can get into your body and nurture a mind-body connection. And so, I don't want the music to distract you. 
  • The second is so that I can make sure you are in the right zone of intensity. I want to hear you breathing heavy and making noises; not because I want to see you suffer but because that is how I know you are focusing your efforts properly. 

Once all the niceties and poker faces go out the window, that is when the good stuff starts to happen for you. That is when you enter into this survival mode where the intensity is high enough to create real changes in your body. Changes you will see and feel in your dancing. There is something so empowering about being in this survival mode where all your pretenses disappear and you have to focus all your energy on the task at hand. This is the zone where changes happen. So, go ahead, let yourself feel ugly.

"If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you." - Fred DeVito

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