Athletes and the Arts: Powerhouse Strength in Dancers


By Becca Rodriguez Regner, DO

The gluteal muscles exist for a greater purpose than looking amazing in a pair of jeans. In fact, the gluteals are the dream team. Let me introduce you to the MVP gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. In many athletes and especially dancers, these group of muscles get turned off and don’t fire properly to help the posterior chain work. The general functions of the three powerhouse muscles include extension, abduction, lateral (external) rotation, and medial (internal) rotation of the hip joint.

In dancers, the three gluteal muscles are important for hip extension (arabesque), abduction (lifting leg side), and external and internal rotation. The pelvis, including the lower abdominals and gluteals, are essential for stability and strength. For these athletic dancers, the gluteals give power to jumps and leg extensions. Basically, the hips contain a very powerful network of muscles. Understanding the gluteals can unleash power in dancers and also improve turnout.

In an article from the January 2019 issue of Dance Teacher, a physical therapist works with the Australian Ballet on gluteal strength for rehabilitation of injuries in all of the lower extremity. The PT notes that dancers think that in order to have a better turnout they have to under tuck which then locks down or clenches the gluteals. Many dancers also clench the gluteals in trying harder to accomplish a certain movement. A clenched gluteal muscle is stuck in a contracted place, turned off, and not able to contract and release normally. This disrupts the posterior chain and can have effects on the lower extremity joints with repetitive training motions.

The PT educates to unlock or unclench the gluteals with being aware of a certain posture and cross training with a few exercises. Dancers should think about the pelvis along a vertical axis and understand/imagine how orientation, alignment, and movement potential can change the way dancers work in class and dance onstage. The correct posture should be shoulders back and down and belly button to spine to hold in the core. The pelvis should point downward and not with under tucking to have a lean back posture and not to have pelvis tilt anterior allowing lumbar hyperextension (arched back). Please see below for suggested cross training exercises per the physical therapist from Australian Ballet to suggest to dancers to keep their gluteals firing for power and performance!

Exercise 1:

  1. Loop a resistance band around something stable, like a table leg, and your ankle. Begin in a kneeling position, with knees under hips and hands under shoulders, set up far enough away from the table leg so the band gently pulls your leg into internal rotation. Make sure it’s in a straight line from anchor point to ankle.
  2. In the kneeling position, work against the resistance of the band to externally rotate your leg and focus on turning the thigh bone in the hip socket.
  3. Maintain a long spine, head to tail, that allows for a natural low-back curve. Do 10-15 reps, be sure to keep the hip flexors, hamstrings, and glutes soft, and to not tuck your tail under.

Exercise 2:

  1. Lie on your side, with your top leg propped up at hip level on a Pilates box or a couple of firm pillows, knee bent.
  2. With your bottom leg internally rotated, lengthen and lift your bottom leg up toward the ceiling, taking care not to slouch in your spine or collapse the underside of the rib cage into the ground.
  3. Lift your lower leg 10 to 15 times. Repeat on other side.

Exercise 3:

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent, feet at hip distance, in parallel. Float one leg up to a tabletop.
  2. Press the other footprint into the floor and float hips up.
  3. Lower your hips down and repeat 5 to 10 more times, trying to maintain a level pelvis. Repeat with the other leg.

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