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How to Apply Progressive Overload to Your Dance Training
What is progressive overload? It’s a concept that describes how exercise makes your muscles get stronger over time. If you search the term on the Internet, you’ll see a lot of articles about weightlifting, but progressive overload is relevant to any athlete – any human really – who wants to get stronger or more flexible.
How Progressive Overload Works
In a one-sentence definition, progressive overload is the gradual increase of intensity required to improve an aspect of fitness.
There are five aspects of fitness:
- Muscular strength
- Muscular endurance
- Cardiovascular fitness
- Body composition (not really relevant to progressive overload, so we’ll ignore this one for this post)
Dance examples of each:
- Muscular strength – How high can you lift your partner? How high can you jump?
- Muscular endurance – How long can you pose in a deep lunge before your muscles start to burn and shake? How many battements can you do in a row before it gets hard to lift your leg?
- Cardiovascular fitness – How long can you dance nonstop before you feel tired? Do you start to lose technique toward the end of a number? Do you run out of breath?
- Flexibility – How high can you kick? How much turnout can you utilize? How far can you arch your back?
When stretching or exercising to improve these areas, each one requires a gradual increase of intensity in order to see improvement. That’s where progressive overload comes in.
Let’s Use Planks as an Example
How long you can hold a plank falls under muscular endurance. Let’s say you want to improve your core endurance, so you set out to do a plank for one minute every day.
At first, holding a plank for a minute might be really difficult. But over time, it’ll get easier, and eventually, holding a plank for a minute will be a piece of cake. Yay, you’re getting stronger!
But what if you want to keep going? If you’ve gotten to the point where holding a plank for a minute is easy, will you keep building endurance by doing it every day?
The only way you’ll keep gaining endurance in this scenario is if you increase the intensity of your plank exercise. Maybe do a minute and 15 seconds, or drop the plank to your elbow. You need to get back to the point where the exercise is difficult, so your muscles can adapt to the new challenge.
To improve any aspect of fitness, you need to overload your muscles (or cardiovascular system) so that they can adapt and get stronger. And you need to do this progressively, every time the exercise starts to feel too easy. Progressive overload.
Important! Don’t take the word “overload” too literally. It doesn’t mean you need to push yourself to the breaking point every workout. You don’t. And you shouldn’t. “Overload” just means doing a little more than you were doing before. If you were lifting 20lbs, try lifting 25lbs. If you were doing 10 pushups, try doing 12. If you were holding a stretch for 30 seconds, try 45 seconds. Work your way up bit by bit. That’s all you need to do!
How to increase the intensity of an exercise:
- Increase repetitions
- Decrease rest time betwen sets
- Add weight/resistance (i.e. resistance band)
- Increase duration
- Increase intensity (in general, as in switching to a harder version of a stretch/exercise)
Clearly, some of these methods work better for different aspects of fitness. Increasing the duration of an exercise or decreasing the rest time between sets would be great for building endurance, while adding resistance would be great for building strength. And those are just a few examples of the many possibilities!
Using Progressive Overload in Your Teaching
In addition to teaching technique and choreography, part of a dance teacher’s job is helping their students get stronger and more flexible. Some strength and flexibility can be gained from simply dancing, but often a dedicated section of class for stretching and strength training is necessary.
I love incorporating strength training and stretching into my classes. Kids thrive when they’re proud of their accomplishments, and this is a really tangible way for them to see their improvement. For older students as well, increasing strength and flexibility can have a major impact on their performance and confidence.
- For weekly classes, choose an amount to increase a single challenge every week. For example: do 10 crunches the first week, 15 the second week, and so on. A simple structure like this is best for younger dancers.
- Even better, switch up the exercises week-to-week. Either do a different, progressively harder routine every week, or have a rotation. Here’s an example of a rotation:
- Week 1: Butterfly stretch, 30 seconds
- Week 2: Frog stretch, 30 seconds
- Week 3: Butterfly stretch, 45 seconds
- Week 4: Frog stretch, 45 seconds (This example was pretty simple, but you could be as complex as you wanted with this! The key is to gradually increase the difficulty by a reasonable amount each week.)
- For drop-in classes, or just a more personalized experience, offer different levels of difficulty and have your students choose which one they’re comfortable with. Encourage them to push a little farther each time they take class.
- Explain to your older students the importance of strength and flexibility in their dance training, and the importance of progressive overload in those areas. Give examples of dance movements that would be easier/cleaner/more efficient if their strength and flexibility was increased. (“Build strength to jump higher, so you can have time in the air to do your entrechat quatre!”)
Using Progressive Overload in Your Own Practice
When you’re practicing dance at home or in the studio, remember the concept of progressive overload as you plan your workouts and stretching sessions.
- Don’t do the same thing every practice session! Not only is it boring, it will stagnate your training. Switch up your exercises and increase the difficulty regularly.
- Try keeping a workout log or dance journal. Having those boxes to check and seeing your progress written down can be extremely motivating! It can also give you ideas of where to up the difficulty.
- Be smart about how you incorporate progressive overload, and keep your goals in mind. Do you want to improve your stamina? Adding reps of bicep curls won’t help. Do you want a stronger hold on your partner in a fish dive? Adding 30 seconds to your jumping jacks isn’t the way to do it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be doing a variety of exercises and stretches. You should. Just make sure to put those intensity increases where they will be most useful to you!
If flexibility is your area of focus, and you’re either a beginner or just getting back into regular workouts, you might like Dance Insight’s 21-Day Stretching Challenge! We used the concept of progressive overload to create a stretching routine focused on turnout and extension that will help you get more flexible! Check it out here.