Why strength & conditioning is important for artistic athletesSeptember 28, 2018 | by Jermaine John-Archer, Strength & Conditioning Coach and ArtisticSTRONG Coordinator
Artistic athletes compete in sports that are subjectively judged in technical skills and sport specific creative elements (e.g., dancers, figure skaters, synchronized swimmers, artistic gymnastics, etc.). At the elite level, artistic athletes may train multiple hours a day, 5-7 days a week, all year round to stay competitive in their sport.
Why is adding a strength & conditioning practice important? Here are three topics for clubs, coaches, parents, and artistic athletes to discuss when considering the importance of strength & conditioning.
EARLY SPORT SPECIALIZATION
Early sport specialization is focusing all efforts on a single sport from a young age. Research has shown that this can pose many risks for youth athletes including injury, social pressure, anxiety, burnout, and more.
Being exposed to various activities helps young athletes develop fundamental movement skills and physical literacy (the motivation, confidence, and physical competence across a wide range of activities). Sport diversification also exposes our youth to different and fun activities that can boost psychological morale and social interaction.
With such strong evidence promoting sport diversification, why is early sport specialization so prevalent? In all fairness, some sports don’t have the luxury to wait. Artistic sports may require early specialization because peak performance can occur before full physical maturation3.
For example, Alina Zagitova won Olympic gold at this past Pyeongchang Winter 2018 Games at 15 years old and began skating at the age of 4.
How then do artistic sports manage their athletes for both excellence in performance and longevity in sport?
With proper guidance from a qualified strength & conditioning coach, athletes can limit the negative effects of early sport specialization. Coaches can create customized training plans that take into account an athlete’s age, maturity, and sport needs. This is accomplished through regular testing, following a sport-specific Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) plan, using training periodization, and by tracking development and growth trends.
SPECIFIC ATHLETIC DEMANDS
There are a number of sport demands, physically and mentally, that are unique to the artistic athlete. A proper strength & conditioning program can support an athlete in meeting these demands, to optimize performance and reduce injury risk.
1. Biomechanical demands: Spinning & Jumping
Artistic athletes are expected to perform unique movements that put a large degree of stress on the body. A number of coordinated muscle groups (i.e., hips, legs, arms, and core) control extreme spins and jumps at high velocities 4,10. Spins and jump rotations also add up to 2-300 pounds of centrifugal force when holding the arms and legs in position4.
Subsequently, the landing force from a jump can be 8-14 times an athlete’s body weight4.
Spins and jumps are complex movements that require coordination, control, strength, speed, and power. With regular performance testing to guide programming, coaches will teach movement coordination and control, help athletes build foundational positional strength, and expose artistic athletes to tools that will enhance their ability to drive into the air and land while attenuating extreme forces.
2. Energy Systems
Artistic athletes use their bodies as “instruments of expression” and most movements and technical skills require enhanced fitness levels as well as artistry1. A vaulting gymnast may explode from the floor and vault in a single bout, using energy requirements similar to a 100-meter sprinter. A figure skater will be quite different, using supramaximal effort in a cold environment with energy demands equivalent to an 800-meter runner4.
During a 4-minute program, fatigue levels of elite figure skaters can be similar to those of a post-race long distance runner4. What about the demands of a dancer during an hour-long performance?
With varying performance durations come multiple energy system exchanges. Energy systems do not simply take turns. Instead, all systems will simultaneously function, and as one system predominates, the others participate to varying degrees5. Incorporating exercise physiology testing into a strength & conditioning plan will help evaluate an athlete’s energy needs and correlate them with the demands of their artistic sport. Knowing when to peak which energy system at what time, based on the periodized Yearly Training Plan (YTP), proves purposeful when training athletes for specific performances and competitions.
3. Artistic Competency
Aesthetic competence is as an artistic athlete’s ability to display controlled movements, spatial skills, accuracy of movements, technique, dynamics, timing, rhythmic accuracy, performance qualities, and overall performance.
By addressing variance and competency in supplemental training, better programs are designed to challenge athletes that promote injury prevention without adversely affecting sport specific movements and artistry. Studies have shown that artistic athletes that supplement their artistic training with strength & conditioning programs, and have subsequently improved their fitness levels, scored significantly higher in aesthetic competency assessments and generally perform and compete at higher levels10.
4. Psychology & Body Image
As a past dancer and current exercise physiologist & strength coach, I’ve experienced and seen the varying aesthetic needs of artistic athletes. The constant worry about body image is an awful and overbearing threat to an artistic athlete’s health, both physically and psychologically.
As it pertains to strength & conditioning, the myth that supplemental training will make an artistic athlete “bulky” is well inflated. There are countless training platforms, each one yielding different neurological and physiological adaptations.
An exercise physiologist and/or strength & conditioning coach will specifically program to the desired adaption (e.g., strength, speed, power, etc.), which may or may not include lean muscle mass goals depending on sport needs. They will work with the athlete, coach, sport organization, and parents to communicate mutual interests and to involve everyone in the decision making process.
5. Joint Integrity: Mobility and Stability
Artistic athletes can be known for their extreme ranges of motion. Having supple muscles gives athletes that specific aesthetic stretch needed for artistic presentation.
When having difficulty reaching the end range of some of these positions, artistic athletes might choose movement strategies that are not ideal for joint health. Strength and conditioning sessions will incorporate proper mobility and stability work to improve end range of motion strength and joint integrity, all while preventing injuries and keeping the aesthetic nature of artistic sports.
As mentioned above, injury risk is typically higher in early specialized sports, such as most artistic sports. Participating in a single sport for more than eight months per year appears to be an important factor in the increased injury risk observed in highly specialized athletes.
There are a few causes for this phenomenon:
- Practicing one sport generally leads to one way of moving on the same surface – this stresses the same tissues repetitively and can lead to micro trauma over time
- Repetitive tissue loading in high volumes creates high demands on joints in a young changing body (i.e., during puberty) – this can lead to a breakdown of tissues
A quick tip in preventing overuse injuries: listen to the warning signs and be assessed by an exercise physiologist or strength & conditioning coach (or see an allied health professional if you’re already in pain).
Work with a qualified exercise specialist to incorporate movement variations at an appropriate time in your YTP; test regularly, track growth and development, use a “coach’s eye” to assess daily movement quality, and expose artistic athletes to fundamental movements skills (especially outside of the repetitive movements they may be familiar with).
With longevity at its core, part of a structured supplemental training program should also involve recovery strategies to prime the body and energy systems for the following days’ practice/rehearsal, performance, or competition. Exercise physiologists and strength & conditioning coaches will strategically structure an athlete’s YTP to include (but are not limited to):
- aerobic conditioning within a targeted heart rate zone for a purposeful cool-down
- planned de-load weeks between blocks of training that include general preparatory exercises and circuits to prevent staleness and overtraining
- contralateral circuits to prime movements and energy systems for greater performance outcomes in the following week
- breathing techniques, mindfulness, and meditation
- corrective exercises to balance full-body locomotion and mobility-stability deficits
- re-lengthening through dynamic and/or static stretching and SMR (self-myofascial release)
IMPORTANT TRAINING CONSIDERATIONS
When seeking supplementary strength & conditioning programs, it’s important to work with a certified exercise physiologist and/or a strength & conditioning specialist, preferably with a background in artistic sports performance. The design of any resistance training program must be specific to the artistic sport.
Athletes are much more likely to be passionate about their training if they understand why they are training and what the expected outcomes may be. Motivation to keep training comes from educating athletes about the importance of strength & conditioning. Education should be given in reference to injury prevention and improved performance to create longevity within their athletic career, as well as for an active life after sport.
The ArtisticSTRONG program at Fortius Sport & Health complements sport specific training along a developing athlete model to improve performance, prevent injuries, and boost motivation through movement competency and confidence.
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