Even though I wasn’t cut out for the ballerina life, my love affair with ballet continues to this day. There’s nothing quite like feasting yours eyes on a performance, watching the magic unfold as the curtains come up. The dancers flutter across the stage like doves, as they soar in the air and pirouette at the speed of light, all the while maintaining unflinching poise.
But don’t be fooled: If you closely observe a ballet dancer in action, you’ll notice the contours of their taut muscles illuminated by the glow of the stage lights. Behind every graceful move hides unimaginable power.
“We are essentially elite athletes, and I think that’s something people take for granted. What we do is extremely athletic, so we really need to support, fuel, and train our bodies,” says Isabelle Brouwers, first artist at the English National Ballet.
It’s no secret that a grueling training schedule forms the backbone of a ballet dancer’s daily routine. Brouwers has a class in the studio every morning that lasts just over an hour. After that, the rehearsal schedule varies, but she currently has around six hours of rehearsal a day to prepare for Akram Khan’s Creature.
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I wanted to know, though, what exercises does a ballet dancer turn to outside of the rehearsal studio to support her training? Well, it turns out the answer is pretty complicated. If there’s one thing a ballerina’s body needs to be, it’s adaptable.
A dancer’s workout routine changes with the seasons. “When we’re doing classical work, I have to do a lot more intrinsic foot exercises. When it’s contemporary, I focus a lot more on deep lunge work and quad control; I do a lot of hamstring and glute exercises to really keep me grounded. [My workouts] will change around what we’re doing, and what we’re doing is changing constantly. We’re having to adapt and maximize the strength of our bodies in different ways. It’s a routine that’s constantly shape-shifting and evolving.”
What happened when I tried a ballerina's workout routine
When I ask Brouwers about her current workout routine, she chuckles. “If we’re leading up to performance, people joke I’m always the first one in the building," she says. "I absolutely love starting my day with Pilates; the reformer is a great way to get my muscles activated without too much fatigue before class.”
On top of this, Brouwers squeezes in two or three strength and conditioning sessions a week. As I’m about to embark on a week of trying her workouts myself, I’m exhausted just thinking about what lies ahead.
Brouwers gives me the rundown on the exact moves she does, but before I get started, she issues me a gentle warning. “Don’t try something you don’t know without asking for advice, and always start with the lowest weight you can—don’t try to impress or prove a point to yourself or others,” she says. I make sure this reminder is etched in my mind before I begin. Note to self: Approach with caution.
Monday: Starting with morning Pilates
When my alarm blares an hour earlier than usual on Monday morning, I summon the energy to set up my workout mat for some early morning Pilates.
In a bid to stay as close to Brouwers' routine as possible, I’ve invested in a foam roller, which she swears by. “Before I do anything I start with a good foam roll to release all the tension from the night before.” As a foam rolling novice, I decide to take her words of wisdom and turn to some expert advice, following along with a guided self-massage.
And all I can say is, wow, my workouts will never be the same again. As someone who wiles away far too many hours at a desk, I felt some seriously satisfying relief in my stiff and sore lower body, as the foam roller unravelled knots of tension I didn’t even know were there to begin with.
Then it was onto some deep core warm-ups and gentle glute activations on the mat. Brouwers recommends performing three sets of eight reps, but emphasizes that “there is no magic number.”
I start with 90-90 toe-taps, keeping my pelvis as stable as possible. For core stability, I move on to opposite arm and leg extensions (aka "dead bug"), opening them away from my body and making sure, as Brouwers reminds me, to do so “without losing control of the hips.” Then onto bicycle crunches and some side plank pulses to really fire up those obliques.
Moving on to the glutes: First up we have side leg lifts, followed by banded clams with a light resistance band, a move which strengthens the glute meds and improves hip alignment. Next up is Brouwers' non-negotiable move: glute bridges. She starts with both legs rooted to the ground, before switching to single leg glute bridges. “It’s important to load eccentrically and concentrically—muscles contract and stretch, and this is a great move that does both.”
At this point, Brouwers would move on to the main event in her morning workout: the reformer. Unfortunately for me, I’m in my cramped, one-bed apartment, and can’t magically teleport myself to a ballet studio decked out with hydrotherapy pools and ice baths, with physios and personal trainers on standby.
If you’re like me, and your home gym consists of a worn-out Target workout mat, a cupboard full of soup tins for weights, and a dining room chair to wobble against during barre workouts, chances are you don’t have a state-of-the-art reformer lying around. But if you’re keen to reap some of the benefits of a reformer without splurging, give these moves that you can mimic at home a try.
And if are lucky enough to have a reformer at your disposal, Brouwers' routine varies, but she always does side-lying work with different spring levels, pushing against the bar both in turned-in (parallel legs) and turned-out positions.
“Obviously ballet is very turned-out so you really have to strengthen the rotators," she says. "It’s important to have an internal rotation as well because it’s a two-way movement that the hip has to do, and if you have no internal range, you’re more susceptible to injury.”
Wednesday: Adding in strength and conditioning
By the time Wednesday rolls around, it’s impossible not to notice how good my body feels. I’ve been working out every morning for the past three days, but my body is showing no signs of fatigue, strain, or tension. Pilates has always been a mainstay in my routine, but incorporating some new restorative movements into my workouts has really added that feel-good factor I was missing.
However, it’s now time to overcome the hurdle that has been ominously hanging over me like a dark cloud: tackling my first ballerina strength session in the gym.
To be honest, strength training has never been my thing. One F45 class was enough to put me off for life. When in the gym, I rarely stray from the cycling machine, avoiding the weights section like the plague.
And to make matters more complicated, there is no one-size-fits-all strength routine for me to follow. As Andy Reynolds, medical director at the English National Ballet explains to me, training programs are scientifically tailored towards each dancer’s unique physical needs. “We profile the dancers twice a year, measuring factors such as range of movement, specific joint angles, and strength of the foot, ankle, hip, back, and lower leg.” The medical team tracks specific markers to determine whether the dancer is making progress or growing weaker in a particular area, building out a specific training plan from there.
Reynolds approach is fundamentally data-driven. “However, I think there’s also a subjectivity at play," he adds. "What the dancer feels like, what they themselves think they need as well, which is a more complicated nuance.”
Brouwers herself let me in on a little secret: She doesn’t enjoy running. Because it’s so high impact, she prefers starting her gym workouts with a HIIT session on the elliptical or cycling machine, performing eight sets of 20 seconds on, 20 seconds off, for three rounds, with a break between each. “We’ll do more cardio if we’re not leading up to performance, because what we do in the studio is quite cardio-based anyway,” she says.
This is welcome news to me. Hopping onto the bike at the gym, it’s the perfect amount of cardio to get me pumped, and I haven’t collapsed in a sweaty heap on the floor after 10 minutes.
Now onto weights. As I’m no expert, I use the lowest weights possible, and look up each move beforehand to remind myself of the correct form to avoid injury. Brouwers will typically perform three sets of eight, though it varies depending on her training program.
I start with Russian deadlifts, one of her favorites. “It’s one of those holistic exercises that I love because not only does it strengthen the hamstring, it also works on your single leg balance, and your oblique control,” she says.
Brouwers also does a lot of plyometric exercises, such as jumping onto boxes to build power in her jumps. However, when I spot the boxes across the room, my mind jolts with a sharp premonition: I can already see myself face-planting against the box for an audience of eager spectators in this crowded gym, so it’s a hard pass from me. Instead, I (wisely) decide to do an adapted version of this move, doing jump squats on solid ground.
Up next is weighted calf raises, before I move on to the leg press machine. “When we’re doing those huge jumps, the force on our body is around four times our body weight, so you really have to train your muscles to resist that," Brouwers says. "We’ll do leg presses with up to two times our body weight of resistance on the legs.” Needless to say I opt for a much more modest weight, and I’d suggest my fellow beginners do the same.
I leave the gym feeling confident. What I thought would be deeply intimidating and challenging turned out to be pretty approachable. I’d always believed that weight training wasn’t for the faint-hearted, but with some subtle adaptations, this routine eased me into strength training seamlessly.
The key was adopting the same mindset as a ballerina: Don’t push yourself for the sake of it. It’s all about building strength gently and gradually, and every movement has its purpose. I made adaptations for my body, treating it as a professional dancer would—like a finely-tuned instrument that deserves care and attention.
As Reynolds tells me, it’s all about working with your body rather than pushing it to its limit. “When ballet dancers are rehearsing all day long, it’s important not to fatigue them," he explains. "More is not better.”
Friday: Surprising conclusions
I won’t beat around the bush. This week gave me an insightful glimpse into the world of dancer fitness, but I don’t feel like I strayed too far outside my comfort zone. While I enjoyed dipping my toe into the world of strength training, I definitely won’t be competing in the Olympics anytime soon.
In their own right, the week’s workouts weren’t overly hardcore or intense. But that’s because dancers are rehearsing for six or so hours a day on top of them. Their workouts are just the cherry on the cake—a means of solidifying and balancing out the hard work being done in the rehearsal studio every day. The intention is to exercise mindfully and with maximum efficiency, to avoid fatigue and injury.
Ultimately, we could all learn something from ballet dancers. Whether you’re a professional athlete, a CrossFit devotee, self-proclaimed Pilates princess, or someone who has never stepped foot in a gym before, it’s a good idea to incorporate gentle, staple practices into your routine, that make you feel good—both inside and out. You cannot underestimate the power of restorative movement, whether that's a good foam roll at the beginning of the day, or 20 minutes of low-impact HIIT on the elliptical.
And, if you ask me, the most admirable thing that professional ballet dancers have mastered (especially in the midst of today’s fitness culture that sometimes teeters on toxic) is the art of listening to their bodies.
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