The One Workout a World-Renowned Ballerina Swears by for Strength Training and Recovery

Photo: Getty Images/golero
Don't let the delicate tutus and graceful movements fool you: Ballet is hard work. After all, there's a reason that so many athletes, from football players to figure skaters, rely on its methods as a way to stay in shape. For professional dancers, all those hours perfecting plies and perfectly-turned-out first positions at the barre can take a serious toll on their bodies. So what's a ballerina to do?

After an injury sidelined Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina Olga Smirnova from dance for several months, she turned to Pilates to stay in shape throughout her recovery. "Thanks to my daily Pilates exercises, my body was so well-prepared for resuming the heavy physical workloads that I practically did not notice how I managed to slide right back into the theater's rehearsals and repertoire," she says. "It was the first time I tried out the Pilates system, and to tell you the truth, the process and the results were nothing short of miraculous, that is how effective they were."

"I also noticed that you recover more effectively not by resting and doing nothing, but by doing Pilates." —Olga Smirnova

Even after Smirnova returned to dance, though, she continued to supplement her ballet workouts with Pilates for a number of reasons. "First and foremost, Pilates is about a healthy body. There are exercise programs that can literally cure or remove fatigue from one's muscles, or from the spine which takes on a huge load during a full rehearsal day," she says, noting that her muscles and joints tend to take a serious beating in her profession. "I also noticed that you recover more effectively not by resting and doing nothing, but by doing Pilates, so even on my day off from the theater I prefer to dedicate an hour to myself and do some exercising. It is amazing how logical and sensible our bodies are in the way they function, and if you help them a bit in this manner, your physical capabilities can increase severalfold."

Most importantly, though, her Pilates practice has helped her become more in-tune with her body than ever before. "We as professional dancers must take great care of our bodies, primarily so as to avoid the heightened risk of injury on a fatigued body, but also to make our stage careers last longer," Smirnova explains. "It becomes possible once you get truly familiar with your body and understand what it needs at any given moment. Pilates helps accomplish this." Post-recovery, she's gone on to star in Bolshoi Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty, which will be shown in movie theaters across the US on March 10.

Even if you aren't a prima ballerina, Pilates offers a whole range of body-boosting exercises that can be great for recovery, says Heather Andersen, founder and owner of New York Pilates. "Pilates exercises are designed around how your joints and muscles work—the entire method is rooted in anatomy. While Pilates offers a full-body workout, it also helps to prevent injury with low-impact strength training,"Andersen says. "If practiced with consistency, Pilates improves flexibility, builds strength and muscle tone, improves posture, and endurance. Plus, by emphasizing the core, it improves coordination and balance, and can even help with back pain." Injury or not, your low-impact days just got a ballerina-approved option.

Real talk: Recovery days are just as important as your workouts themselves. And here's what you can do for your mental health on days when you can't work out. 

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