Lessons in Strength and Conditioning

Author’s note: During the fall semester of 2014 I had the pleasure of completing a strength and conditioning internship at Flames Athletic Center with the women’s softball team at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What follows are a series of reflections written between August and December, 2014, based on my experiences, as I grappled with the question of best practices in strength and conditioning for dancers. It is presented her with some modifications.

Aug. 27, 2014: Fish Out of Water.

Sometimes it’s good to reach outside your comfort zone. To humble yourself. To make yourself vulnerable.

I’m used to knowing what I’m doing – to being in charge and controlling a room. Today, and every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at crack-of-dawn o’clock am, for the rest of the semester, I’m not in charge anymore.

I’ve taken an internship at Flames Athletic Center working with the UIC women’s softball team, and seeing as this is a learning process I am opting to try, as often as possible, to record my observations and a-ha moments along the way. After seven years as a trainer and group fitness instructor, and nearly 20 years as an instructor of some kind, this morning was actually the first time I’ve been exposed to strength and conditioning for athletes. To be honest, athletes terrify me. Athletes have a mentality that is totally foreign to me, and while dancers can certainly be called athletes for a number of reasons, the goals, the process, and the group dynamic are completely different from dance. A few things stood out to me immediately about working with this team:

  • They support one another. That’s not to say that dancers don’t… we’ve got an awesome community that is full of people who generally look out for one another. What I mean is: they cheer for one another. At 6am. For doing something as simple as skipping across the gym. I thought “whooping” was only something that happened at games, but these women live and breathe sport; helping, supporting, and cheering for one another is only going to make them stronger as a team. It’s a far cry from the dance studio atmosphere, which typically involves one person at the front of the room doing all the talking. You don’t get a “yeah, Lauren!” for every tendu, but rather, every once in awhile the guy at the front says, “better.”
  • I said this before, but I’m not in charge. After half an hour of me looking like a deer in headlights, we started working on cleans. Ah! Something I know something about! Being more in my comfort zone, I dove in and started watching the ladies, offering a few form corrections and encouragement. At the end of the session, the strength coach  asked me to back down a little bit, and wait to coach the ladies until I became more familiar with his terminology and cues. Oi, that makes sense – aaand I’m embarrassed. Some of these ladies have been working with their coaches and trainers for four years. Who am I to walk in on a random Wednesday morning and think I can fix them?

But I guess that’s why they call it a learning process.

Aug. 29, 2014: Dance Ten, Looks Three.

Jenny Hackwell wearing Bloch Leeba Leotard | dancewearcentral.co.uk/

The one shred of individuality you get as a ballet dancer is your leotard. When you’re a kid, some dress codes require tank or camisole straps, most schools specify mandated colors by level. But as an college or adult dancer, the Discount Dance Supply catalogue is your oyster.

So. many. choices.

When I danced in college, we were required to wear pink tights and a solid colored leo. No skirts, unless it was a pointe class. But my oh my, the amount of variations available for different style straps, trim, the cut of the leg line… this is how the conservatory dancer expresses herself.

I walked into Flames Athletic Center this morning at 6am to a bright-eyed ladies softball team in identical white UIC t-shirts, gray shorts and matchy-matchy gray sneakers. “Is there a memo?” I asked. “How do you know which color shirt to wear?” There is, indeed, a memo, and the consequences of wearing a blue UIC t-shirt on a white UIC t-shirt day might be to run, or at least public embarrassment.

Have I mentioned that sports are weird to me?

Today as the women warmed up I asked Coach V about the body type for softball. I’ve always assumed that softball players are stocky, pear shaped, and built sort of like weight lifters. Our team, however, has a really big mix of shapes and sizes. Coach V bases her decisions on how they perform, not how big they are. Those stocky stereotypes tend to be the pitchers – perhaps the most specialized position – while the short and tiny spitfires can run really fast. They’re stronger in the outfield, and excel at running and stealing bases rather than knocking the ball out of the park.

So having a variety seems to benefit the team overall. It’s a far cry from those cattle call dance auditions where the first cuts are made on height, weight, hair color…… anything, really, BUT how you dance.

Maybe sports aren’t that weird after all.

Sept. 6, 2014: Trust.

This week the team started its workouts, consisting mostly of basic resistance training – bench, squat, lunges, etc. – and a nice mix of creative back and core activities. Again I’m struck by the differences in atmosphere between dance and sport. Despite my earlier observations about the 6am cheery team environment (still amazed), after they warm-up the athletes are handed a card with pre-determined loads for each exercise and then left to their own devices. The strength coach took the Freshmen upstairs for “Squat School,” and the other players were largely left alone. I hung back on the stairs so I could observe both things happening at the same time, mostly in fascination of the ladies plugging away at the instructions on their card.

I suppose when you’re dealing with choreographed combinations set to musical accompaniment, we kind of have to stay all together, but there’s a level of trust going on here to which I’m unaccustomed. If I consider group fitness, the other environment I know something about, looking away from the participants carries with it the great risk that they will stop exercising entirely. (This can, and does, actually, happen). But the work ethic and motivation of athletes (or at least the successful ones) are likely different than that of participants in a group fitness class. Athletes know how to suffer, and learn how to crave it. Plus, their teammates are there to cheer them on and hold them accountable.

The other part of this trust, however, is knowing that you’ve given the athletes the wherewithal to do exercises properly. Every time. I’m a person who’s used to incessant scrutiny. The dance teacher passes you at the barre time and time again, watching the dancers do the same pliés time and time again. What I don’t know, is if this really has to do with trust, or if these two worlds (three including group exercise) simply have different cultures. Trust aside, there is accountability across the board. Failure to “do the work” always shows up eventually, whether we’re talking about sport, dance, playing an instrument… anything that requires diligent practice to succeed. When I was an apprentice for a professional dance company, there was “that guy” who could go out all night, skip class, show up late for rehearsal, and pull off triple pirouettes flawlessly with no warm-up. But dumb luck and pure talent only got him so far – as I imagine it is with any other athlete.

Sept. 18, 2014: Settling In.

I went into this softball internship already knowing four players well because they’re Kinesiology majors. Navigating the dual roles as their professor and a lowly intern hasn’t been as challenging as I anticipated; what has been more challenging for me is reaching out and establishing rapport with the other players that I don’t know. Slowly but surely that’s changing as I more and more get brought into the fold by Coach N.

I was charged with leading 4 “hip openers” Wednesday morning.  I felt a tinge of nervousness as I ushered the players into the gym.


Even after teaching hundreds and hundreds of group classes, I fuddled with my stopwatch and had this wave of self-doubt… what if I don’t know what I’m doing?

But look, if I know anything from 30 years in the dance world, it’s how to open some hips. The weird thing was, this was something a little bit new to the players, and watching them perform a sort of turned in floppy balançoire with a hand on the wall was a bit…well…they just aren’t like dancers. But in a good way.

What I thought would be a loose leg turned into an (ish) football punt. The players are used to taking their knees and feet up and over hurdles to open their hips. That morning they had to swing high legs by their own volition, with no risk of falling over, and the only player who looked natural used to be a figure skater.

So that happened. In some ways I feel like a bit of an ambassador. We dancers can learn so much (so much) from sports, but I think there’s room for a mutually beneficial exchange. I mean, who doesn’t want a few surprises to enter the moving body every now and again?

Oct. 2, 2014: Deloading.

The mood last week in the Flames Athletic Center was light, jovial, relaxed. Why? Deloading!

The ladies were so excited last week to get a little weight off their backs. Literally. Every four weeks Coach N tapers the programming and brings the loads down on their lifts. Could they keep going, or deload every four or eight weeks? Probably, but Coach N told me the benefit of deloading is more psychological than anything else. In other words, failure to deload every so often is a fast way to a burnout, and then, maybe, to injury.

That made me think about dancers. Do we deload? Maybe we could consider the “layoff” period during summers or after a show to be a deload, but if I know dancers then it’s likely that many of them are still taking class and hitting the gym to try and stay in shape. Do dancers typically keep their intensity at the same level during off-times, reduce to an informal “deload” of sorts, or stop completely?

It’s really, really hard for a dancer to take rest, but what if we could benefit from it physically and mentally? The best part of deloading, perhaps, is that it provides a mental and physiological break, but isn’t a complete rest. And the result of that is the athletes returning to the gym this week focused, recharged, and ready to go hard.

Oct. 10, 2014: Integration, and, Overwhelmed.

A few things have happened over the past couple weeks in my thrice weekly softball internship:

1. Freshman “Squat School” is officially over, and the four new players (although not all freshmen) have been filtered into the rest of the team for squats, cleans, and deadlifts. That’s super neat, and it’s quite interesting to watch a subtle shift in the dynamic at each power rack. Prior to this integration, the other players had very specific places. Generally they group with players who lift approximately the same weight, and like-players like pitchers tend to stick together. It’s kind of like a ballet class: everyone has her favorite place at the barre, and it’s understood that you don’t stand in her spot. At first, the four “newbies” (not my term) intermingled and distributed themselves among all five groupings, but after a few practices like this they began to dominate their own power rack, leaving the pitchers to work upstairs and perform squats, etc. later in the workout.

What does that mean? I don’t know, but it’s interesting. Having a mostly observational role, I find myself increasingly drawn to the team dynamic, but, as Coach N has told me, this particular team is a bit unique. The women tuck in their shirts, they say please and thank you, they put away their equipment, they are genuinely nice. Is it weird that I wasn’t expecting this?

Flames v. Ramblers at UIC

2. I went to a game on Wednesday night, and didn’t think that anyone really noticed I was there. I arrived at 6am this morning to thank you’s and, maybe, probably, a way better rapport with the team (particularly the ones who don’t know me as well). Admittedly, it’s really hard to take time out to go watch the games. Admittedly, softball isn’t something I know much about, and it’s not my passion. But when I consider the issue of butts in seats for concert dance, I see some similarities between me and Flames Softball. Ok, maybe it’s a stretch, but the stands were loosely littered with what looked like parents and a few friends who didn’t make it through three innings.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel bad for sports teams at UIC, or sports in general. These student athletes have serious perks – deserved, for certain, but nobody washed and folded my leotards for me while I was in college (or paid my tuition, for that matter). Athletes are commodities, and those perks will be there regardless of how many people show up to watch games. But, it did feel a bit like I was rooting for the underdog to go through the gates and ask for the softball game, only to hear, “Huh?” from the volunteers selling tickets for soccer.

What I’m getting at, rather than whining about perks given to athletes, is the team cares as much about softball as I do about dance, and they appreciate when someone comes to a game and shares in their passion. For me, that’s enough. Would I want to work as hard as they do in order to play softball all the time? Heck no, but most people aren’t into hundreds of thousands of tendus either.

My point is, this team is infectious. I can’t always relate to it, but it’s hard not to love and appreciate it.

3. I thought 6am would get easier. It hasn’t.

Nov. 21, 2014: Gold Standards vs. What Works.

We’re approaching the end of the semester, and with no lifting sessions allowed during reading week or finals, the women are already testing for maxes this week. Wednesday was bench press, and today, the exciting conclusion with 1RMs on back squat.

They were totally awesome, but that’s not quite the point of this post.

In the classroom, I teach Kinesiology students the gold standards for fitness assessment – it’s an environment in which there are (mostly) hard and fast rules about how to assess strength, power, and endurance. Then you get into the gym, and (mostly) just figure out what works. Some of my students in 200-level classes are having a hard time with the ambiguities of our field. They are taught what’s right and wrong, and have to answer multiple choice questions about it. As they gain some practical experience with coaching, they are starting to come to terms with the realization that guidelines are just that: guidelines.

Coach N uses a totally different 1 Repetition Maximum protocol than the one I teach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) – what we might consider the gold standard, But his is a protocol that is customized to match their program.

NSCA says something like:

  • Warm-up set: 5-10 at 50%
  • 5-8 at 60%
  • 3-5 at 70%
  • 2-3 at 80%
  • 1-2 at 90%
  • 1 at 100%

Today the ladies did something more like:

  • Warm-up set: 5 at 50%
  • Warm-up set: 3 at 60%
  • 1 at 65%
  • 1 at 70%
  • 1 at 75%
  • 1 at 80%
  • 1 at 85%
  • 1 at 90%
  • 1 at 93%
  • 1 at 95%
  • 1 at 98%
  • 1 at 100%

Which one is right? I guess they both are, depending on your goal. If your athletes are training sub-maximally, it makes more sense to do more reps at a sub-maximal level (like in the NSCA protocol). If your athletes never do more than 5 reps in the gym, than NSCA might prematurely fatigue them. It would be interesting to compare the two protocols and take notes, and I told Coach N so. “Yeah,” he said, “but how are you going to do that with 20 athletes in the room?”

Good point.

I guess like anything else, there’s not enough time, space, or trainers to truly customize a program toward each individual’s needs and goals, so in the meantime, Coach figures, these softball players need to be strong more than they need to be big.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.