Can Athletes Dance Their Way to Agility?

Dance Training for Agility, Speed and Power

Can athletes dance their way to agility?

Coaches and athletes are always on the lookout for drills, exercises and training methods that will give them the edge over their rivals and this sometimes leads to unusual approaches. But can dance training deliver the goods? John Shepherd investigates

Agility is an attribute that is crucial for virtually all sports performance. Runners of all speeds can also benefit from improved agility, because the ‘lighter’ the athlete is on their feet the better their ground contact, reaction and propulsion will be. Field sports players will be off the pace if they cannot turn, react, spin, step, and start and stop as effectively as possible.

Take football, which is a game characterised by numerous agility requirements, for example, turning to shoot, pass, make a header or run down an opponent. The number of jumps and turns (among other movements) a player may have to make across a typical playing and training season can run into several thousands; it’s easy to understand how improving these abilities with specific agility training could make a huge difference to playing ability and injury avoidance.

American football is a sport hardly known for its grace and poise, but many players have swapped their pads for points, to do ballet. Ballet dancers are renowned for their agility; they are able to leap, land and turn with, well… with balletic grace. This has led researchers and sports team players and coaches to experiment with ballet and other dance forms as a conditioning method. Superbowl winner and former top high-hurdler Willie Gault was one such player who believed his on-field performance and resistance to injury was enhanced by ballet. Ballet has in fact been used within American football since the 1970s.

For example, the ballet position ‘turnout’ rotates legs from the hips and helps to strengthen smaller, more injury-susceptible muscles, while using ‘changement’ and ‘tendu’ positions helps to enhance ankle and foot flexibility, which is seen to enhance agility (1). Elsewhere on the American football field, John A Bergfeld, the Cleveland Browns’ medical advisor, noted that groin injuries decreased in the season following ballet training. He believed that the training had taught the players, who had to crouch during games, an awareness of their pelvis positioning and that this had reduced injury potential by increased range of motion in their hips.

Dance training, agility and speed

Sports science research supports the notion that ballet and dance can enhance agility and other measures of sports performance. A team from Sweden studied the contribution of dance to cross-country skiers of various ages (2). They evaluated the effects of dance training on the speed and agility of young cross-country skiers (aged 12 to 15) and the joint mobility and muscle flexibility of the spine, hip and ankle over three and eight months. Twenty elite cross-country skiers participated in the study. Five males and five females received dance training (intervention group) whilst five males and five females did not dance (control group). The results were as follows:

  • Speed and agility measured by hurdle test; the intervention group improved their test scores after three months by 0.8 seconds and after eight months by a further 0.6 seconds;
  • Speed and agility measured by slalom test; the intervention group made similar improvements – 0.3 seconds after three months and 0.02 seconds after eight months;
  • Joint mobility; skiers in the intervention group increased their flexion-extension of the thoracic (upper) spine by 7.5 degrees after three months and by 9 degrees after eight months.

Obviously pleased with their findings, the researchers then evaluated whether dance training could have similar positive outcomes for older skiers (mean age 19) (3). They considered speed and agility again using similar tests, but this time also analysed the effects of dance training on reducing lower back pain.

In contrast to the study above, they found no positive correlation for speed and agility, but did discover that back pain was reduced in four of six subjects from the intervention group who initially complained of ski-related back pain. This contrasted with three subjects with back pain from the control group whose symptoms remained unchanged. The researchers concluded that ‘Dance training improved the range of hip motion and joint mobility and the flexibility of the spine’ and that ‘These improvements might explain the reduction in ski-related back pain in the intervention group.’

Dance training and balance

Further research has considered whether dance training can improve the ability to balance – a key aspect of agility. One Italian study focused on the non-sporting older population (4). Forty subjects (aged 58 to 68 years) were randomly allocated to one of two groups:

  • A three-month exercise group (which included dance training);
  • A control group, which did not engage in physical activities.

The results showed that physical activity based on dance improved balance, leading the researchers to conclude that dance training could be a useful tool in reducing the risk of falling in the elderly. This has important implications for master athletes whose balance and agility may reduce with age, although, as we’ll see later, performing specific exercises, rather than general dance, may be more advantageous in terms of directly enhancing sport performance.

Meanwhile, researchers from Cincinnati compared the postural sway (body movement) of track and field athletes and ballet dancers (5). The team found no differences between the two groups, until they asked them to balance on a foam surface with eyes closed. Under these conditions there were clear differences between the groups – for example the dancers were more stable in terms of holding a stationary position and made less complex movements when they did move.

Dance training drawbacks

Researchers from Germany investigated the influence of professional dance training on the peak torque ratio of plantar flexion to dorsiflexion (measure of strength between moving from a toe down to toe up position), angle replication ability and balance in comparison to age-matched and gender-matched controls (6).

Group 1 was made up of 42 dancers (31 female, 11 male) in professional training, while group 2 (the control group) consisted of 40 age and gender matched subjects, with no prior dance or specific sport training. Various measures, such as single-leg balance and isokinetic tests, were used at the beginning and end of a five-month period.
One would have expected to discover great variation between the test performances of the dancers and the controls, because of the dancers’ experience and prior dance conditioning. However, this was not the case; in fact there were virtually no differences between the experienced dancers and the five-month trained controls.

This led the researchers to conclude, ‘Ballet training alone without concurrent additional coordinative training does not lead to improvements in ankle joint position sense or improved measures of balance within this period of observation.’ These findings raise serious doubts about the validity of using dance to improve everyday movement performance, let alone sport performance.

Following on from this, other studies have indicated that dancers, and ballet dancers in particular, can benefit from incorporating ‘sport specific’ conditioning elements into their training. For example, studies have shown that 64-80% of all professional dancers need to stop performing for extended periods due to various ankle and knee, back and shoulder injuries (7).

Specifically, a growing body of research has indicated that ballet dance injuries, such as those mentioned, could be reduced by a focused supplementary resistance-training regime (8-10). This would be used rather like the preconditioning routines recommended for athletes. It appears that the dance world is beginning to take this on board, with ballet companies and teachers realising that injuries can be prevented through supplemental training, without altering the ‘aesthetics of the dance’.

Should athletes use dance training?

But where does this leave the athlete and coach thinking about using dance in their training to enhance agility or other elements of sports performance? As indicated, there are some potential benefits; for example improved flexibility and injury prevention, and also possibly balance. However, the situation is far from clear-cut as other research has indicated that dance may not enhance strength and agility. And as we have just mentioned, many dancers themselves have highly specific weaknesses that could be rectified by using sports conditioning methods.

To get the most out of a training method in terms of enhanced performance, that method should ideally reflect the sport being practised as much as it can. While ballet and dance can contribute to improving markers of sports performance, such as agility and flexibility, the weight of evidence is that more specific sports drills and practices can evoke greater returns.

Having said that, there may be a therapeutic and injury prevention role for ballet and dance in sports training; dance activities will stress the body differently to ‘normal’ sport activity (even that which includes specific drill practices) and hopefully will also be ‘fun’ and therefore stimulatory. These factors may make some dance training worth considering as an addition to proven sport-specific agility-enhancing practices, time permitting. However, athletes should make the inclusion of sports-specific agility-enhancing practices a priority.

Specific agility-enhancing practices

There has been a huge commercial explosion in agility and speed improving programmes on both sides of the Atlantic, with companies such as SAQ (Speed, Agility and Quickness) (11) and the Frappier Acceleration Program (12) leading the way, training teams and coaches to improve all aspects of speed. It’s possible to purchase numerous relevant gadgets and programmes. Speed ladders, cones, low hurdles and even super-speed treadmills are all available dependent on budget and time. But do these programmes work?

In a study on the use of SAQ techniques and their effects on female football players, three groups of matched players were put through different physical conditioning programmes over a 12-week period (13). Two groups did SAQ training, whilst the other (active group) carried out their regular sessions.

All three interventions decreased the participants’ body mass index (BMI) (-3.7%) and body fat percentage (-1.7%). They also increased flexibility (+14.7%) and VO2max (a measure of aerobic power, +18.4%). However, the SAQ groups showed significantly greater benefits from their training programme than the active group on the sprint to fatigue test and crucially in the light of the subject matter of this article, the 25m sprint and left and right side agility tests. This is encouraging news for specific agility training.

Examples of specific agility drills and practices

Ladder drills

Floor ladders are a key weapon in the agility and speed-conditioning armoury. They are designed to improve foot speed, foot/ground contact and all body coordination.
Although they can be purchased commercially, they can be improvised by using tape or sticks. The latter should be flat, about 30cm long and the space between each should be about 35cm. The ladder should have 20 rungs.

Examples of ladder drills:

1. Run through with high knees, hitting every hole;
2. Run through with low knees;
3. Run through facing sideways, each foot in each hole– right and left;
4. Run through with cross-steps hitting every other hole diagonally;
5. Low hops hitting each hole on one side of ropes;
6. Double legs (feet together);
7. Sideways double legs (left foot first);
8. Sideways double legs (right foot first);
9. Single legs and sprint 10m at end;
10. Sideways left and sprint 10m;
11. Sideways right and sprint 10m.

Lateral mirror

This drill is designed to enhance reactive agility. Two athletes face one another about a metre apart. One athlete moves laterally while the other has to mirror his movements. The drill starts and stops on the command of a coach and lasts about five to seven seconds. The space in which the drill is performed is limited to 5m x 5m.

Variation: The athletes are tethered to each other by means of a Velcro belt and cord between them. One athlete has to make lateral movements in an attempt to break the cord connection, whilst the other has to prevent this from happening by matching the movements of his partner.

Square drill

Designed to improved all-direction agility and speed. Four cones are placed to make a 5m x 5m square. The athlete begins by back-pedalling from the first cone to the second, side shuffling from the second cone to the third, sprinting forward from the third to the fourth, and then side shuffling from the fourth cone back past the first.

Stationary position, start and sprint drill

Designed to improved reaction and ‘get up and go’ agility. To a command, the athlete springs up from either a press-up, seated or lying position and sprints 10m.
Variation: The athlete sits facing away from the direction of sprint. To a command, they react, rotate and sprint away.

Reactive strength improvement drill

Designed to improve agility (reactive power) and speed. The athlete performs a depth jump from the end of a gymnastic bench and rebounds over two low hurdles. On landing from the second, a 10m sprint is performed.

Variation: The angle of the run after landing from the second hurdle can be changed to improve ‘angled-agility’ acceleration.

2. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2003; 13(4):237-43
3. Br J Sports Med 2004; 38(2):148-53
4. Aging Clin Exp Res 2005; 17(5):385-9
5. Exp Brain Res 2005; 163(3):370-8
(Epub 8 Jan 2005)
6.Clin J Sport Med 2005; 15(5):331-9
7. Res Sports Med 2005; 13(1):63-76
8. Sports Med 1988; 6(5):295-307
9. Sports Med 1988; 6(5):295-307
10. J Strength Cond Res 2004; 18(4):714-8
11. SAQ International
12. Frappier Acceleration Program
13. J of Sport Science 2004; 22(2):191-203

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