Apr 06, 2021 in DIS-TANZ-SOLO

Muscle Size vs. Muscle Strength Page Title Photo

The majority of dancers still struggle with the idea of incorporating strength training into their daily routine, and this is probably still due to a huge misconception. Strength training is not the same as bodybuilding! Strength training causes adaptive changes in your nervous system that allow your existing strength potential to be utilized to its fullest extent. So if you focus on such strength training, your muscles won’t grow, they will get stronger. The counterpart to this is hypertrophy training, which naturally makes you stronger as well, but which specifically targets muscle growth.

So if you focus on neural strength training, it is possible to train your muscles without changing anything about your physical appearance. You can get stronger without automatically losing subtlety or “space” in your body to move. These are other concerns that I hear quite often.

If you haven’t yet seen my conversation with sports scientist Patrick Rump, you should have a look at the chapter on widespread myths and misconceptions about strength training. Our entire conversation revolves around facts and questions regarding strength training for dancers, so I would definitely recommend watching the full video.

Of course, depending on your training goals and physical weaknesses, it can still be useful to incorporate periods of hypertrophy workouts into your training plan. Sometimes it makes perfect sense to build muscle mass to increase your strength potential, and then use targeted neural strength training to convert this gained potential into greater strength. This brings us back to a basic guideline: you must always define a clear goal before you jump into your training. Only then can you train effectively and purposefully and make progress.

Now let’s take a closer look at the two different types of strength training, and since we said that in principle muscle building comes before muscle strengthening, let’s start with hypertrophy training.

Size vs. Strength Kettlebells

There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do the deadlift!

Jon Pall Sigmarsson


Muscle hypertrophy is the increase in muscle fiber cross-sectional area associated with an increase in muscle volume and mass. The three primary mechanisms of muscle growth appear to be muscle tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage, which are brought about by progressively overloading the muscle.


Learning to properly build and control muscle tension seems to influence all other factors. The idea is to focus on a full range of motion that creates constant tension on the working muscle, and to make sure not to give your muscles a break while performing the repetitions. The higher the time under tension, the harder you make your muscles work, the better results you’ll see.


You probably know metabolic stress as that feeling when your muscles start to "burn" after a hard workout. Metabolic stress triggers a process that ultimately causes your muscle cells to be activated for growth. Changes in your acute exercise routines, such as intensity, volume, and rests between sets, are critical to the magnitude of metabolic stress.


Lifting weights causes damage to the muscle (the good kind), which forces the muscle to repair itself and grow back bigger and denser. But after you've been training for a while, you need to keep finding ways to challenge your muscles if you want them to keep growing. The way to continue to create an overload and thus damage could simply be by lifting heavier weights or exercising a muscle from a different angle.

Advanced techniques for more experienced athletes may further include accentuated eccentric loading, prolonged eccentric tempo, cluster sets, high-load RT combined with low-load RT under blood flow restriction, supersets, drop sets, pre-exhaustion, and sarcoplasma stimulating training.

Training Applications

It is important to realize that all three of the above mentioned aspects of muscle growth are interconnected. Muscle tension with heavier weights can cause fiber damage that triggers swelling and metabolic stress. Muscle tension with lighter weights and more time under tension triggers metabolic stress, where blood can't escape the muscles fast enough, and helps promote growth. And then tension with moderate weights for more reps triggers both metabolic responses and damage.

So while it might be handy to have a rough guideline for hypertrophy training in mind (70-85% 1RM, 5-3 sets, 5-20 reps, 60-90 seconds rest), it's still important to personalize your workouts and see what stimuli your body is most likely to respond to. A good way to ensure you're triggering all muscle growth processes would be to keep switching between low (5-8), medium (8-12), and high (12-20) repetition ranges.


Resistance training with high external loads (>85% 1RM), a low number of repetitions (1-5), and long rest periods (usually ~3-5 minutes, for leg exercises even up to 10 minutes), on the other hand, is less about muscle growth but more about triggering adaptations of the neuromuscular system.

For many dancers, this will likely be the preferred form of training when it comes to achieving their training goals. It's a way to take advantage of the benefits of greater strength without the potential negative effects of excessive muscle bulk.

To perform any kind of movement, our brain sends signals along the motor pathways to tell the muscles when, how fast, and how hard to contract. Now, when we lift heavier weights than our bodies are used to, neural adaptations are constantly taking place to better manage the load on the muscles. Quite simply, our body adapts to increased stress by becoming stronger. These neural adaptations include the disinhibition of inhibitory mechanisms as well as improvements in intra- and intermuscular coordination.


Inhibitory mechanisms involve a variety of sensory receptors, such as Golgi tendon organs, Renshaw cells, and supraspinal inhibitory signals, but going into the specific details is certainly beyond the scope of this article.


The components of intramuscular coordination (meaning coordination within a muscle) are synchronization, recruitment, and rate encoding. Synchronization means the ability to contract motor units simultaneously (or with minimal latency). Recruitment means the ability to recruit motor units simultaneously. Rate encoding means the ability to increase the firing rate of motor units to express more force.

The result of optimized intramuscular coordination is not only an increase in peak force, but also in the rate of force development, The aspects recruitment and rate coding appear to be the more important factors. Adaptations in intramuscular coordination transfer well from one exercise to the next (for example, from strength training to dance-specific movements) as long as the specific motor pattern is well established.


Intermuscular coordination, on the other hand, is the ability of the nervous system to better coordinate different muscles and muscle groups with each other, making movement more efficient. Over time, as the nervous system learns a particular movement, fewer motor units are activated by the same weight, leaving more motor units available for activation by higher weights. Therefore, to increase the weight lifted during a particular exercise over the long term, intermuscular coordination training is key.

Intermuscular coordination is very exercise-specific, so its transfer to other exercises (or a transfer from strength training to dance-specific movements) is very limited. Nevertheless, it remains the basis for overall strength development.

With all of this in mind, we should be aware that the majority of intermuscular coordination gains occur at loads below 85 percent of 1 RM. So the bottom line is, if we want to optimize all neuromuscular adaptations, we need to make sure we use the full range of training intensities.


Both Eastland Press and Human Kinetics have published a number of books that I find very helpful when it comes to strengthening and conditioning your muscles. ANATOMY OF MOVEMENT and DANCE ANATOMY show you precisely which muscles and joints are involved in a particular movement, whereas STRENGTH TRAINING ANATOMY explains which exercises are best suited to train the corresponding muscles.
Cover ANATOMY OF MOVEMENT by Blandine Calais-Germain
Dance Anatomy by Jacqui Greene Haas Cover
Cover STRENGTH TRAINING ANATOMY by Frédéric Delavier

And here are some of the strength training bibles that are used as reference works by numerous strength and conditioning professionals, personal trainers, sports scientists, researchers and exercise instructors. I haven't found any reasonably priced copies yet, but those are next on my shopping list.

Science and Practice of Strength Training Cover
Principles and Practice of Resistance Training Cover
Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy Cover

I'd be really curious to know what sources you guys draw from when planning your workouts. Feel free to get in touch to start an exchange or if you just want to discuss further questions around strength training for dancers.

Further Reading

Strength and Conditioning Journal Cover

Evidence-Based Guidelines for Resistance Training Volume to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy

by Brad Schoenfeld & Jozo Grgic
(Strength and Conditioning Journal 40/4, 2018)

The manipulation of resistance training (RT) variables is widely considered an essential strategy to maximize muscular adaptations. One variable that has received substantial attention in this regard is RT volume. This article provides evidence-based guidelines as to volume when creating RT programs designed to maximize muscle hypertrophy.

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health Cover

Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods

by Michal Krzysztofik, Michal Wilk, Grzegorz Wojdała & Artur Gołas
(International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16/24, 2019)

Effective hypertrophy-oriented resistance training (RT) should comprise a combination of mechanical tension and metabolic stress. Regarding training variables, the most effective values are widely described in the literature. However, there is still a lack of consensus regarding the efficiency of advanced RT techniques and methods in comparison to traditional approaches. MEDLINE and SPORTDiscus databases were searched from 1996 to September 2019 for all studies investigating the effects of advanced RT techniques and methods on muscle hypertrophy and training variables. Thirty articles met the inclusion criteria and were consequently included for the quality assessment and data extraction.

Medicine And Science In Sports And Exercise Cover

Neural Adaptation to resistance Training

by Digby G. Sale
(Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 20/5, 1988)

Strength performance depends not only on the quantity and quality of the involved muscles, but also upon the ability of the nervous system to appropriately activate the muscles. Strength training may cause adaptive changes within the nervous system that allow a trainee to more fully activate prime movers in specific movements and to better coordinate the activation of all relevant muscles, thereby effecting a greater net force in the intended direction of movement. The evidence indicating neural adaptation is reviewed. The possible mechanisms of neural adaptation are discussed in relation to motor unit recruitment and firing patterns. The relative roles of neural and muscular adaptation in short- and long-term strength training are evaluated.

Sports Medicine Cover

Neural Adaptations to Resistive Exercise - Mechanisms and Recommendations for Training Practices

by David A. Gabriel, Gary Kamen & Gail Frost
(Sports Medicine 36/2, 2006

It is generally accepted that neural factors play an important role in muscle strength gains. This article reviews the neural adaptations in strength, with the goal of laying the foundations for practical applications in sports medicine and rehabilitation.

American Journal for Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Cover

Performance and Physiologic Adaptations to Resistance Training

by Michael R. Deschenes & William J. Kraemer
(American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation 81/11, 2002)

Weight lifting, or resistance training, is a potent stimulus to the neuromuscular system. Depending on the specific program design, resistance training can enhance strength, power, or local muscular endurance. These improvements in performance are directly related to the physiologic adaptations elicited through prolonged resistance training. Optimal resistance training programs are individualized to meet specific training goals. The extent of the functional and health benefits to be accrued from resistance training depend on factors such as initial performance and health status, along with the specification of program design variables such as frequency, duration, intensity, volume, and rest intervals.

Role of metabolic stress for enhancing muscle adaptations: Practical applications

by Marcelo Conrado de Freitas, Jose Gerosa-Neto, Nelo Eidy Zanchi, Fabio Santos Lira & Fabrício Eduardo Rossi
(World Journal of Methodology 7/2, 2017)

Metabolic stress is a physiological process that occurs during exercise in response to low energy that leads to metabolite accumulation in muscle cells. Traditional exercise protocol (i.e., Resistance training) has an important impact on the increase of metabolite accumulation, which influences hormonal release, hypoxia, reactive oxygen species production and cell swelling. Changes in acute exercise routines, such as intensity, volume and rest between sets, are determinants for the magnitude of metabolic stress, furthermore, different types of training, such as low-intensity resistance training plus blood flow restriction and high intensity interval training, could be used to maximize metabolic stress during exercise. Thus, the objective of this review is to describe practical applications that induce metabolic stress and the potential effects of metabolic stress to increase systemic hormonal release, hypoxia, ROS production, cell swelling and muscle adaptations.

Sports Medicine Cover

The importance of muscular strength: Training considerations

by Timothy J. Suchomel, Sophia Nimphius, Christopher Bellon & Michael Henry Stone
(Sports Medicine 48/4, 2018)

This review covers underlying physiological characteristics and training considerations that may affect muscular strength including improving maximal force expression and time-limited force expression. Strength is underpinned by a combination of morphological and neural factors including muscle cross-sectional area and architecture, musculotendinous stiffness, motor unit recruitment, rate coding, motor unit synchronization, and neuromuscular inhibition. Although single- and multi-targeted block periodization models may produce the greatest strength-power benefits, concepts within each model must be considered within the limitations of the sport, athletes, and schedules.

Current Opinion in Physiology Cover

Training for strength and hypertrophy: an evidence-based approach

by Robert W. Morton, Lauren Colenso-Semple & Stuart M. Phillips
(Current Opinion in Physiology 10, 2019)

Skeletal muscle strength is important to human health, as is evidenced by the inclusion of a recommendation to practice strengthening activities in all national physical activity guidelines. In addition, muscle strength and size are often core components of athletic performance. Therefore, the aim of this review is to provide evidenced-based recommendations on resistance exercise training (RET) variables that impact RET-induced changes in muscle strength and size (hypertrophy).

Header photo by Veronika Che on Shutterstock
Kettlebell photo by Maridav on Shutterstock


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