I have a new client who is a competitive Irish dancer. I know that flexibility work should be an important part of her extra training focus, but she also needs some cardio and overall muscular strength training. My questions are: 1.) With regard to strength training, what would be the muscle groups (and exercises) that would be most beneficial for her to strengthen if her training time is limited per week? If she had more time, what important exercises should be the focus of her training program? 2.) For cardiovascular training, since her dancing bouts are about three minutes in length, should I include some interval training at higher intensities about a couple of times per week (say 15 to 30 seconds at seven to nine RPE followed by 45 to 30 recovery time for five to eight cycles and then finish off with cardio endurance work for another 30 minutes or so) to help her improve her cardio stamina OR should I focus on having her do some cardio endurance work only? Thank you for taking the time to answer this question.
In response to your first question, your client should definitely focus on core if her training time is limited. There are a couple of ways you can do this. You can start by focusing solely on the core and then move on to training her whole body through integrated movement, which will be extremely beneficial to her since dance involves multi-planar movement. I suggest looking at the multifidus, transverse abdominus, psoas, quadratus lumborum and diaphragm as well as pelvic floor muscles. Exercises that will target these areas can include the following:
- Breathing. Have her lie in child's pose. Inhale, focusing the inhale in between her shoulder blades (take a few breaths), move the focus to the mid back, followed by the lumbar region and finally the sacrum. This should help her to find her breath through her back. Her breath should be nearly 60 percent in through her ribcage/back, 40 percent through her abdomen and very little chest breathing. Make sure whenever she does an exercise she exhales on the exertion to start. As she masters this, progress to inhale on the exertion (watch for chest breathing - you do not want this) as this will challenge her further.
- Transverse activation. Lie supine on the floor next to an easy chair or couch, so her right side is closest to the furniture. Extend right leg, so it is straight. Bend left knee and cross the left foot over the right leg, so left foot is flat on the floor. Make sure shin or knee is touching the chair or couch. Press shin/knee into the chair/couch. She should be able to feel a gentle pressure on her fingers or a “click” as the transverse engages. It should not feel like a big contraction (as she would during a biceps curl) or a bearing down motion. Hold this for five seconds. (Work up to 10 seconds as strength increases.) Repeat 10 times. Repeat 10 more times on the opposite side.
- Inner thigh squeeze (perhaps with a Pilate's Magic Circle or playground ball) combined with a supine bridge. She should lie on her back, knees bent and feet on the floor with the circle between her thighs. Have her engage her pelvic floor (have her imagine she needs to use the restroom very badly, but she has to hold it). As she does this, have her engage the transverse and raise hips (with neutral low back) as high as she can while maintaining an engaged core. Lower down and repeat.
- Psoas work. Start seated on a ball as if sitting in a chair. Engage pelvic floor, transverse and raise right knee. Lower and repeat on the left side. Make sure spine stays neutral and upright. As she gains strength, progress to straight leg as well as standing (make sure supporting hip does not adduct when standing).
- Plank. Side plank and moving side plank are always good for core stability as well. For moving side plank, have her in side plank alignment but now she raises and lowers her hips, without sacrificing her shoulder/scapulae complex.
To utilize her time even more efficiently, once she masters the above, take her to more integrated movement. Train her deep longitudinal and lateral chains (i.e., use cable machine). Have her start in a small squat. Reverse lunge as the arms are extended at the elbow and at shoulder height in front of her. As the arms are pressed down to the hips, she straightens her supporting leg while flexing the opposite hip (bringing the knee upward). As she gains strength/coordination, progress this to a straight knee, and you could bring it to a more "explosive" movement such as a kick like she would do in her competitions.
Now, for the second question you asked, I would absolutely suggest interval training. However, you need to determine her cardiovascular level. Since her dancing bouts are three minutes in length, I would suggest something that lasts three minutes in length at 60 to 80 percent of her functional capacity, obviously starting with however long she needs and depending on her ability. Make sure she is warmed up first. Her rest time should be the same length as her interval time. You can repeat this up to five times to start. Find out how many times she performs her dances in a competition and how much time is in between. If there are only a few minutes between numbers, then try to follow this pattern. Chances are, however, she'll have a fair amount of down time between the pieces. Do this a couple of times a week. She should definitely do other cardio work throughout the week as well for a duration of 30 minutes or so. A nice way to incorporate cardio and strength is circuits. As she becomes more accomplished at all of the above, you could take her in to circuits that last up to three minutes in length, utilizing the exercises above or others.
I hope this helps. Best of luck!