Inside a sunlit dance studio across from Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the ballerina Sara Mearns is stretched taut in a forearm side plank, one leg hovering above the ground.
It looks easy enough—but that’s exactly the sleight of hand that professional dancers have perfected: transforming physical feats into visual eye candy, elegance over exertion. If she is breaking a sweat in this series of workout GIFs for Vogue, it isn’t showing.
by Laura Regensdorf / Vogue.com (July 21, 2017)
A seasoned principal at New York City Ballet, Mearns is the sort of powerhouse technician who dares you not to blink when she’s onstage. But even that fine-tuned strength has limits—in her case, a back problem years ago that nearly took her to the brink, along with a series of sprained ankles that perpetually weakened her dominant side. “I was getting so fed up with it, and I didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. Fortunately, Joaquin De Luz—a fellow NYCB star, who, after being diagnosed with his own career-ending lumbar injury, rehabilitated his way back into performance shape—had an idea. Newly certified as a personal trainer, he would develop a cross-training regimen for her, designed to ferret out those imbalances. “Dancers are so strong that you can have an inactive part of your body and still do the shows,” he explains of such “broken links” in the muscular chain. His method is like “connecting the dots, so no muscle is strained and no muscle is underused,” he says. “You use your body more efficiently as a unit.”
Those experimental one-on-one sessions, conducted on their breaks between rehearsals, paid off in more ways than one. “I immediately felt the effects,” Mearns explains, citing newfound communication between her stomach muscles and back; an uptick in stamina meant that she sailed through the usually grueling Balanchine classic, The Four Temperaments. De Luz also received a green light from management to expand the program, called Dancer Fit, to the company, with an eye toward injury prevention and pre-season training. After a pilot launch with the men during last winter’s Nutcracker run, the ballerinas came onboard earlier this year.
Of course, De Luz’s approach isn’t limited to stage performers. A doctor who he trains on the side recently reported less fatigue in the operating room; another client is experiencing a turnaround in chronic back pain. “It’s not about sitting on a bench and lifting weight,” says De Luz, sounding a call for functional exercises that knit together key muscle groups (glutes, core, lower back) over bulking, one-note reps. “I think the human body is meant for movement.” With Mearns and her flawless arabesque line as inspiration, here are seven toning exercises to set you into motion.
Rotating Forearm Plank With Extension
Begin in forearm plank with the core engaged. Extend one arm forward and the opposite leg back. Bending that leg through passé, rotate into side plank and extend the leg forward in line with the hip, with the top arm stretched toward the ceiling. Reverse, bending the leg and rotating back into opposite-arm-and-leg forearm plank. Lower into regular forearm plank, and repeat on the other side.
“This is great for core and oblique strengthening,” says De Luz of this challenging stabilization exercise. Leave it to Mearns to make it look deceptively effortless.
Stabilizing Glutes Press With Rotation
With the feet elevated on a bench and flexed, raise the hips and extend one leg to the ceiling. Maintaining a square, level pelvis, lower the hips toward the floor while rotating the working leg to the side. Raise the hips again while rotating the leg back to the ceiling. Return the heel back to the bench, and repeat on the other side.
“When you open the leg to the side, you have to activate the inside of the supporting leg to keep stabilized,” De Luz says. This targets the medial glutes, key for balance work and jumps.
Torso Twist With Extension
Begin in plank position with the arms elevated on a bench and a resistance band around the thighs (a few inches above the knee). Extend one leg, then bend the knee toward the opposite wrist, rotating the torso while lowering into a push-up. Reverse, straightening the arms and extending the leg. Return to plank, and repeat on the other side.
“This is a full-body exercise—a total whammy,” says De Luz. The leg extension hits the glutes, the twist targets the oblique muscles, and the push-up works the upper body. “Focus on proper alignment when doing this exercise, and come back to the original position every time.”
Plank Balance Shift
Begin in plank, with the core engaged. With one hand, pick up an object and move it to the top of the mat. Shifting weight, pick up the object but with the other hand, and return it to the start position. Pick up the object with the original hand and move it back, under the torso. Shifting weight, pick up the object with the other hand and return it to the start position.
“Every time you move the object, your brain has to send messages to fire up your core and keep your body in balance,” says De Luz of this dynamic exercise. Mearns uses pointe shoes here, but a small weight is ideal.
Balancing Press With Extensions
Start in parallel passé, with a resistance rope under the arch of the supporting foot. Keeping the elbows tucked into the torso, curl the forearms in and press the arms overhead as you lower into plié and extend the working leg to the front. Keeping the supporting leg bent, return to passé and lower the arms; extend the leg back into arabesque as you press the arms down and out to a T. Lower the arms and return the leg to passé. Repeat the entire sequence on the other side.
Another “total-body exercise,” this series calls on the medial glutes and the core for stabilization “while simultaneously working the upper body with the shoulder press and fly,” says De Luz. Again, Mearns tackles it with characteristic finesse.
Rond de Jambe Stability Sequence
Standing on a bench, start in parallel passé. Bending the supporting leg, extend into arabesque and raise the arms; return to passé, lowering the arms. Bending the supporting leg, extend to the side and raise the arms; return to passé, lowering the arms. Repeat, extending to the front. Staying in plié with the arms overhead, carry the leg through passé to arabesque and slowly circle to the front. Straighten the supporting leg, returning to passé with the arms lowered. Repeat the entire sequence on the other side.
“This exercise activates the medial glutes and connects the three dots: the glutes, the low back, and the core,” says De Luz. Think long, taut, and seamlessly integrated, tip to toe.
With the feet hip-width apart and a resistance band around the calves, lower into a squat, raising the arms in line with the torso. Shifting the weight onto one foot, straighten and extend the other leg into arabesque while lowering the arms. Return to a seated squat, arms raised, and repeat on the other side.
An active core is key for stability, explains De Luz, but the main action is the double dose of glutes-strengtheners—“the squat and the transition to standing on one leg.”