Get Your Best Upper Body

Weight-bearing movements like inversions require strong, stable shoulders and proper body alignment. Photo by Emily Giacalone; modeled by Nicole Buggé

If a dancer has a weak upper body, her power as a performer evaporates. From presenting épaulement with pride to handling heavy lifting, strong and stable shoulders and arms are essential to a dancer's technique


Many students, however, make the mistake of trying to build strength on top of a faulty foundation. A dancer needs proper bodily alignment before she can begin stabilizing and strengthening the shoulder joints for weight-bearing movement like lifts and inversions. “If your shoulder isn't sitting in the right place, you can have huge, developed biceps and triceps, but the whole shoulder unit isn't going to function properly," says Alison Deleget, a certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Proper carriage starts from the ground up, with weight distributed among the three points of the feet, bones stacked so that the shoulders are over the hips, which are over the ankles. The spine should be neutral, supporting its three natural curves.

If the skeleton is properly aligned, “the shoulders should hang on your frame just like a coat on a hanger," says Eva Nemeth, a former physical therapist who teaches holistic strength classes at the Colburn Dance Academy in Los Angeles. It shouldn't take a lot of muscle to get the shoulders aligned. If it does, look to the lower body for the source of the problem. (For example, if the ribs are splayed and shoulders pinched back, the student's lower back may be swayed, her pelvis tilting forward.)

At the same time, this ease of carriage needs to be complemented by strength in the upper body for bearing weight. “Compared to the rest of the body, shoulders are particularly mobile, complex and inherently unstable joints," says Deleget. If your hip joint, for example, was a marble in a tight-fitting bowl, the shoulder would be a golf ball on a tee—not very secure.

The shoulder is made up of four joints. Beyond the shallow ball-and-socket joint where the humerus connects to the scapula, there's the clavicle to shoulder blade, clavicle to sternum and the physiological joint, where the shoulder blade sits on the thoracic spine. The joints rely on many small, stabilizing muscles—17 connect to the scapula alone—to keep the ball centered on the tee.

Nemeth says students often incur injuries by straining the large, external muscles like the biceps, triceps and pectorals without developing stability throughout the shoulders. As Deleget puts it, if you're not activating the stabilizers before the “global movers," as she calls the biceps, triceps, pectorals, deltoids and lats, it's like working with a slinky as a foundation instead of a tightly coiled bedspring.

A deficiency in strength or stability in the shoulders could lead to injury. That's why it's essential to develop the small stabilizing muscles that support correct placement, in addition to strengthening the larger muscles that bear weight. And of course, Deleget and Nemeth both stress the importance of teaching skeletal alignment before anything else. DT

Once students are properly aligned and ready to begin strength training, our experts recommend these exercises for stability, then strength. They use small, subtle movements to develop overall stability in the upper body. Note: It is important to do each exercise gently and slowly. If you try to push too hard or fast, you could start engaging the wrong muscle groups.

Complement these stabilizers with more traditional exercises like bicep curls, rowing and tricep kickbacks (see opposite). Because placement of the shoulders is so important, our experts recommend teachers supervise these exercises in class before letting students do them at home.

Rocking Plank

1. Lie on a yoga ball on your stomach. Walk forward on your hands until the ball is under your thighs and your shoulders are over your wrists.

2. Keep your legs straight and your entire body parallel to the floor. Push the front of your ribs up a bit and breathe into the back ribs so that your scapulae lie flat instead of sticking out.

3. In very slow and small motions, rock back and forth over your hands. Count “forward two, three, four," then “back, two, three, four." Only move one or two inches in either direction, very gently. This will engage your pectorals and abs as well as your stabilizing muscles.

Rocking Side Plank

Try the same exercise as a side plank on one hand, with feet on the floor, stacked or with one crossed in front of the other for more stability. Again, rock the body out over the hand slightly and then back. (The fact that you can do this with feet in place on the floor shows how tiny the movement should be.)

Shoulder Press

1. Sitting on a chair, bed or the floor, place a yoga ball next to you, right beside your body (on a separate chair or on the floor). A 65-centimeter ball should be about the right height.

2. Extend your arm 90 degrees to the side to rest it on top of the ball, keeping your arm straight.

3. Gently press down on the ball for a count of four, then release.

It's important to maintain the proper placement used in the stabilizing exercises during regular upper-body workouts. When flattening the scapulae against your back, be careful not to round the spine. Keep it neutral, and think of wrapping the shoulder blades around the ribs. You want to spread the scapulae away from one another, not flex the thoracic spine.

Traditional Strengtheners

Deleget recommends these exercises for basic arm and shoulder strengthening.

Bicep curls can be done sitting in a chair with a TheraBand under your feet and the ends in either hand. (You can also do this standing, but you'd need a really long TheraBand.)

Tricep kickbacks should start standing in a lunge with the front foot on the center of the TheraBand and the ends in each hand. Then keep the elbows at your sides as you pull the band back toward your thigh, straightening the arms.

Cuing Tip For both bicep curls and tricep kickbacks, keep shoulders open across the front. Don't let them roll forward.

Students can do a Rowing exercise by looping a TheraBand around a barre. They should imagine squeezing a soda can between their scapulae as they pull the ends of the band toward them until their hands are just in front of their waist. Arms are bent 90 degrees with forearms parallel to the floor while pulling.

Cuing Tip Telling students to push their shoulders down can result in shoulders sloping downward from the base of the neck to the ball-and-socket joint, when they should actually be square. Deleget prefers to say shoulder blades should go slightly up, slightly in and slightly together in the back.


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