Ballet for Swimmers: Increasing Body Awareness and Rhythm by Dr. Monika Schloder (2010)


Researchers and medical experts are very concerned about rising inactivity, overweight, obesity, and an escalating number of drop out from organized sports (estimated at 73%). To keep swimmers of all ages involved for longer periods of time, to avoid or reduce burnout and dropout rates we need a greater variety of activities “outside the pool” through various complementary and cross-training. Dancers, on the other hand, are recognized as some of the most athletic individuals because their extensive and long training is so demanding compared to most other sport. It only makes sense to incorporate ballet as a modified activity to re-energize existing swim programs, to keep swimmers motivated, and to maintain a high interest level

“Ballet training” usually elicits persistent social bias and myths, reactions like “it’s a frilly thing for girls” or “what does it have to do with swimming?” Indeed, it has “everything to do with swimming” and some more. During the 1970s NFL teams incorporated ballet training into their programs. For example, Lynn Swann (NFL 1974 -1982), famous Pittsburg Steelers football player, is described in NFL films as…“A lethal combination of smooth sipping whiskey and greased lightning”…as he was arguably the “most graceful receiver” in NFL history… He was seen as an “artist in the world of football”… whereby he attributes his grace and poise to ballet training. Willi Gault (NFL 1983- early 1990s) was called the “speed merchant” of football and he competed as a world-class sprinter and bobsledder. His attributed his speed and power to ballet training. The activity itself not only enhances athletic performance by achieving a wide movement repertoire but also incorporates daily postural training. Faulty posture can be attributed to many factors, including psychological and/or emotional ones (the way ‘we feel’). Correcting posture is a major focus as each training episode reinforces core strength and proper body alignment.

The following chart illustrates the connection and interrelationship of physical components for successful athletic performance.

A big part of ballet training is also aimed toward graceful and efficient movement to attain ‘flow’ in sport, so important to all successful athletic performances. The late Bruce Lee had this to say on the relationship between body and movement… “Learn to use the joints of the body – You must become aware of their actions because they provide energy when working together and they put energy back into the action…The art of expressing movement demands control over movement. Be like water – take on its shape – become one with the water” (1975). One elite Swimmer stated …“When I am happiest with my performance I’ve sort of felt ‘One’ with the water and my stroke and everything…I was going, oh this is cool!“ (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 4).

Let’s examine the general and specific benefits swimmers can obtain through this activity. Ballet promotes not only strong core development but also extends the flexibility range far beyond what seems possible through a total body workout as all major muscle groups, not often utilized in other sports, are activated. Flexibility as a synergistic component augments coordination and balance through diverse stretching and toning techniques. This also decreases the risk of injury. Even though joint and overall flexibility is increased, ballet is definitely about strength – but as a ‘fun form’ of training without heavy weights. Various stepping patterns during jumping, leaping, hopping, twirling and spinning improve strength, balance, body and spatial awareness with a strong focus on body and limb extension (arms and legs), and body amplitude (head, shoulder and upper body carriage).

Modified ballet for swimmers is not classical training, although any form of “ballet movement is art.” It is not about winning here rather about creating movements that are ‘compelling and look effortless.’ While swimming is a great cardio-vascular activity, it is, however, NOT a weight-bearing exercise to help delay or prevent the onset of osteoporosis. In contrast, ballet exercises are weight bearing in nature with resistance and flexibility training. They build up muscles and endurance, maintain bone mass and density, all needed for healthy bone growth. Studies show that bone density in young dancers has been known to increase during development years and adolescence into adulthood. Whereas the training itself augments muscle mass it is not necessarily a ‘bulking’ activity. Gaining muscle but losing weight is a great side effect, enjoyed by many female participants.

All ballet techniques require the correct use of muscles, extension of the body and limbs, body- arm-leg coordination, positioning and centering of the head. The body core is strengthened to improve the spine while lengthening the core muscles. This in turn gives much needed support to the spinal column, which not only improves posture but also balance and coordination. A taller and leaner posture enhances and strengthens back and abdominal muscles, which in turn reduces potential back pain. Besides posture ballet develops poise and body awareness since graceful, poised, coordinated and controlled movements are achieved from maintaining excellent posture. The latter also enhances the breathing process. Swimmers, like other athletes, need good posture because postural flaws affect all basic swimming skills (body streamline), stroke technique, and breathing. Body alignment, overall body awareness, coordination of arms and legs, upper/lower limb extension and swimming ‘amplitude’ improve. Ballet challenges the correct use of muscle groups such as the gluteus and hip flexors, increases groin flexibility, improves foot rotation/inversion-eversion, enhances ankle flexibility, and shapes the thighs. It develops greater body symmetry (butterfly and breaststroke) and asymmetry or laterality (front/back crawl limb opposition), provides specific exercises for the breaststroke (groin), body undulation (butterfly), body position and head awareness (front and back crawl), and introduces swimmers to stretching and relaxation methods. Since the ‘neutral’ stance with the spine straightened and hips ‘squared’ (both sides are parallel) is a basic ballet requirement exercises aim to perfect posture by aligning and positioning the legs and shoulders properly. Using the foot/feet turnout to rotate legs from the hips strengthens smaller, more injury-susceptible muscles, in ways a parallel stance can’t. For the breaststroke specifically, the turnout foot action corrects pigeon-toe position (scissor kick).

Some propose that ballet is a ‘brain’ activity since it involves constant creative thinking skills, as athletes have to deal with spatial relationships using both sides of the brain during movement patterns. Being able to think about what they are doing and by controlling isolated and independent motion within the body the level of self-confidence and self-esteem is raised because athletes not only move but also feel better. The chance for social interaction boosts overall self-confidence due to daily group dynamics and relationships, somewhat limited during swim training in the pool. Learning about, experiencing, and feeling the sense of rhythm is another beneficial component, frequently under-taught in many sport programs, and… let’s not forget that most adolescence enjoy music.

Concentration and focus
Self-discipline is definitely part of ballet training as paying attention, a high degree of concentration and focus are part of any exercise. Movements range from simple to complex series with a set rhythm and a special awareness of spatial relationships whether stationary or moving. The exercises can be executed as free- standing (at the center), at the bar{ré}, or move across the floor. This actually overcomes potential boredom (athletes tend to tire quickly of the same routine) because exercises are designed to provide fun but are demanding to keep athletes moving. It necessitates discipline, attention to detail, and endurance along with a high degree of focus and concentration.

Posture Training
Personal health, daily function, overall life quality (i.e., general well being), and skill learning are affected by poor posture. We often hear the phrase “Proper form” … or… “Stand Up… Sit straight!” This usually refers to our posture during exercise or carrying out daily living functions. Standing ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ involves body alignment so that the pull of gravity is evenly distributed. Correcting posture is a major focus in ballet as each training session is designed to reinforce core strength and body alignment. Good posture includes:
• A straight line from the ear through shoulder, hip, knee and ankle.
• The head is centered.
• Shoulders, hips, and knees are of equal height.

Incorrect posture: Correct posture:

Most common postural flaws:
• Forward protruding head.
• Rounded shoulders.
• Arched lower back.
• Excessive anterior pelvic tilt (protruding backside).
• Excessive posterior protruding pelvic tilt (protruding abdomen/pelvis).
• Scoliosis– the spine is curved from side to side and may also be rotated. On an X-ray, the spine of a typical scoliosis may look more like an “S” or a “C” rather than a straight line.
• Lordosis– commonly referred to as ‘swayback, saddle back’ or hyper-lordosis – an inward curvature of a portion of the vertebral column.
• Rounded shoulder or ‘Slouch’ syndrome– common in sports with dominant forward motion, including swimming, or due to the influence of excessive time spent on video/computer games.

Posture tests
A number of tests are available for postural analysis. So-called “Posture Grids” record the specific data of individual athletes. Since posture can easily change during growth and development stages or due to medical reasons tests should be administered at the beginning of the season, intermittent, and again at the end. Once postural flaws are determined respective corrective exercises should be incorporated into the training.

Posture Grid

Resource: Retrieved May 31, 2010 from

Plumb Line Test

Resource: Retrieved May 31, 2010, from: http:/ StandingPosture.html

Once any postural deviation is determined, the findings are recorded on the posture grid; remedial exercises are designed and started immediately. It is essential to remind to keep the body in neutral alignment throughout the day. Awareness of the correct posture while standing, sitting at school, at home, or in front of the computer is necessary. Tight chest muscles and loose upper back muscles can cause a forward head and/or rounded shoulder condition. The latter is also due to consistent forward motion in swimming. Corrective stretching for the chest area and tighten the upper back muscles with a reverse fly or back extension can be implemented. If an excessive anterior pelvic tilt exists, corrective stretching should be done for the hips and back and strengthening exercise for the lower body and abdominals.

Wall Test

The athlete stands with the back of the head touching the wall; heels are six inches from the baseboard. The rear touches the wall. Stick one hand between the lower back and the wall, then between the neck and the wall. Getting within an inch or two at the low back and two inches at the neck indicates ‘close’ to having excellent posture. Corrective exercises include a’ flush’ back against the wall in a demi-squat position (See exercise description in DVD).

Prone or Supine Lie Test

The athlete assumes the prone or supine position on the floor. Any curvature of the body is noted as an elevation off the floor. One may use a ‘stick’ to examine the deviation.

Corrective exercises include a’ flush’ stomach or back against the floor (See exercise description in DVD).

Additional enrichment programs:
Pilates, Yoga, Focused Breathing, Sole Synthesis, simple lower body Plyometrics (sliding, gliding, hopping, leaping, jumping to improve leg strength), Grounding and Centering exercises, Gyrotonic Exercises, and the Feldenkrais Method, can easily be combined with ballet training for a more appealing program, especially to maintain athletes’ motivation and interest.

The method refers to the techniques of body conditioning and strength training through contrology (mind and muscles) with a focus on core postural muscles for body balance and support of the spine. In particular, exercises aim to align the spine and to strengthen the deep torso muscles as well as create an awareness of breathing; they are executed with control and concentration with a special focus on the torso to strengthen the center of the body. Correct postural alignment of the skeletal structure is crucial in this method, not only to get the best out of the exercise but also to prevent injury.

Achieving optimal alignment starts with positioning the pelvis, ribcage, shoulder girdle, and head in a neutral alignment with respect to each other, and then utilizing all the stabilization muscles to maintain that alignment while performing the exercises. Correct alignment also means limiting the range of motion of the limbs to avoid pushing the joints whereby ligaments and connective tissues get strained.

Full thorough inhalation and exhalation are purportedly apart of every exercise. “Forced exhalation is the key to full inhalation. Squeeze out the lungs as you would wring a wet towel dry,” Pilates is reputed to have said. Breathing should be done with concentration, control, and precision as proper and effective breathing not only oxygenates the muscles but also reduces tension in the upper neck and shoulders. It is described as “posterior lateral breathing,” i.e., to breathe deep into the back and sides of the rib cage. When exhaling, deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles are engaged and maintained during inhaling. Pilates attempts to properly coordinate this breathing practice with movement, including breathing instructions with every exercise. Joseph Pilates stated, “Even if you follow no other instructions, learn to breathe correctly.”

Pilates called the very large group of muscles in the center of the body “powerhouse” (encompassing the abdomen, lower back, hips, and buttocks, i.e., body core). All energy is said to begin from here and “flow outward” to the limbs. In other words, the technique asserts that physical energy exerted from the center should coordinate movements of the extremities. Therefore, it is important to build a strong “powerhouse” for effective daily living.

Like ballet, Pilates demands intense focus and concentration. For instance, the inner thighs and pelvic floor may be assessed when doing a standing exercise that tones the triceps. Beginners are instructed to pay careful attention to their body, building on very small, delicate fundamental movements and controlled breathing.

Precision and Control
Every movement has a purpose, based on muscle control and on “flow or efficiency of movement” as movement is kept to be continuous between exercises through the use of appropriate transitions. That means “no sloppy, uncontrolled movements but perfect movement rather than many halfhearted ones.” Once precision has been achieved, exercises are intended to flow within and into each other in order to build strength and stamina. It is claimed that Pilates enhances flexibility besides an amazing capacity to strengthen the body and increase health endurance. The ultimate goal is for this precision to eventually become second nature and carry over into everyday life as graceful and efficient movement. Every instruction is therefore vitally important to the success of the whole. To leave out any detail is believed to forsake the intrinsic value of the exercise.

Major benefits:
• Body toning and shaping
• Taller appearance through improved posture
• Functional fitness improvement
• Prevention from injuries
• Flat stomach – tighter abdominals
• Increased flexibility and ligament strength

Pilates as a program:
• Is another method to enhance existing training.
• Can be included in Warm-up and/or Warm-down.
• Is a form of conditioning.
• Involves core training.
• Involves power-strength and agility training.
• Includes centering.
• Includes plyometrics.
• Includes rhythm training.
Reference: Ungaro, A. (2002). Pilates: Body in motion (1st ed.). New York: Dorling Kindersley (DK). Available via

Sole Synthesis
This is becoming increasingly popular…“When barefoot training meets strength, cardio and flexibility in one workout; fitness takes on a whole new meaning…“Sole Synthesis is simplicity through triplicity”… No fancy moves are used, just unique twists on foundational fitness moves to get started. It is fusion fitness, a no-impact combination of moves that benefit cardiovascular health, balance and flexibility. It is designed for the non-dancer, a fabulous fusion class that seamlessly blends Fitness, Dance and Yoga inspired movements for an incredible workout.

Easy to follow fitness sequences are turned into dance inspired, ballet sculpting sequences for balance and strength challenges. Yoga inspired sequences are integrated throughout with meditation to prepare for more movement. The idea is to simply use movements done for ages, without extra equipment, to redefine a proactive workout rooted in functional training that leaves athletes strong, centered, and actively flexible. The session is an elevated functional training program that is deceptively challenging. Take the shoes off and see what the “SOLE” can do! (Retrieved from:

Gyrotonic Exercises
The program combines movements in Swimming, Yoga, Gymnastics, Dance, and Tai Chi, using specialized equipment. It is intended to improve overall flexibility and balance as well as muscle strength, stability, and joint mobility. It has been compared to and contrasted with Pilates but the Gyrotonic System offers three dimensional, circular movements using specific yogic breathing patterns that claim to cleanse, detoxify and rejuvenate the entire body. Participants stretch and strengthen muscles while simultaneously stimulating and strengthening connective tissues in and around the joints of the body. These exercises are synchronized with corresponding breathing patterns, thus enhancing aerobic and cardiovascular stimulation and promoting neuro-muscular rejuvenation. Exercises offer complete freedom of movement.

Exercises are performed on the Professional Pulley Tower. The system is fully adjustable and can meet the needs of many people with varying body types and levels of strength. The even and constant resistance of the handle unit and pulley tower (through the triple reduction in the pulleys) completely eliminates the jarring that takes place at the beginning and end of exercises performed on conventional exercise equipment where many injuries occur. Circular, spiraling and undulating movements characterizing the Gyrotonic Expansion System help to increase the functional capacity of the spine, contributing to a spherical and three-dimensional awareness, resulting in increased equilibrium.


Feldenkrais Method
Moshe Feldenkrais method designed specific exercises to improve posture, breathing, relaxation, body and spatial awareness to overcome limitation in movement, and to promote general well being. The theme is based on ‘Awareness through Movement’ (ATM) and ‘Functional Integration’ (FI). ATM provides 12 lessons, which can be found in the resource listed under References.

Grant, G. (1967). Technical manual and dictionary of classical ballet (2nd rev. ed.). New York: Dover.
Feldenkrais, M. (1977). Awareness through movement. Easy to do exercises to improve your posture, vision, imagination, and personal awareness. New York: Harper Collins.
Franklin, E. (2004). Conditioning for dance. Training for peak performance in all dance forms. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Nixon, M. (Director/Producer), & Schloder, M. E. (2010). Ballet for swimmers. Calgary, AB, Canada: Arête Sports. DVD. Available from American Swim Coaches Association (ASCA).
Noll Hammond, S. (2004). Ballet basics (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Penrod, J., & Gudde Plastino, J. (1990). The dancer prepares. Modern Dance for beginners (3rd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
Schloder, M. E. (2010). Ballet for swimmers. Calgary, AB, Canada: Arête Sports. DVD. Available from American Swim Coaches Association (ASCA).
Siler, B. (2000). The Pilates body. New York: Broadway Books.
Siler, B. (2006). Your ultimate Pilates body challenge. New York: Broadway Books.
Speck, S., & Cisneros, E. (2003). Ballet for dummies. A reference for the rest of us. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Thalia, M. (1987). The language of ballet. A dictionary. Highstown, NJ: Princeton Book.

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