Why ballet and Pilates are the best way to prevent injury in the gym

Maintaining core strength, flexibility and function is hardly the number one goal of your average gym bro.

Ok, if you take core strength to mean rock hard abs he'll no doubt sign up, but gaining flexibility and function? Most will think that's for the senior citizens water aerobics class.

Re-conditioning body and mind

Not so for many AFL footballers, who are increasingly seeking these attributes by making Pilates and even ballet-related movements a key part of their weekly schedule.

"Most AFL clubs are incorporating Pilates into their overall conditioning program," says Sarah Tarnawsky owner of Pilates on Bourke in Melbourne's CBD, and part-time injury prevention coach at the Richmond Football Club.

"You're less likely to get injured if your body works in a dynamic way," she says, "so that's why we call it injury prevention, we're not just building strength but mobility as well."

Crucial movements

Mobility: it's another word that most guys downing their pre-workout supplement drink won't think twice about. But ask an elite footballer and it's one of the most vital ingredients to performing week-in, week-out season after season.

"It's crucial for our program now," says Richmond player Reece Conca, who has used the exercises to successfully get over recurring hamstring injuries.

"I had a lot of trouble all of 2015 and 2016 and since midway through 2016 when I started doing a lot of Pilates I've had no issues with them and no soft tissue injuries at all. I think it's been hugely beneficial."

An investment in health

For Conca's teammate Ivan Maric, a two-metre-tall ruckman, Pilates was something he was introduced to early in his career and has helped him get through a lot of overuse injuries.


"It's a pretty good investment in your career. I really enjoy training hard, and you really do train hard [in Pilates] but it's a different sort of fitness that's required.

"The range it gives me in my flexibility throughout my whole back, neck, shoulders, ankles, everything and that's really important for everyday life so it's definitely something I'll continue after footy."

Dance therapy

While Tarnawsky has the footballers on the Pilates apparatuses, she also likes to get them doing freestanding exercises as her brand of the exercise is influenced by her other great love, ballet, which she danced all through her youth in Tasmania.

"The more I've studied the [Pilates] method and worked with dancers and footballers I keep finding myself coming back and looking at the ballet technique and applying that to the athletes' exercises," says Tarnawsky.

And she's not the only one from an elite sporting environment looking to the graceful world of ballet to help hardened athletes build suppleness to complement their power and strength.

Setting the barre

"Well certainly the interest is growing," says Sue Mayes, the Australian Ballet's principal physiotherapist. "Recently we've had a lot of head medical personnel from various sports come and visit us to get some ideas on how the can apply the work we're doing with the dancers to their athletes.

"We've got extremely low injury rates despite the high level of activity and the extreme positions the dancers move through but also extraordinarily low surgery rates, which is what other athletic groups dream of," she says.

"We've been imparting that knowledge to other elite teams in all sorts of sports, but particularly the jumping sports (such as football, tennis, netball, soccer and basketball) who are very interested to see what we're doing, especially with the intrinsic muscles of the foot and some of the hip strengthening work that we've done."

Fitness from the ground up

You may not be overly concerned with the state of your foot muscles, or even aware of how important they are to your balance. But if you want to develop great posture, increase your flexibility and develop glutes and calves that will be tracked from afar, a workout at the ballet barre is just the ticket.

Your hips will thank you too. Mayes, who has recently completed a PhD at La Trobe University investigating hip health, says muscles around the hip joint are stronger in dancers and developing these muscles could help prevent injury such as osteoarthritis.

It is a belief Tarnawsky has embraced at her Melbourne studio. She has recently started offering a new workout called Garuda Barre, incorporating the physicality and grace of dance into a barre routine and is a great way to introduce yourself to ballet movements.

And she hopes it won't be long before the boys at Richmond are further benefiting from incorporating the high art form into their training routine.

"You're getting all that mobility in your hips and upper body work just by having to hold your arms up in what we call a Port de bras position for 45 minutes or an hour. I'd love to get them doing that for pre-season."

Have you tested your strength during a dance class? Share your experience in the comments section below.