What is progressive overload, and how do we use it as belly dancers?

One of the biggest mistakes I see dancers make when it comes to training is ignoring the concept of progressive overload.

What the heck is progressive overload!?

Progressive overload refers to gradually (the key word here!) increasing the amount and/or difficulty of your training over time. In both the rehabilitation and athletic performance spheres, we use progressive overload to safely and effectively improve strength, mobility/flexibility, and conditioning status (cardiovascular fitness).

Learn more about progressive overload, and how to tell if you’re increasing your (dance) training load too quickly!

I see dancers make two big mistakes when it comes to progressive overload:

Not acknowledging (or perhaps understanding) where they currently are NOW.

I see so many dancers injure themselves (or just make themselves so sore that they NEVER want to train again!) because they set a goal that is too lofty for their current fitness levels. Lofty goals are fun, but you need to progress towards that goal over time. Just because someone else can run 5km right now, doesn’t mean you can right away, especially if you’ve never run before!

The next most common problem I see is:

Building up to a certain level…. And then never changing anything!

You don’t need to always aspire to stronger, faster, more flexible (although, I truly believe that stronger is better in lots of ways for our bodies – but that’s a discussion for another time). But our bodies are REALLY good at adapting to stressors. Exercise is a stressor. We need a certain amount of consistency for our body to adapt, but once the body is used to something, we need to change it up to keep ourselves seeing the same benefits of training. This can be as simple as changing the type of exercises you do every 4-6 weeks, or adding weight or resistance to the exercises you’re doing.

Progressive overload is not just important for our strength, conditioning and mobility work. It’s also important to consider when planning our dance practices.

Consider this common scenario:

You’re going to a belly dance festival for the first time in a long time (especially after the last 2.5 years of most things being online!). You’re usually dancing for 45 minutes, three times a week. But you’re so excited to dance again, and all the workshops look SO good (sound familiar?). So you’ve signed up for 8 hours of workshops this weekend!

Jumping from 2.25 hours of dance in a regular week to 8 hours (or 10.25 if you also did those standard regular classes) is a big jump in load for our bodies. This can be one of the reasons you might be more likely to sustain an injury at a dance festival – it’s a huge jump in loading that your body is not used to.

But don’t just take my word for it – let’s use a simple method to assess this jump in dance volume:

The acute-to-chronic training/workload ratio (ACWR)

Sounds complicated already, I know! But I promise it’s not, and for this simple method, you can even find a calculator online. I use a slightly more involved version of this method, but this basic method is a great way to get a snapshot of whether you’re increasing your dance and/or training volume too much.

The acute-to-chronic training/workload ratio (ACWR) compares your mileage (for activities like running, cycling, and swimming) or duration (for activities like dance) from the last week to your average weekly mileage/duration for the last four weeks. Week 4 is last week, Week 3 is the week before it, and so on.

When you do an ACWR calculation, you’ll end up with a number at the end. Here’s what the numbers signify:

<0.8 = danger zone; undertraining which can lead to injury risk (yes, we also don’t want to DROP our training amounts too much from week to week if we want to avoid injury!)

0.8-1.2/1.3 = sweet spot; optimal workload and lowest relative injury risk

1.3-1.5 = increased injury risk

>1.5 = danger zone; significantly increased injury risk, highest relative injury risk

So let’s revisit our dance festival example:

ACWR Example: Dance Festival

Week 1 = 135 mins (3 weeks before the festival: your standard 3 x 45 minute dance sessions)

Week 2 = 135 mins

Week 3 = 135 mins

Week 4 = 615 mins (The week of the festival: Your standard 3 x 45 minute dance sessions, plus your 8 hours of workshops at the festival!)

To calculate your ACWR, add up the minutes from each week:

(615 + 135 + 135 + 135) = 1020 mins 

Then, divide that number by the number of weeks (this is standardly measured in 4 week blocks):

1020 / 4 = 255

Then, take the amount of load (in our example, in minutes) from the most recent week, and divide it by the average of the last four weeks (the number we just calculated above):

ACWR = 615 / 255 = 2.4

In this example, your ACWR would be 2.4 → You’re currently in the “danger zone,” the highest risk category for injury because of how fast, and how unevenly, the load has been ramped up.

This is just one of the reasons why we want to progressively overload all of our training – dance, strength, conditioning, mobility or otherwise. We want to progressively build up overtime to reduce our chances of injury.

Have you got any questions about progressive overload for me? Leave me a comment below!

Want to create the strength, mobility, and metabolic conditioning you need to be the dancer you dream of? Siobhan Camille writes personalised strength and conditioning programs for dancers, and regularly hosts online and in-person dance-specific workshops. Find out more about what Siobhan has to offer here, and sign up for semi-regular newsletter here to get all the knowledge delivered right to your inbox!

In addition to being the founder and director of Greenstone Belly Dance, Siobhan Camille is a Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist and Strength & Conditioning Coach. Siobhan Camille has an extensive background in exercise science with postgraduate level degrees in Exercise Prescription and Rehabilitation Science. She takes a particular interest in the safety, strength, and performance of dancers, and has conducted formal research on injury incidence in belly dancers. She draws on this background to emphasise safe dance technique and teaches her students how to find and activate muscles to create clear movement.⁠

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4 Comments

  1. Is there a formula for the reverse? How to calculate what would be a safe load or ramp up without trying several “what ifs”?
    I’ll keep thinking about how to turn that equation around!

    1. Hi Delores, we generally say to increase load by approximately 10% per week when building up. As you can see from the numbers, we can take that up to 20 or 30% safely (depending on which research we read, and depending on the intensity of the activity). The formula would simply be taking your current workload and multiplying it by anything between 0.8 (if you want a deload week to recover) and 1.3 (the higher end of ramping up). A super safe way in the beginning would be multiplying by 1.1. Hope that helps!

  2. Hi Raffa here, my ACWR, I calculated according to your example, is 2.3 , is it danger zone ? Thanks hugs, Raffa

    1. Hi Raffa, yes it is. Here’s what the numbers signify:

      <0.8 = danger zone; undertraining which can lead to injury risk (yes, we also don’t want to DROP our training amounts too much from week to week if we want to avoid injury!)

      0.8-1.2/1.3 = sweet spot; optimal workload and lowest relative injury risk

      1.3-1.5 = increased injury risk

      >1.5 = danger zone; significantly increased injury risk, highest relative injury risk

      So because your number is above 1.5, yes, you’re in the zone of highest relative injury risk. You don’t need to panic, but it is important to know that this injury risk is not always immediate; we sometimes see injuries pop up a few weeks down the track when our training load spikes this quickly. So you want to take care over the coming weeks to keep training, but not overdo it. Don’t decrease too much, either!

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