Last updated: Aug 27, 2012
Should we add weights to our ankles when we practice?
It makes sense at first: wear the ankle weights while practicing strengthen the right muscles, then you’ll do it with more speed and power when you take the weights off, making the move easier.
Seems pretty straight-forward. But does it really work that way?
Let’s check out some science!
There isn’t much research in the world of dancing, and pretty much none on b-boying / b-girling in particular 1, 2. For this question, we’ll have to logically infer our conclusions from research on other sports.
Many powerful movements in dancing are rotational in nature, involving muscles throughout the whole body, including those that twist the torso (your “core” muscles).
Therefore, a good example to look at is baseball, because of the importance of bat swing velocity and pitching speed. They’ve also been trying “donuts” to improve their bat swings, which are weights placed at the end of a bat to add resistance (very similar to our idea of using ankle weights).
So how does the research look?
Yes – Strength is important:
Generally, baseball players with the highest bat swing velocities have the greater strength, power, and lean muscle mass. 3 For example, a players “three rep maximum” (3RM) on the bench press correlates well with their bat swing velocity. 4
Research confirms that general strength training is effective in improving bat swing velocity. 3 Therefore, work on getting stronger, especially if it’s early in your career. This shouldn’t be a surprise – strength training has been shown to improve sports performance in many sports. And no, strength training does not slow you down 5 – that’s a myth.
But beyond that, does training more specifically help? (like using weighted equipment)
Warming up skills with weights:
Research has consistently shown that warming up with weighted bats or “donuts” during a warm up does not help. Neither does warming up with a lighter weighted bat. Furthermore, using a weighted bat during warm up can actually decrease your bat swing speed! 8, 9, 10, 4
It seems that warming up this way actually causes you to change your specific swing mechanics, therefore throwing off your skills. Basically, you’re calibrating yourself incorrectly! Therefore, warm up with the weight you’re actually going to use.
- Stay away from donuts. (just like in your diet)
- And probably ankle weights too. (at least during your warm-up)
Training skills with weights:
While warming up with weighted equipment seems to be useless, there is a little evidence that training skills with added weight might be beneficial. Altered weight bat swinging (+/- 12% standard bat weight) can improve swing speed in elite trained athletes. 3
However, the research is pretty limited, so it’s probably not much more effective than regular strength training and lots of specific sports practice (with a regular weight bat).
What about other sport skills?
Maybe these results are specific to baseball? It’s possible.
However, a recent review of the research on weighted-jump and weighted-sprint training made a similar conclusion – so far, it’s inconclusive. 11 Weighted jumping as a warm-up for jump height doesn’t seem to help either. 12
However, regular strength training does seem to help. 13
Starting to see a trend?
Why is this?
(Just my opinion here) – Strength training improves your muscles ability to produce more force. Force is part of the equation for power, and power is often what is needed in many sports. Therefore, improving muscle strength indirectly improves sports performance.
However, if you don’t have any coordination using your strength, then it’s pretty useless!
Power is just one part of the equation – speed, conditioning, and coordination are important factors too. Highly practiced and specific skill is probably the most important factor in elite sports performance. You can be just as strong as a baseball player, but without their years of experience, you probably aren’t going to throw a ball as fast as them (and let’s not forget how coordinated the aim has to be).
So, why wouldn’t practicing with weighted equipment help?
Aren’t you getting the best of both worlds?
- Skill: If you add weight, you’re probably just throwing off your skills. You should always practice a skill exactly the way you need to perform it (such as in a competition) – and that isn’t with weights attached!
- Strength: The amount of weight you can safely add to your ankles is pretty small. Two pound ankle weights are more likely to just put more stress on your ligaments than they are to improve muscle strength.
Therefore, you’re actually doing neither very well.
Conclusions / Recommendations
Being stronger is helpful for almost every sport. One of the best ways to improve strength is a simple weight training program, covering the basics. If you don’t have access to weights, you can try body-weight exercises instead. For the sports discussed above, I’d recommend including lateral (side-to-side), and rotational exercises as well. But remember, strength training should never throw off your specific skill training!
Practicing skills should be as specific as possible. If you’re a new baseball player, just practice speed and precision with a normal bat. If you’re a dancer, practice your moves wearing whatever you will when you perform, and focus on technique. Want to improve your kick strength? Kick harder! Practice hard, and practice often.
Research shows that practicing skills with added weight doesn’t seem to have any dramatically positive effects (and warming up this way seems to be bad).
However, there is some evidence that this type of training might be beneficial for elite athletes. So if you want to try this type of training, make sure you are only using the added weights when drilling movements you are already pretty good at (for safety, and probably won’t help moves you’re bad at). And be sure to practice just as much (if not more) without the weights, so that your skills re-calibrate to normal conditions.
I’m sure this post will spark some kind of debate about optimal training protocols for athletes. It would actually be a healthy, informative conversation. So by all means, if you have something to say, or have a question, comment below!