Walsh in Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Connor Walsh never used to cross-train. But a torn meniscus in February 2013 transformed his outlook. “It made me realize I needed to improve my ‘regular person’ strength, which meant working in parallel position,” says the Houston Ballet principal. He started adding in functional fitness training—working the muscles in everyday ways—on top of daily class and rehearsals. “I’m so much stronger now because of it.”
The stationary bike became his go-to method of building stamina. He hops on a few times a week and increases that to daily when he’s preparing for an intense performance. He rides for an average of 25 minutes, with several one-minute all-out intervals at 110 to 115 RPM with relative rests between 90 and 100 seconds long. On the weekends, he bikes outside (“with a helmet, in case my mother is reading this”).
After biking, he strength-trains for about an hour, working his upper body three days a week and lower body every day. He often balances on unstable surfaces, like the foam square, exercise ball or BOSU, to challenge his core and more closely simulate what’s required onstage. “When you lift a girl, she is in motion,” says Walsh. “Using unstable surfaces feels much more like what I experience in dancing.” It has also helped improve his ankle strength, an area where he’s always had trouble.
Walsh’s regimen includes squats starting on a stable surface, adding the unstable surface, then adding weights, making the exercise increasingly challenging. “Adding weights really prepares your body to absorb the shock from landing jumps,” he says. “I sometimes start as small as 1- or 2-pound weights and go up to 10 or 15. Form is so important, so I pay attention to doing each exercise correctly before adding more weight. Many of these exercises are not just about building strength, but about retraining the mechanics of how my body works.”
One of Walsh’s go-to functional-strength builders is the single-leg squat. He tries to do three sets of 10 a few times per week and finds it helpful to do at least one set of 10 before class or during the early stages of barre to make sure his body is balanced as he starts the day.
1. Start by standing on one leg in parallel, with your weight equally distributed throughout your foot. Your knee should be in a neutral position without hyperextending or locking, and your hips should face straight ahead without tucking or arching in the lower back. Let your other leg hang underneath you.
2. Bend at the knee, keeping your kneecap over the center of your foot. Do 10 reps.
3. Once this becomes easier, challenge yourself by adding an unstable surface, such as a pillow or an Airex Balance Pad to increase results.