The Story Behind Steven McRae's Crazy Workouts

March 15, 2018

When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.

“It’s basically just using your own body weight,” McRae explains. “In terms of partnering, I’m not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine.”

Today, McRae shares videos of his workouts on social media (where he has approximately 150,000 Instagram followers). They are often shot in his dressing room, with a chair as the only prop while he does développés from an arched handstand, for instance—a feat of upper-body strength and flexibility.

“I think people are genuinely intrigued and interested in what we do: I get lovely comments offering suggestions to alter the exercise.”

He tailors exercises like planks and handstands to his needs, mixing calisthenics with Pilates and stretching. His regimen developed from a mix of cross-training with The Royal Ballet’s team of sports scientists and outside inspiration.

“Growing up I used to just stretch before class, and I found that I wasn’t particularly warm,” he says. “Now I do much more of a mini workout as a warm-up.”

McRae first learned about calisthenics on Insta­gram, and started incorporating bits and pieces into his routine. “I look at what other athletes are doing. My father did drag racing, and I think you can learn something from everyone.”

McRae performing Connectome, photo by Bill Cooper, courtesy Royal Opera House

This training philosophy allows McRae to travel light, with a Thera-Band and a roller as his only must-have items. Proper fuel is essential, however, especially when sleep is scarce: He has two young children with his wife, Royal Ballet soloist Elizabeth Harrod.

“Somehow your days expand and you manage to fit everything in. My daughter Audrey is forever asking me to throw her around in the air, so I can do a quick 10-minute workout simply by doing that!”

Try It: Upward Dog Pike

McRae loves this quick calisthenics exercise because it requires no equipment, and opens up the spine while strengthening the upper body and the glutes.

  1. Start in yoga’s upward dog position, with your pelvis just off the floor, in line with your hands. Hold your body weight off the ground, toes pointed.
  2. Press your hips up into a piked position to form a triangle shape, with your head down, shoulders over your wrists, toes pointed and your hips at the highest point.
  3. Leading with the head, ripple down through a push-up to return to upward dog.
  4. Perform two sets of eight reps, with a rest in between.