Black Widow Training for Poise, Balance, & Control

By on January 27, 2022

Black Widow is, in some ways, the Batman of the MCU. While she ostensibly doesn’t have powers, she’s nevertheless able to keep up with a team of superhuman gods and aliens, taking down much larger foes through a combination of martial prowess, acrobatics, gadgets, and tenacity. (Note, however, that the comic-version of Black Widow does have a low-powered version of the super soldier serum to help her out).

What stands out across depictions of Natasha Romanoff, though, is the way she moves. Whether it’s in games, movies, or comics, there is a consistency in her fighting style. She is depicted as having fantastic mobility and agility, and using a lot of kicks and takedowns. She climbs up onto the bad guys, grabs them between her thighs, then slams them onto the ground before rolling away.

Black widow training

And this makes sense when you consider her fictional training. Part of the Red Room’s curriculum involved gruelling ballerina training. This may have contributed to Natasha’s movement style and athleticism. And it’s something that I think a LOT of us can learn from, here in the real-world. Or the “U” as it were.

Dancers move with an incredible amount of poise and control. If we can translate that to the gym, track, field, or ring, we’ll perform infinitely better. We can learn a huge amount from the way they train.

Mobility

Mobility is a big issue for many of us; more than we often realise. If you’re interested in general athletic performance and strength, a number of dance drills can be transformative.

For example, consider how many people struggle with tight hamstrings, often as a result of desk jobs. Tight hamstrings can cause pain in the lower back, as well as keeping a number of calisthenics moves off-limits.

Hamstring mobility

Those with tight hamstrings won’t be doing press handstands or V-sits anytime soon. Moreover, they might find their back rounding as they bend to pick something up. I know this, because I have experienced it. A lot. This can also lead to lower back weakness, which can result in all kinds of problems. Again… got the t-shirt.

Worse, a lot of hamstring stretches fail to solve this problem. Bend down to touch your toes and you’ll likely find that your lower back rounds to compensate for the lack of mobility. The result is that, in trying to be a good girl or boy and improve mobility, you actually end up hurting your back more. And not training your hamstrings. And probably giving up.

A LOT of movements feel very uncomfortable if you have tight hamstrings and it can be a big barrier to training and performance, in general.

Introducing: Leg Lifts

Instead of a pike, then, try the leg lift. Straighten your supporting leg and lift the other one directly upward. Maintain dorsiflexion and keep the knee locked. Now simply raise the foot as high as you can and hold the top position.

Leg Lift

With this movement, you are stretching the hamstring while keeping the back in a much flatter position. Moreover, you are actively employing strength to train real mobility by engaging the working muscles and relaxing the antagonists. This is what mobility really boils down to: control over your nervous system and awareness of the entire body.

Nowhere is this trained more effectively than in barre class.

Barre Training

Barre class is training against a bar for ballet-focussed control and mobility. A lot of this involves supporting your weight ever so slightly on a bar (hence the name) while performing a range of leg extensions – lateral and forward lifts with control.

In many cases, you’ll then draw tiny circles with the extended leg for 30 seconds, reverse direction, and place back down.

Barre Class

There is a big focus here on maintaining a tucked pelvis – that’s a posterior pelvic tilt. This helps to create a neutral spine, increasing balance and graceful movement while simultaneously training the abs. It’s again something that many of us are missing. Sitting on our butts all day has caused us a kind of somatosensory amnesia, such that many of us have lost the ability to consciously control the position of their pelvis. Ask the average person to anteriorly tilt their pelvis and they’ll stare blankly at you!

This is a problem because it can lead to a permanent anterior pelvic tilt that causes back issues down the line (and just looks ugly). It’s also an issue because it can prevent proper biomechanics in a range of lifts and other movements. Some say that ballet takes this too far – that the constant tucking is actually non functional. But most of us can certainly benefit from giving this a go and learning to consider that position while controlling movement throughout the body. It’s this kind of body awareness that creates dynamic and agile movement. Black Widow movement!

Black Widow Landing

Leg Lifts for Real Strength

This might feel like a flexibility routine but you build real strength and control here, too. That’s because you’re working against the antagonist muscles that are trying to pull the leg back down. This is end-range strength. And if it all feels a little pretty for the gym bros out there – consider that many similar drills exist in martial arts.

And anyway, everyone should aspire to graceful, precise movement.

Of course, this type of training also requires balance and stability on the supporting leg. Especially if you also practice it without the bar.

Ballet Foot Positions

These extensions are performed from a range of different positions. There are five basic ballet positions (literally named first, second, third position, and so on), each of which involve turning the feet out to varying degrees. This hits the hips from a range of different angles.

Many positions involve a lateral leg lift – lifting the leg out to the side. This, of course, will strength the hip abductors and improve hip mobility. Tight hips can be a huge issue for some people and even make it impossible to get into a deep squat without collapsing the knees. These drills will prevent injury and allow you to express power from a range of positions.

Ballet foot position

It’s also training for moves like the developpe. I recently recommended performing the sumo squat with leg lift, to work both the abductors and adductors; and to build simultaneous strength and mobility.

Plie

Another similar movement from ballet is the standard plie squat. The plie means bending knees and is a squatting movement with the legs and feet turned out. Right away things are a little more complex here: the aim is to turn out at the hips and not at the feet, in order to keep the knees aligned. You then bend at the knees, keeping the upper body completely upright – imagining someone pulling your head up from the center by a puppet string. This not only improves hip mobility and leg strength, it also trains balance and proprioception. In short, it’s a fantastic variation of the bodyweight squat that not enough people are doing – presumably just because it’s from ballet?

Plie squat

In a demi plie, you keep the heels on the floor and bend as far as your tendons will allow. In a grande plie, the aim is to squat as low as possible, allowing the heels to rise off the floor as necessary, but never resting on them. But the grande plie begins with a demi plie.

And like the leg extensions, plies can be performed from any of those five basic foot positions.

In a releve plie, you raise yourself up onto the balls of the feet and then perform your squats. This is fantastic training for the calves and feet – something few athletes pay enough attention to – and it can help train you to jump from full extension. This means more ROM and more power from your leaps.

See also: Four Simple Kettlebell Exercises to Jump Higher

The grand battement is a dance move that involves throwing the working leg up more forcefully and then controlling the downward movement. Practicing it in water is a great hack for developing it more quickly.

With time, these movements will allow you to do a Black Widow-style superhero landing, not to mention land super-high kicks to the head.

Balance and Poise

Moving in dance is not about forcing your way through the movement, however. Rather, it is about finding alignment and maintaining the correct mental focus, in order to maintain balance, you should not be tensing the muscles to avoid falling over. Rather, you should be aligning yourself to help this happen naturally.

What’s more, is that your natural reflexes are capable of doing this when you get out of your own head and when you release tension that you’re carrying with you. Tension is actually what will prevent you from reacting and cause you to fall.

Balance Position

This is a huge focus of The Franklin Method: an approach to dance training that has a heavy emphasis on fascia, on visualization, and on the mind muscle connection (also known as dynamic neuro-cognitive imagery).

Try focusing on your supporting hip when raising your leg out to the side and you’ll find it helps to instantly to reduce the burn in the working leg, while also increasing mobility. Get worried about losing balance during a movement and you’ll automatically tense up, ironically making you far more likely to fall. Create alignment and you’ll naturally gain far more mobility, power, and balance.

Visualization

See also: Deathstroke Training: Building Intelligent Muscle

Another example comes from the cue to visualize a spring or a rocket while jumping. Using this simple visualization technique, studies show that dancers can increase their vertical jump (study). I believe this works like a form of “chunking” for the working memory. Watch my Deathstroke training video and you’ll see that a better working memory results in better skill acquisition and physical dexterity (study, study, study). Why? Imagine throwing a punch and remembering everything you’ve been taught: to be loose like a towel, to keep your guard up, to throw from the hips, to rotate the fist. That’s a lot to remember and many people will find their attention and awareness breaks down in the moment.

Proprioception Punch

The same goes for the perfectly executed jump. Or throw.

By using visual cues, however, you can help your body to automatically arrange itself. Just as a pneumonic can help you to remember a list of works.

Closing Comments

This is the real power of a dancer: the ability to coordinate every part of their body around one central goal. I’m constantly blown away by dancing performances – by their ability to make a simple movement look powerful and graceful by considering every part of that movement.

This same awareness can make every other type of movement more powerful and effective. And practicing this through dance training can improve mobility, strength, control, and more. It’s why a ballet dancer practicing plie will very often use coordinated hand movements at the same time, to practicing moving the entire body and splitting their awareness.

A great dance looks beautiful because the dancer is able to control every part of their body with intent and power. And this is a mark of impeccable health. We could be so much stronger and improve our movement so much, simply by being better aware of our muscles and how to control them. Want to improve your deadlift? Just practice the butt touch – touching your butt to the wall so you better understand the movement. My planche training has made a lot of progress since I started to simply focus more on keeping my arms locked during the pseudo-planche lean.

Body awareness

Mindful Movement

Got anterior pelvic tilt? The solution is not necessarily just to stretch the hip flexors but simply to relearn how to control the pelvis. This is something many of us have forgotten how to do, resulting in injuries and lack of force production during key lifts. And guess what? Pelvis control is a big part of many dances.

I have lately been focussing on “performing” my regular exercises. That means approaching them with more attack, and more control. Not letting anything sag or flail: moving as thought it were a dance.

Pavel Tsatsouline speaks about the incredible power and control used in the Indian dance called “Golden God.” This dance involves something like a grande plie from first position (toes turned out, feet together) but slowed down so that the ascent and descent each take an entire minute and a half. This is a form of quasi-isometric and a demonstration of how a lot of dance ultimately boils down to sheer feats of physical prowess performed in an aesthetic manner.

Closing Comments

While she may be a fictional character, this also perfectly explains how Black Widow can take down a much larger opponent by moving fluidly, powerfully, and with incredible precision. Just like the ocean can break a sheer cliff face.

Ballet training

It’s nuts to me that we don’t see this kind of training in the gym more.

Combine this type of training with some tactical spy-like drills to build a tactical, functional, physique. Tactical pull ups and rope wall climbs for entering buildings. Low crawls for moving close to the ground. Parkour rolls and jumps for traversal. Carries for moving gear and supplies. Endurance training to avoid fatigue. Long distance running and sprinting at the other end of the spectrum. And, of course, large amounts of combat training and martial arts.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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