Ballet Stars

Why NYCB Soloist Unity Phelan Is Madly in Love With Strength-Training

Unity Phelan in Jerome Robbins' Antique Epigraphs. Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

The NYCB soloist started strength-training to improve her ballet technique and found a second passion.


Gym Time

Unity Phelan may be a rising star at New York City Ballet, but when she was a teen at the School of American Ballet, she struggled to build muscle. She started going to the gym during a summer program at Boston Ballet and never looked back. "I fell madly in love with it: the act of working out and sweating and feeling like I was getting stronger," she says. "It totally paid off in my ballet classes. I could actually accomplish steps that I'd been having a hard time doing."

Training for Ballet

Phelan in Lauren Lovette's For Clara

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Learning to engage the back of her legs to power her dancing was a key lesson, and that meant strengthening her hamstrings and glutes. "I didn't have a big jump, and I couldn't do a great entrechat six," she says. After joining a gym at 15 and working with a Pilates trainer at SAB, she quickly developed core strength and started to feel more coordinated.

Her Workout Schedule

Today, Phelan does three or more cardio workouts a week—at least 30 minutes of intervals on the elliptical or a spin bike. She also aims for five strength-training sessions a week. "Sometimes it's in my apartment. Just squats, push-ups, abs, lunges. Different exercises that use body weight." She prefers the gym for "leg day" and "arm day," which involves free weights up to 10 pounds. As she gets stronger, she adds repetitions.

Going Hard

Justin Fischer, Courtesy NYCB

Balancing cross-training with her NYCB schedule takes finesse. On strenuous days when she needs to conserve energy, she'll opt for an easier workout or skip it altogether. When she knows she won't be too sore or has a lighter rehearsal day, Phelan goes to the gym. "I try to go pretty hard."

Pre-Show Primer

Phelan loves doing this exercise before a performance. "It really helps me get on my legs," she says.

1. Standing with both legs in parallel, lift one leg into arabesque and bend your torso forward, creating a straight line from your head to the foot in arabesque.

2. Do five single-leg pliés. Switch legs.

3. Complete two to three sets, resting a few seconds in between.

Side Gig

Last fall, New York City Ballet teamed up with PUMA and ClassPass Live to stream specially designed classes taught by Phelan and an athletic trainer. The workouts include ballet technique, a high-intensity interval circuit and even a bit of Balanchine choreography. "Teaching these has taught me a lot," says Phelan. "I've learned what exercises I'm really stable in and the ones I should work on." Train with Phelan at classpass.com/live.

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