Are you a dancer who wants to control your extensions more, or you know how to get your leg up, but any turns or modifications throw you off balance? Maybe you have your splits but you’re not hitting 180 degrees when you leap in the air?
Doctor of Physical Therapy Nicholas Curtis and professional dancer and choreographer Katie Schaar created the conditioning and injury prevention method called Sugarfoot Therapy to respond to situations like these!
According to them, whatever you are trying to achieve in regards to leg height and control, there’s a pretty good chance the answer lies in the stability and mobility of your hip flexors.
The Importance of Hip Stability and Mobility
The key to high extensions is located in your hip flexors!
You may have heard before that you shouldn’t “grip” your hip flexors to get your leg up. When teachers say this, they typically mean that a dancer is overusing the hip flexor and quad area on one side, often the working leg, in order to get a higher extension. If you are overusing muscles on one side, that often leads to under-utilizing your muscles on the other side! You’ll need to strengthen your working and your supporting leg to achieve higher leg extensions and avoid injury—they both need to be strong enough to distribute the force of the movement, especially when it comes to more complex movements like turning or holding your leg high.
You can think of mobility as a joint’s ability to work through a range of motion, and stability as your body’s ability to control movement in any one area. A dancer who has a large range of motion and the ability to easily control that range of motion is going to have the healthiest, strongest, longest lines.
To get the most benefit from these exercises, you’ll want to grab:
- Plyo Box
- Yoga/Stability Ball
- Ballet Barre
- Yoga Mat
Most of these exercises have modifications in case you don’t have these props handy, and most of these props have easy substitutions (like a gallon of water for any weights).
Exercise 1: Hip Flexor Lift Off
Purpose: To get a higher lift, you can strengthen both the muscle and the mind-body connection. The more you work within your range of motion in these exercises, including the very end range of your motion, the more you can increase your leg height in class!
Exercise: Find a box, bench, or stool that is higher than your knee level. Place your working leg on top of the box with your foot flat on the surface. You should have a crease in your hip and knee that is smaller than 90 degrees. If your thigh is parallel to the ground, your box is too low! If you can feel your hip flexor working to raise your leg onto and off of the box, you probably have the right height.
Engage your core, distribute your weight into your supporting leg, and engage your hip flexors to pick your foot up off the box a few inches. Then, bring it back to the box. Repeat this 8x each side. Repeat with your leg in second position.
Exercise 2: March to Pelvis Tuck
Purpose: Hip flexor extension on the supporting leg is the only way to skeletally achieve a high leg. Maybe that’s why we call them extensions!
Exercise: Stand with your feet parallel and march your working knee up as high as you can get it, hold for a few seconds, and then squeeze both glutes to propel your hips forward and into a tuck. This might feel unnatural, as you’re going for a bit of an over-tuck to properly activate the glutes, core, and hip flexors in this extended position. If available, grab light to medium size dumbbells and rack them on your shoulders. Alternate side to side, and keep your supporting leg as straight as you can. Repeat 5-8x per side.
Exercise 3: Stability Ball Scissor
Purpose: In order to increase stability (control) in your extensions, you need to be able to activate your quad muscles throughout the full range of motion of your leg extension. Engaging your frontline and core will help to support the ‘lift’ of a long leg line.
Exercise: Steady surface and exercise ball needed! Lay on the ground with your head close to the wall or ballet barre. Using both hands, bring the exercise ball against the wall. Now, bring one of your legs up to meet the ball, and stabilize the ball against the wall. Your foot and shin should be touching the ball, and you can keep your feet pointed. You’ll leave the first leg in that position. Then, lift your other leg to meet the ball, and then return it to the ground with control. Continue to scissor that leg up and down as far as you can go without compromising your form. Repeat 5-8x per side.
Exercise 4: Ballet Barre Lift Off
Purpose: Build on the hip flexor work from exercise 1. Now you can practice engaging your hip flexors with a straight working leg. This will mimic what you do in dance class and will be harder than the bent leg exercise.
Exercise: Use a ballet barre or a surface that’s high enough that you can extend your leg at or above hip height. Place one leg on the barre and square your hips towards the extended leg. Lift your leg off the bar and hold for 3-5 seconds. Remember to stay in alignment, distributing the work through your supporting leg and stacking your ribs over your hips. Use your core to help you! Repeat 5-8x per side.
Exercise 5: Single Leg Deadlift
Purpose: It’s important to practice both concentric and eccentric loading of your muscles. Eccentric loading is when your muscle lengthens “under load.” A dancer that can slowly raise her leg into and out of a tilt or a penche is taking advantage of eccentric loading!
Exercise: Start with your legs parallel. One medium dumbbell is optional. Hold 1 dumbbell horizontally straight out in front of you, grabbing both ends with your hands. Shift your weight onto one foot and carefully reach the weight (or your hands) towards the ground, aiming for your heel. As you do this, your working leg (the one that doesn’t have the weight) will rise as you lower your chest to be parallel with the floor. This see-saw motion will activate the hamstring and glutes of your supporting leg. To make the exercise more challenging, continue past your see-saw into a standing split. Repeat 5-8x per side.
Exercise 6: Kneeling Hip Hinge
Purpose: The reduction of the stress of standing up can help you to isolate the muscles in the pelvic region. Doing these eccentric loading exercises while kneeling will help to reduce the load that your working leg has to do, as it distributes the effort throughout the pelvic region.
Exercise: On your yoga mat, start upright kneeling on one knee with the opposite leg extended away from you. Stack your body on top of your supporting knee, square your hips, and think about squeezing your legs together. Slowly hinge forward over your extended leg, activating your hamstrings in your extended leg and the hip flexor and glutes of your kneeling leg. You can repeat this exercise again with the leg out to the side in “second position” Repeat 5-8x per side.
For more in-depth direction into the exercises outlined above, head over to CLI Studios and take the corresponding classes.