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What part of the leg/hip muscle is actually used for extension?


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:devil: I've spoken to a couple of guest teachers at our school, who have leg to nose extensions. I have the flexibility now to get pretty high but can't hold it there (probably a common problem). One teacher said that when she lifts her let straight up to the high height, she actually uses a muscle in the hip. She pointed to the "seam" where the leg and hip meet (front extension).


I know that one should not use the quad to do all the lifting (if any lifting) as it overdevelops the quad muscle. I also know that lift can come from the hamstring in the back - or that's what I've always been told.


But the area the lady pointed to was neither of those. While I can see and understand what she means, I'm now wondering how to go about strengthening that area specifically and whether or not I can use gym equipment to help out with the standard ballet moves.


Can anyone help with this? I have the ability now to get my leg well higher than 90 degrees in all positions - especially to the side and front, but want to be able to hold it there at LEAST using developpe (I tried alt 130 for the accented e and it didn't work - sorry Mel!), if not being able to do it straight-legged.




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  • Serendipity


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Not providing any advice on technique, especially not before a teacher has responded, but to get an e accent aigu (é) out of my laptop, I have to use the number pad rather than the numbers across the top of the keyboard. Alt-1-3-0 from the numbers across the top gives me nothing at all. It's weird and I can't explain it, but maybe it'll help you too.

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On my laptop the é is done with the FN + Alt key together and j l m. The numbers 130 are on top of the j l m. On a regular computer you have to use the numeric keypad on the side of the keyboard, not the ones on top.


As far as holding the extension, the area your teacher describes, involving the hip flexors, groin muscle, etc. are involved. The quad is always working, but the idea of trying to create the extension from the hamstrings and using the feeling of the energy coming from underneath the leg, is designed to avoid over-use of the quad. At the top of the extension, in order to hold it, that muscle must also be working, along with the hip, and of course the abs and the placement of the whole body. Building the strength to hold it there takes longer than getting it there in the first place. That strength comes from doing it.

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Not providing any advice on technique, especially not before a teacher has responded, but to get an e accent aigu (é) out of my laptop, I have to use the number pad rather than the numbers across the top of the keyboard. Alt-1-3-0 from the numbers across the top gives me nothing at all. It's weird and I can't explain it, but maybe it'll help you too.


My laptop won't allow me to do it. I don't have a standard keyboard. *sigh*


Just looked at Ms. Leigh's info though and I can see what she means about the jlm - é


It worked! :-)


Re: the extension hold


So, Ms. Leigh, if I'm understanding this correctly, it involves all of the above-mentioned muscles, but which one (or ones) really make the difference?


If all are working correctly, where would I feel the most "tension" at the top of the high extension? Hip? Back of the leg? (I know it's not the quad!) Or will they be "equalized" in tension if all are being used correctly?


Placement actually isn't an issue - I won't sacrifice hip alignment for height (actually, I don't think I CAN sacrifice that unless I consciously and deliberately try - been drilled into me for so long to keep body and hip in alignment in grand battement and developpé <<<<look! I did it!!).


But are there any extra exercises I can do to help speed up the strength-building in the areas that would help hold an extension the most?

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You know, there is such a thing as overanalyzing, Serendipity. It takes a lot of different muscles working together to create movement of any kind. Trying to pinpoint exactly which one is doing what at which time is not going to work. Most of the muscles involved are groups of muscles, and I have no idea which one of the quad group or the hamstring group or any other group does specific things. Put them all in gear and they work. :devil:


As for speeding up, no. There is no such thing in ballet, and I know of no specific exercises to improve holding extension beyond holding extension.

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The image of lifting from the back and underneath is a good one, and has its genesis in anatomy.

If you are interested:


The main muscle (group) used in extensions above 90° is the ileopsoas, which is actually the iliacus and the psoas major, I think.

Here is a good illustration: ileopsoas


You can see why it is beneficial to image the extension coming from the back, just under the buttocks; this muscle group has one of its insertions right back there, and when the ileopsoas is engaged, one of the first movements is a slight "downward" pull - down to go up, one could say.


How high you can get your extensions depends partly on how strong -and how stretched-out - the ileopsoas is, and also on where exactly it is inserted onto the spine. I have read that there _are_ differences. (for example, if the insertion is higher up, then the extensions will of course be able to be higher, as it works rather like a lever)


One of the best exercises - besides doing developpés properly over and over - that I know of which target this muscle exclusively, if done correctly, is to sit on the floor in a moderate side straddle.

Make sure that the back is very very straight, do not lean back at all, keep the pelvis in good alignment (like a bowl full of jelly ;) .

Place one hand in front of the body onto the floor and one behind.

Bend the knee of the side of the body where the hand is behind you pushing into the floor.

Now straighten the knee, lifting the foot off the floor, but NOT letting the back curl or slump.


Do this several times, then stretch out the ileopsoas. (you can do a search for good stretches for that:))


I have found this to be quite effective, if done properly. (another one is to place the leg on the barre, keeping proper alignment, and then to lift the leg off of the barre and hold it there. Very important is proper alignment, as otherwise one targets the "wrong" muscles and practices mistakes)



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Diane; thanks so much for this explanation!!


My teacher was literally torturing me with "lift off the barre, keep it there" exercises, and he was not letting me cheat in any way (curling my back, losing my alignment, leaning on the other side...) and since our barre is really too high, especially the muscles on my lower back were aching more than my leg muscles did. And I thought I was doing something wrong but there it is.

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Some time ago I posted my favourite exercise for strengthening the iliosoas, but I unfortunately can't find it now. So here it is again. Stand on one leg, lift the other knee as near as possible to your chest as many times as possible (without helping with the hands of course). Do till exhaustion. For a greater effect, resist the lift by pushing the knee away with the hands.


Afterwards, you should feel a lovely deep burning sensation deep in your pelvis, along the line of the iliopsoas (vertical, to one side of the spine, but not as far out as your hip) if you are doing it correctly. And as pointed out above, you need to stretch it out afterwards.


As far as I know, this is specific for the iliopsoas, because it is the only muscle that can lift the thigh high at a sharp angle to the torso. You can also do it to the side as well as to the front. It is also easy to change the load (as described above), and the speed, etc.


I like it more than leg lifts with the knee straight (or straightish), because how high you go in that case will also be affected by leg (e.g. hamstring) flexibility. If you are not very flexible, you may not get the leg high enough to ensure that you have to use the iliopsoas.


Any ones as described earlier which involve straightening the knee, have the danger of involving the quads (since these straighten the knee).


What about all the other muscles, and the "total action" described by Ms. Leigh? I guess my own concentration on the iliopsoas only, rather than as well including all the other muscles described by Ms. Leigh, is responsible for the comment that my teacher made to me last week, that I was "trying too hard" (and gave an imitation of what strongly looked like someone who was using iliopsoas exclusively for a grand battement, with the torso being pulled out of line). So after seeing that rather excruciating caricature of myself (like all my ballet teachers, she is an excellent mimic), I now indeed try to "Put them all in gear and they work." But I needed the strength in the iliopsoas as well.



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Thanks for all this!! I'm printing it out to use in my little home studio room and at the gym! It's what I was looking for. :-)

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Each muscle in the body can only produce a limited set of movements. In particular, a muscle can move a limb or joint in one direction by contracting, but another muscle is required to move the limb back to where it started.


There are four quadriceps muscles. All four attack the the knee cap, and are used to straighten lower leg. Three of them attach at the other end to the middle of the femur, and can therefore have absolutely no effect on raising your leg into an extension. These are ronde de jambe en l'air muscles. One of the quadriceps muscles attaches to a part of your hip bone, and thus can be used to "flex" the hips. Contracting this part of the quadriceps would have the (general) effect of raising your femur. But in general, the quad's main purpose is to straighten the knee.


I can see why one would warn against "over-using" the quadriceps muscles in getting your leg up --- because three out of four of the quads are incapable of this task. And the one quad that is capable of it is really not positioned to do it very well.




Apparently, the issue with the hamstrings is similar but opposite. Some of the hamstrings are unable to do anything to your hip, since they can only be used to bend the knee. Others can be used to straighten the hip. Contracting these muscles would cause your leg to come down out of extension. Conversely, putting your leg into a high extension would have the effect of stretching thes hamstring muscles. The hamstrings are therefore not used in going into extension in the sense of contracting; using your hamstrings would have the opposite effect. But they are involved in the sense of being acted upon (stretched), and I could imagine them being involved in isometric contractions as well when you raise your leg high, especially if the movement is fast.




So if neither the quads nor the hamstrings is really involved in raising your leg, what muscles are responsible for that job? The answer is the hip flexors. Apparently there are many of them, and their geometry is complex. Some are very hard to even become aware of. Modern dancers will often talk about the value of being aware of the psoas major muscle. Looking at the diagram, it seems that the psoas major and illacus are probably the two most important muscles for this job (although others are involved as well). Hence the feeling of making and being aware of the "crase" in your hips.




All of this is very interesting, but not a practical way to train for ballet. As Ms. Leigh said, there are far too many muscles working in far too complex a fashion to really understand it all easily. And since we're not able to control individual muscles anyway, even if you could understand what each individual muscle needs to do, you'd have no way of making your body do it from that understanding. Thus, the models and images we have found to be effective in ballet training have varying degrees of direct connection to the anatomy. But I do think there's some use in understanding the anatomy as well.


Apparently, this is really complex stuff, hence "Lombard's Paradox:"




Extensions to the back involve the spine, not just the leg in the hip socket. Anatomically, your leg can go only so far to the back; if you want to get it any higher, you have to tilt your pelvis forward and bend your spine. Arabesque is therefore rather different from front extensions.

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Thank you Davidg for giving that great explanation.


There's one thing I'd like to follow up on: "And since we're not able to control individual muscles anyway, even if you could understand what each individual muscle needs to do, you'd have no way of making your body do it from that understanding".


Ballet training involves using muscles in a non-natural way, and I suggest that at least part of this might be because we have to isolate muscles (if not right down to the individual muscle, then into small groups), that in "normal" life are activated only as part of large groups.


So, in walking, or other basic movements when we swing the leg forward, we do it by contracting the quads, which includes the rectus femoris, and the ilio-psoas muscle, among others. This swings both the lower leg and the upper leg forward. However, in ballet we do a lot of basic exercises which teach us to control the different muscles separately. The exercises where the lower leg is moved while keeping the knee steady (petit battements, developpes), serve to teach us to contract the quads cyclically while keeping a steady contraction of the other muscles that lift the leg - normally all of which are activated together.


Similarly, in raising the leg high, we have to learn to learn to activate the muscles that raise the upper leg at the hip (e.g. the iliopsoas) separately from those that straighten the leg (the quads). Again, a lot of exercises are devoted to this, and these are the sort of exercises that people starting find quite difficult.


In the ronde de jambe, the leg is kept straight at the knee, while being mobilised at the hip. Here, three of the components of the quads stay contracted at the same length, while the one component that attaches onto the hip (the rectus femoris) undergoes cyclic contraction and relaxation. Again, in normal life all of these components of the quads are normally contracted together.


Using the iliopsoas to raise the leg has a few problems for beginners: (1) because it is deep in the pelvis, we are not usually aware of it - unless you know what to identify, you do not know what contracting it feels like, and so cannot target it, (2) it takes over the lifting only with higher leg raises, and beginners may not have the flexibility to get into this range, (3) when a muscle gets tired, other muscles are recruited to take over its function. This explains the common feeling of trying to hold your leg high, and pretty quickly ending up with an excruciating cramp or pain in your quads - they are not effective at working in this range, but are brought in anyway, when the iliopsoas tires. (And continuing at that point, in the hope of strengthening the lifting muscles, is not particularly useful, since you will be putting a lot of effort into working the wrong muscles).


So we need an exercise to strengthen the iliopsoas selectively - which is why I like the one I described. Even if, once it is strengthened, we then have to "reintegrate" it into a total movement.



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Thanks to those exercises, I'm able now to "envision" what I have to consciously activate to hold the leg higher. In other words, I'm expecting more ache in an area I haven't really had an ache in before :dry: in order to get the leg up there and hold it. Flexibility now isn't so much of an issue - I saw on Wednesday that without tilting my pelvis out of alignment, my side extensions could get VERY high. Back was always good (even now, actually, considering the extent of the injury I had in my 20s), front was never great, but is much higher now than a year ago.


It's just now a matter of activating those other muscles - not the hamstrings, so much, which ARE activated, or quads, where truthfully I feel little or no activation (e.g. I'm not using them primarily for the grand battement, which is a good thing!).


Thanks again so much for those exercises!! :-)

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Flexibility is never an issue for me, because my teacher can push my leg to the back of my shoulder easily where it almost touches my head (side extension that is, of course) but I just cannot find the strenght to push it there; because I believe (as a person who likes physics):


Gravity that effects the leg depends on its angle. When someone tries to keep the leg up at the 90 degrees, the gravity will be greater because the leg is parallel to the ground. Therefore it will be harder to get past 90 degrees line if we do not have enough momentum. But once past, I'm imagining my own body; at the 180 degrees line, I will not have a significant value of gravity on my leg, so it will be lesser gravity and the weight of the limb that I need to carry, which is felt in the hip socket. However getting past the 90 degrees with momentum is impossible during developpés since the action itself is really slow so it is only the muscle strenght. So, to avoid half of the weight of the leg (related to the gravity), we first push the knee as up as possible, and then straighten the leg to start carrying the full weight.


The question is; aren't the muscles which are used to straighten the knee significant in extensions? Perhaps the most significant as they determine the angle therefore the gravity -> the weight -> the strenght needed to keep it there? I'm just asking to be sure.

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Yes, you will need to have strong enough quadriceps muscles to straighten your knee when finishing a développé. (but most of the strength will have to still be in the hip-flexors - iliacus + psoas m.- to really hold the leg there; the quads will really mainly just straighten the knee :))



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Now that we have discussed all this, GO YE AND DO!!! You're never going to improve technique just by talking about it. Work on it!

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