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How can I get higher leg extensions?

By

Slide foot Tracy Wicklund
Question: How can I get higher leg extensions?
I am so frustrated with my poor leg extensions. Several dancers in my class are able to get their legs so high, almost reaching their ears! I'm almost ashamed to be in the same room with them because my extensions are so low. The weird thing is, I can hold my leg up by my head, but when I let go it just falls down. I want to be able to get my leg that high without holding it at all. I have tried stretching and am actually quite flexible. What can I do to get higher leg extensions?
Answer: Many dancers long for higher leg extensions. High extensions create beautiful lines and are so pleasing to an audience. But high extensions take a lot of work, and a lot of patience along the way. Contrary to popular belief, high extensions are not dependent on flexibility alone. Sure you need to be flexible, but the real secret lies in the muscles of your legs. Learn how developing muscle strength along with flexibility will help you have higher leg extensions.

Types of Leg Extensions

In dance, a leg extension refers to lifting one leg to either the front, side or back. Leg extensions can be performed in ballet, jazz, contemporary, and other styles of dance. In ballet, a slow and controlled leg extension is called a developpe. In jazz, a high kick is a type of leg extension. Of course the goal of performing these moves would be to get your leg as high as possible.

Improving Leg Extension

Achieving a higher leg extension requires two things: strength and flexibility. A dancer needs to have very flexible hips and legs as well as strong hip and leg muscles.
  • Flexibility: As every dancer knows, flexibility is extremely important for all types of dance. Every dance move can be improved by increasing your body's overall flexibility. Stretching is the only way to improve your flexibility, however, so you need to be doing it every day.

    You need flexible hamstrings in order to straighten your leg when you lift it to the front or to the side. You also need flexible abductors, or upper thighs, in order lift your leg high to the side. Slow, easy stretching seems to be most effective. Concentrate on relaxing into the stretch of the area you are stretching. Stretches for splits are great for increasing flexibility in your legs and hips. A perfect time to stretch is after class, while you are warmed up. Your muscles are most receptive to stretching while they are warm.

  • Strength: Strong quadriceps, the muscles of the front of the thighs, are needed to be able get your leg up to about 90 degrees. The muscles of your back are used to get your leg to go higher. In particular, you need to have a strong iliopsoas, a muscle that connects the spine to the thigh. The iliopsoas is located behind your abdominal muscles and controls the movements of the hip joint.

    If you can't seem to get your extension above the 90 degree mark, you most likely need to strengthen your iliopsoas. When performing an extension, pay attention to the muscles of your leg as it begins to extend beyond 90 degrees. Instead of using your quadriceps to continue lifting your leg, try to focus on using the muscles underneath. Your hip flexors will be responsible for any higher movement.

What You Can Do

A good exercise to help improve your leg extensions is to place your foot onto a high barre. Using the muscles underneath your leg, or your hip flexor, raise your leg off the barre. Make sure you keep your leg turned out and your supporting leg straight. Visualize the muscles under your hip and spine engaging to lift your leg even higher. Hold your leg for a few seconds, then relax.

Increasing the height of your leg extensions takes time and hard work. Try to push yourself beyond your normal comfort zone to strengthen the muscles that will help you achieve your goals.

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