How to Train Muscles for Lifting Legs Higher in Ballet
Sharp lines are one of the trademarks of the ballet aesthetic, and these sharp lines require that you lift your legs very high. The ability to do this is a form of strength that you can develop through regular training, and strengthening your calves, glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps is particularly important. While some people are more flexible and will be able to lift their legs higher than others, most people can learn to lift their legs like a ballet dancer if they train long enough.
Strengthen your abdominal muscles. Many beginning ballet dancers focus solely on their legs, but core strength is a key for both balance and flexibility. Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent slightly. Tighten your abdominal muscles and push the small of your back into the ground. While maintaining this position, do crunches by putting your hands behind your head or across your chest and raising your torso off of the floor. Begin with 10 reps and work up to more. Then, keep your back pressed into the floor and your abs engaged. Point your toes and lift one leg off the ground, straightening it toward the ceiling. Hold the position for 30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg and do two reps on each side. Gradually build up to more reps each day.
Lie on the ground with your legs extended straight out. Slowly lift your right leg as high as you can without taking your left leg off the ground or experiencing pain. Keep your leg straight as you lift it, while pointing and flexing your feet. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, then repeat with the other leg. When pointing and flexing your feet, you're working the gastrocnemius and soleus of your calves, and the leg-lifting motion works your glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.
Lower a ballet barre so you can easily stretch your leg on it. Many ballet supply stores sell adjustable barres that you can elevate as you become more accustomed to the motions of ballet. Lift your leg as high as you comfortably can. Begin by supporting your foot with the barre, which helps build muscle strength. Bend your torso down over the elevated leg to touch your toe and hold for 30 seconds. Then repeat with the other leg. As you become comfortable with this activity, begin supporting your entire leg with the barre. This activity builds flexibility, stretches your muscles and prepares you to raise the barre to lift your leg even higher. It also provides your muscles with regular practice of the exercise you're trying to do, without risking overextension.
Raise your leg as high as you can in a standing position while still keeping your leg straight. Use a ballet barre to stabilize yourself. Hold for 20 seconds. Then repeat again, trying to get your leg slightly higher than last time. This strengthening exercise helps gradually build flexibility and muscle memory, so repeat it at least five to 10 times per day.
If you feel pulling or tearing in your muscles, immediately stop the exercise. Forcing your muscles to overextend themselves can cause serious injuries and will significantly increase the time it takes you to build flexibility.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.