Ballerinas are notorious for having some of the most long, lean, strong and flexible legs. They are able to maintain all of those qualities because of the nature of movement they are doing. During a ballet barre warm up, dynamic stretching is always incorporated. Dynamic stretches are stretches that are done while in motion. The same leg movements are repeated over and over, gradually warming up the muscles so that the range of motion increases. These leg movements also lubricate the hip joints while building core control and leg muscle strength. Not everyone has a ballet barre at home, so I’ve put together a couple Pilates based exercises on the mat that mimic the ballet barre work. For a non-ballerina, these are much more practical while focusing on the same muscles a ballerina would use.
Here are 5 Dynamic Stretches for Long Lean Legs.
Leg Circles– Lie on your back with your legs long and pull one leg into your chest, holding onto the back of the thigh with your hands. Bend and straighten this leg 3 times to stretch the hamstring first. Make sure the straight leg on the ground stays elongated and the heel is pressed into the ground for stability. You may also point and flex the foot in the air or circle the ankle around for more of a lower leg stretch. Place your hands on the ground by your side and pull the lower back down to the ground by engaging your abs. Keep your lower back on the mat and your hips square while circling the leg in the air counterclockwise. Inhale as you drop the leg down and exhale as your bring it back up. Make sure that your circle is only as big as you can go without lifting your lower back or hips from the ground. The goal is to use your abs throughout each leg circle, especially to get the leg to come back up towards you. Keeping the leg in the air as straight as possible, this exercise will increase hamstring flexibility, hip mobility, pelvic stability and core control. If you experience any hip discomfort, you may try softening the knee and turning the leg out from the hip while doing the circles. Do 5-10 in each direction before switching legs.
Single Straight Leg Stretch– This is an ab exercise included in the Pilates 5 series, but it is also a great dynamic stretch for the hamstrings. Lying on your back with your head and shoulders off the mat, scissor your legs and grab the leg closest to your face by the ankle. The goal is to reach your ankle, but you may start at the calf if you are less flexible. Lift the bottom leg a few inches off the ground. Your bottom leg should only go as low as you can without arching the lower back off the mat. Keep both legs as straight as possible and do two small pulses before switching legs. With each pulse, use your abs to bring the top leg towards your face and squeeze the glute of the bottom leg. Do ten on each side and breathe naturally.
Forward and Back Side Kicks– This side kick series is just like a ballet barre routine except you have the ground to help stabilize your torso. The front and back motion stretches the hip flexor and the hamstring while strengthening the glute muscle. Lie on your side with your back straight along the back edge of your mat. Bring both legs to the front corner of the mat in parallel and rest your head on your hand with the elbow propped up. You may place the front hand on the ground for more support or challenge your core control even more by placing the hand behind your head. For all Pilates side kicks, the proper alignment is shoulder over shoulder and hip over hip. Pull your navel in towards your spine and lift the top leg hip height. Kick your leg towards your nose for two counts and then swing it back behind you for two counts. The more you pull in your abs, the closer your leg will get towards your face and the more you squeeze your glute, the farther your leg will go back. Ab engagement is key to keeping the torso from swaying back and forth with the leg. With each pulse forward and back, your range of motion should increase as the muscles warm up and become more flexible. Breathe naturally and do ten on each leg.
Up and Down Side Kicks– The body position is the exact same as in Forward and Back except for the legs are turned out with the heels together and toes apart. Point the foot and kick your top leg up as high as you can, aiming for behind your ear. Flex the foot and resist the leg down as you lower. This strengthens your inner thigh muscles and gluteus minimus as you work to maintain the turnout with your hips. Really try to lengthen the top leg out of your hip as you lower it down. With each kick of the leg up, you will be increasing your inner thigh flexibility. Do 5-10 on each side, breathing naturally.
Grand Rond de Jambe– Grand Rond de Jambe incorporates both the Forward and Back and Up and Down side kicks. It is a traditional ballet move, literally meaning, “circle of the leg” in French. Set yourself up for side kicks with the legs in parallel. Lift the top leg hip height and kick it forward. From there, turn the hip out to bring the leg up and back, aiming for behind your ear. Turn the leg back to parallel to bring it down behind your body without compromising your torso position. Return the leg back to center. Do not drop the leg in between positions. Make it one continuous move using your abs to control the leg. Do 5 going forward and then reverse the direction for 5 more. Your leg may not get very far or high at first, but keep the leg moving and eventually, you will find that your strength with increase along with your flexibility.
Having trained in both ballet and Pilates, I can say that these Pilates exercises are just as effective as ballet training for acquiring those beautiful long lean legs!
More video tutorials by Crystal: 4 Pilates Moves for Slimmer Waist
Also see: Yoga Stretches for Runners
Video: Crystal Chin