How to Get Higher Leg Extensions

Dancers refer to leg extensions as the lifting of one leg to the front or the side of the body. Leg extensions occur in ballet, modern dance, jazz and other types of dance. These movements can be energetic and vigorous, as in a grand battement or high leg kick, or slow and controlled, as in a développé. Improvement in the height of leg extensions requires strong hip flexors and flexible hamstrings and adductors.

A jazz dancer practicing a routine in a studio. (Image: Antonio_Diaz/iStock/Getty Images)

Strengthening the Iliopsoas

The iliopsoas muscle complex consists of three muscles -- psoas major, psoas minor and iliacus -- that work together to flex the hip joint. Weakness in these muscles will make it impossible for you to lift your leg higher than hip height, or 90 degrees. To strengthen the iliopsoas, sit on the floor and extend your left leg in front of you. Bend your right knee to place your foot on the floor. Lean back slightly, placing some of your weight on your hands. Inhale deeply. When you exhale, bring your right knee toward your chest. Slightly lower your thigh and bring it back up four times before lowering your right thigh and returning your foot to the floor. Repeat four times with the same leg. Then, switch legs.

Tips and Tricks for the Iliopsoas Exercise

When you begin to strengthen your iliopsoas, perform the exercise with your pelvis slightly tucked under by transferring more of your weight onto your hands. As you gain strength and awareness of your iliopsoas, keep the pelvis in a neutral position with less weight on your hands so you work the iliopsoas while maintaining proper dance alignment. To focus the work on the iliopsoas, make sure you don’t lift your right hip to bring your right knee toward your chest. Lifting the hip indicates you are contracting your gluteal muscles. Contracting these muscles will make it more difficult to perform high leg extensions. Instead, feel your sit bone, or ischial tuberosity, on the bottom of your pelvis dropping into the floor.

Hamstring Flexibility

Flexible hamstrings allow you to straighten your legs when you lift them to the front or side of your body. Targeting all of the hamstring muscles is necessary to prevent imbalances in the flexibility of the muscles on the backs of your legs. Begin by lying on the floor. Bend your right knee and place your foot on the floor. Grab your left foot with your left hand and straighten your left leg. Bring your leg as close to your torso as possible. Hold the stretch for several breath cycles. Then, move your leg to the left of your body as far as possible. Hold this position, which stretches both the hamstrings and the adductors, for several breath cycles. Finally, bring your leg to the right, crossing it in front of your torso. Hold for several breath cycles before repeating with the other leg.

Adductor Flexibility

Your adductors are on the inside of your upper thigh. Flexible adductors are necessary for leg extensions to the side. To stretch these muscles, sit on the floor and open both legs to the side as far as possible. Place your hands on the floor in front of you and walk them away from your body. Lower your torso toward the floor as far as possible. Hold the stretch, breathing regularly.

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