Achieve Higher Leg Extensions by Understanding the Powerful Psoas

THE PSOAS PLAYS A KEY ROLE IN THE FUNCTIONING OF THE HIPS.

Also referred to as Iliopsoas as it merges with another deep hip muscle, the iliacus, the psoas connects your torso to your legs and helps you stay in an upright position. The main action of the iliopsoas is to flex the thigh at the hip joint.  This is key for dancers, allowing the ability to lift the knee above 90 degrees and hold the leg at above average heights.  Weakness and tightness of the hip flexors or psoas muscle can result in misalignments of the lumbar spine and pelvis, consequently affecting the legs and stability of the spine.  This issue often occurs when dancers perform movements in ballet technique.  

psoas

Ruth Solomon and John Solomon, Ph.D. provides a very useful article about the psoas for the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) Solomon states the importance of understanding dance anatomy, especially when it comes to the mighty psoas:

“The psoas is capable of stabilization and activation simultaneously. Clearly a potentially powerful source of energy of that sort, located right in the center of the body and attached to three of the anatomical units that are most crucial to dance movement—the lower spine, pelvis, and hip joint—has to be respected.”  

In order to move efficiently and make one's dancing appear to be effortless, correct muscle activation is crucial for performing the movement patterns required in classical ballet technique. Achieving full leg extension to the side is a movement that can be difficult to perform correctly. Many students and professionals dread this position.  Often times, the leg comes up to 90° easily enough.  Beyond 90°, however, there may be obvious tension in the leg, hip and sometimes upper body.  A high, graceful, stress-free extension requires correct alignment, encouraging correct muscle activation.  The body will find a way to cheat the movement, especially if the dancer has inadequate flexibility.  This “cheating” happens by recruiting other muscles and creating needless movement - appearing anything but effortless. 

A common misalignment when performing a developpé side occurs when the quadriceps take over. Here's how:

  • When the gesturing leg of the dancer who is experiencing an inability to achieve full range of motion in extension is viewed closely it will often be seen that as the leg passes 90° the quadriceps muscles along the top of the thigh are strongly contracted.

  • In effect, what the dancer is trying to do is lift the leg by using the muscles of the leg itself.

  • This effort not only contracts the quadriceps but also tightens the tendons that surround the hip socket.

  • Far from promoting the desired elevation of the leg, this tightening of the tendons seems to restrict the ability to raise the leg higher, and actually pulls the leg down.

  • Sometimes the gluteus maximus is engaged, causing internal rotation of the extended leg.

Solomon's descriptions are all classic examples of how the body may work against itself when inappropriate anatomical means are utilized to accomplish a task. Try this stretch to increase your awareness of the powerful psoas to avoid those common areas of detrimental muscle overcompensation: 

HERE ARE SOME TIPS & CUES FOR FINDING YOUR PSOAS IN THIS STRETCH!

  • Keep the front knee directly over the front ankle.
  • Anchor down through your front foot especially the big toe.
  • Press your hips forward and down
  • Avoid bouncing, sustain the pose for 10-15 breathes. Release and repeat.
  • Actively press the back foot against the floor.
  • Hold the Flexistretcher shoulder width apart and pull the hands away from each other to create a slight tension. Maintain this tension for the duration of the stretch.