A Ballet Dancer's Guide to Stretching the Hamstrings
Ballet technique depends on strong leg muscles that know how to both engage and relax depending upon the step. As ballet evolves, higher legs and extreme lines are becoming necessary elements of classical technique. In order to achieve these elements, your leg muscles need to be stretched to their full potential.
The hamstrings are one of the largest muscle groups. For that reason, it is important to know how to stretch them appropriately. This guide will offer simple and safe hamstring exercises that will increase your flexibility and prevent injuries.
For the most part, the hamstrings are made up of three posterior thigh muscles. They are the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris. Although some of the following stretches may target a specific hamstring, for our purposes, we will treat them as a unit. Anatomically, the hamstrings are responsible for flexing (bending) the knee and extending (straightening) the hip.
The hamstrings act as an antagonist to the quadriceps (front thigh muscles), which are responsible for straightening the knee. These two sets of muscles work in opposition. If the quadriceps are strengthened to a point where the hamstrings become short and out of balance, a hamstring injury can occur. This is commonly known as “pulling” a hamstring. Proper stretching can help you to avoid this common strain.
The easiest way to target your hamstrings is to stretch in a reclined position. This is especially true if you have a tight back, which can inhibit your range of movement.
- Using an exercise mat, lie on your back and extend both of your legs along the floor. Both of your knees will be facing upward as the legs will be in a neutral position (neither internally nor externally rotated).
- Lift one leg as high as it will go without disturbing the other.
- If you can, wrap your hands around the lifted leg’s thigh or calf. If you cannot reach, bend the bottom knee, place that foot flat on the ground, and try again. Your head and shoulders should remain on the ground.
- Once your hands are in place, engage your quadriceps and straighten your leg completely.
- Gently pull your leg closer to your body, keeping your shoulders relaxed and your head down. Keep your pelvis as neutral as possible and resist the urge to tuck.
- Begin to point and flex your foot slowly.
- Hold this position for one minute and then switch legs.
You can repeat with both legs externally rotated (turned out). If your bottom knee has to bend to grasp your top leg, then let this knee fall outward during the external rotation stretch. This way, your hips will be rotating evenly.
If your hamstrings are very tight, you can also try a seated stretch:
- While seated, begin with both legs outstretched in a neutral position.
- Bend one leg and pull it in toward you as much as you can.
- Let the bent leg fall outward and attach the bottom of that foot to the inner thigh of the outstretched leg.
- Hinging at the hip — keeping a flat and elongated back — bring your body forward.
- If you can reach, hold on to your flexed foot for more leverage. If you cannot reach, get a yoga strap or towel and hook it over your foot.
- Hold for about 30 seconds.
- After that, fold all the way toward your leg — allowing your back to curve — and drop your head. Feel free to point your foot and release your quadriceps in this softer stretch.
- Hold for another 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Repeat the series with an outward rotation of the extended leg. Be sure to keep your shoulders away from your ears throughout the stretch.
Hot Tip: PNF Method
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation might be a mouthful, but it is a great way to work your hamstrings. Begin as you did in your reclined stretch. Holding onto your calf or thigh, create resistance with your arms. Engaging your hamstrings, try to push the leg downwards. Hold for 10 seconds, then relax the arms and use your quads to bring the leg up higher. Repeat this until the leg cannot go any farther on its own.
The PNF method of stretching involves your body’s natural instinct to contract when it’s first called on to stretch. By gradually taking the leg higher, your body will relax this reflex and allow your muscles to lengthen. Because you are engaging the hamstring in a stretched position, you are essentially teaching your body to build strength without losing any length. There is a theory that muscles become stronger in a stretched position, because the nervous system will allow them to stretch farther without fear of tearing.
There are many efficient ways to stretch your hamstrings in a standing position. Keep in mind that you are trying to focus on your legs, not your back. If you find that your back is rounding and pulling on your legs, stick with the reclined and seated stretches until you are ready for the standing series.
Because the quadriceps are antagonist muscles to the hamstrings, it is imperative that you engage the quadriceps while performing standing forward bends. When you engage the quads, the hamstrings will automatically relax and elongate. If you don’t engage the quads, you will be using your hamstrings to stand up — and they will become nearly impossible to stretch.
Downward-facing dog is a yoga pose that is great for hamstring flexibility. Here is a step-by-step approach to using it:
- Begin on all fours, with your hands shoulder-width apart and your knees hip-distance apart.
- Your hands will be spread and flat with the middle finger pointed directly in front of you.
- From there, straighten your knees and lift your hips up and back. Your body will look like a triangle. Don’t worry if your heels lift a little from the floor; they will be lower eventually.
- Try to keep your shoulders wide and your head dropped.
- Push into your hands and feet as if they were pulling away from one another. Imagine someone is behind you, and that person is lifting your hips on a high diagonal.
- Hold for 30 seconds to a minute. Breathe deeply. Think of breathing directly into your legs.
- From downward dog, bend your knees and begin to walk your feet toward your hands.
- Keep your feet hip-distance apart and place your fingertips on the floor or on your shins.
- Just like in the seated bend, hinge at your hip and lengthen your back as flat as possible. This will pull your body away from the legs a bit. During this lengthening, remember to engage your quadriceps and straighten your knees. Keep the weight of your body to the balls of your feet rather than the heels.
- From there, fold in toward your legs, allowing your back to curve a bit.
- Hold on to your feet or ankles. You can also step onto a strap if you cannot reach.
- Hold for 30 seconds to a minute.
A great way to stretch with turned-out legs is to use the ballet barre.
- With your left hand on the barre, turn diagonally inward toward the barre.
- Place your feet in first position and lift your right leg up onto the barre, keeping the turn out in both legs.
- Your right ankle will rest on the barre and your foot will stay pointed.
- From there, lift your right hand to high fifth and then fold forward onto the right leg.
- Try to keep your back flat.
- Make sure your bottom leg is straight, engaged, and turned out.
- Repeat on the other side.
This will prepare your body for a beautiful développé devant.
So far we have focused on held positions known as static stretches. Dynamic stretching allows the hamstrings to lengthen and then quickly engage in motion. This balletic dynamic stretch involves swinging the leg forward and back.
- Begin facing diagonally toward the barre in first position. You will have one hand on the barre and the other in high fifth or on your hip.
- Lift your right leg up to attitude devant on a 45-degree angle.
- Swing back through first and lift your leg up to attitude derrière . This will be done 16 times, quite quickly.
- Once you feel warm, lift the leg much higher. Taking the leg higher gradually will allow the hamstrings to lengthen safely.
- Once you feel warm, try the swings with straight legs. Choose either pointed or flexed feet.
Even if you are naturally flexible, stretching is a healthy habit. While it is important to stretch before ballet class, try some of these exercises after class, as well. Once your body is warm from dancing, it will be easier to create more length in your hamstrings. Stretching after class will help you make major strides in your flexibility — especially if you are tight.