It’s hard not to envy the genes distributed to the taller ladies that give them those long, beautiful legs, but it takes more than DNA to give those legs the shape and definition of a dancer. There are some simple moves that can be added into our daily exercise routine that will help stretch the leg muscles while working on muscle definition all the way around; inner thigh, outer thigh, front and back. Just because you can’t reach the top shelf in the cabinet doesn’t mean you can’t achieve thinner, longer looking legs that you’ll be proud to show off in that new mini skirt!
The secret to the defined, long legs that ballerinas are known to have is to exercise them the way that a ballerina would. You may notice that many of these exercises mimic the barre and warm-up exercises used in ballet classes. Since you probably don’t have a ballet barre installed at home, grab a chair, or stand at your kitchen counter. Anything you can use that helps you maintain your balance.
Pliés (AKA Squats)
The first three exercises are reminiscent of what members of the ballet world would call a plié, which is an entire leg workout all by itself, targeting quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
1. First Position Plié You will want to use your “barre” for balance. Place your heels together with your toes pointing out at an angle. Stay on your toes, heels not touching the floor, for the entire set to get the most out of this exercise. As you squat to get into position, your legs should form a diamond shape, the bottom point being where your heels meet. As you squat, keep your back straight, stay on your toes, and bend at the knees until your derriere is no lower than knee level, about an inch or so lower than when you began. After 20, break for a moment, then, start another set. Try starting out with one set, and gradually add another full set as you build endurance until you reach 3 or 4 sets.
*If you’re prone to knee problems, or have had problems with bad knees in the past, you should skip this exercise altogether, and start with the next one.
2. Second Position In this position, your feet will move outward, giving you a wide stance at least shoulder width apart. Rest your hands on the “barre” while you’re facing it. As in the first position, you want to be on your toes throughout this exercise. While on your toes, move your feet further apart until you can really feel your leg muscles working, but not so far apart that you’re uncomfortable. You can either maintain the squat for a full minute, or repeat the lifting an inch and lowering an inch with your rear as you did in the last exercise. Begin with a set of 20, and ease into more sets as you gain endurance.
3. One Leg Squats For this variation of the plié, you will start by lifting one leg up, keeping it straight. With your arms stretched out in front of you, palms down and without lowering your raised leg, lower your body as far down as possible. Tighten your core muscles as you do this, it will help with balance and also give your core a little workout. Count to five, then, stand back up. Remember to keep the outstretched leg straight in front of you, and as tight as you can for the duration. For a complete set you should do ten squats on each leg, for a total of 20.
If you need to use the “barre” to balance, rest your palms on the surface. Beginners may not be able to squat all the way down. That’s okay! With practice, you will be able to do these with ease.
Battement is a term in ballet that refers to lifting one leg to the back, side, or front, and then bringing it back down beside the supporting leg. The next few exercises are in the spirit of battements.
4. Reverse Leg Lift (Arabesque) Stand next to your “barre” and place one hand on it lightly. Bend one knee a little and lift the other one, keeping the toes pointed for the first 20 times, then flexed for another 20. The muscles in the back of your leg should feel the work from the ankle all the way up to the glutes. Switch legs, and repeat with the other leg.
5. Forward Leg Lift With your back against your “ballet barre”, you will stretch one leg in front of you, keeping it as straight as possible, and lift and lower your leg with your toes pointed 20 times. Flex your foot, and repeat with the same leg another 20 times. Alternate legs and repeat. You should be picking your leg up to about waist height, and lowering it to a few inches to a foot above the floor. This exercise will help you to tighten and lengthen muscles, and is one of the few that will work wonders on the weakest muscle groups in a female’s body; the adductors (inner thigh area).
6. Side Leg Lift Facing your counter, chair, or other makeshift “barre”, pick up one foot by bending at the knee. Place a soft training ball, or any similarly sized object, behind your knee and use your leg to grip it in place. Raise your knee up and outward until it is level with your hip. Don’t let go of the ball! Continue to lift and lower leg while keeping a tight grip on the ball, and ensuring that your foot is flexed. Lower the leg to the starting position each time before lifting it again. You should try to do this for around 30 seconds per leg.
Cool Down Stretches
You’ve spent the last fifteen minutes feeling that burn in your thighs, so it’s a good time to stretch out the tight muscles in the back of the thigh and leg, stretching them out.
7. Runner’s Lunges Stretch one leg out behind you, keeping your heel off the floor. Keep the other foot flat on the floor, and securely positioned. Slide your extended leg back until your other knee is at a 90 degree angle. Stretch your upper body toward the bent leg with your hands together (like you’re praying) in front of your chest, about shoulder height. Hold this position for a second or two, then return to your starting position and repeat with the opposite leg. About 10 or 15 times with each leg should be enough to feel a nice soothing stretch in those muscles.
8. Hammies, Calves, & Quad Stretches Lean your body forward slightly at the waist, and put one foot out in front of you. You’ll lean toward the extended leg, and bend your knee a little. Flex the ankle of the extended foot, and hold for a few seconds as you take deep breaths. Stretch the other leg in the same way after about a minute or so. Once you’ve stretched your hamstrings and calves, stand beside a wall, counter, or your “barre” and lay one hand on the surface for support. Without allowing your knees or thighs to separate, lean down toward one foot and cup your toes firmly in your hand. Pull your toes upward, toward the ceiling, and hold for a few seconds, repeating for the other leg after about 10 times.
You may also want to lie on the floor on your back and lift one leg at a time, using your hands to straighten the leg as you try to push it out as straight as possible. Clasp your hands behind the thigh of the raised leg, and pull it toward your chest. Point and flex your foot three or four times, and encourage circular movement of the raised foot. Lower leg and repeat with the other leg when you’re done.
Don’t be afraid to toss in a few other stretches you may already be doing. After a strenuous workout, giving the muscles a chance to stretch feels absolutely amazing, and helps the shortened muscles after being contracted over and over. Exercise can often lead to lactic acid settling in your muscles, which can lead to fatigue and sore muscles. Stretching will decrease the feelings of fatigue, and increase blood circulation because your muscles will be warm. You’re also less likely to develop the muscle stiffness that often appears the next day. Stretching is the best way to reset your posture and body position, again aiding in preventing waking up in the morning with muscles too tight and sore to move.