Ballet Stretches and Flexibility Exercises
Ballet stretching exercises to improve your performance and do away with ballet injuries for good.
by Brad Walker | First Published June 5, 2010 | Updated July 13, 2017
Ballet is a kind of dance that can be traced back to the Italian courts. It took place in large halls and included other arts.
The word ballet is from ballo, meaning dance in Italian and Balla is based on the latin word ballare.
The earliest form of ballet was performed in large chambers with audience seated on galleries so that the floor pattern can be visible from above to observe the choreography.
French courts later adopted ballet, and developed its style and techniques. French ballet master Raoul Feuillet recorded most of the technique in the 1700’s. It was dominated by female dancers before males entered the scene.
In the 18th Century, when the use of pointe shoes started, ballet started declining in France but keep developing in Russia, Italy and Denmark.
Nowadays there are many recognized ballet methods and present day ballet dancers train just like athletes do.
Ballet dancers are surprisingly strong, yet slim and supple. Which muscles are used in a more predominant fashion depends on the form of ballet and the gender of the dancer. For example, a male classical ballet dancer who performs lifts will require more upper body strength than a female dancer.
Although ballet dancers use all muscle groups, certain major muscle groups predominate. A ballet dancer not only spends a great deal of time developing form and technique, but also must dedicate a portion of training time to a strengthening and stretching program.
Like gymnasts, ballet dancers, must be able to achieve an extensive range of motion. Ballet dancers in particular work to achieve flexibility in their back, hips, and ankles. This flexibility is what allows for certain movements and body shapes to be created and for the grace and ease of movement that is so characteristic of the best dancers. The following muscle groups are used predominantly by ballet dancers.
- Muscles of the lower back: the lower back is held erect by a number of muscle groups, including: the abdominals; the obliques; the erector muscles of the spine; and quadratus lumborum.
- Hip muscles: hip muscles relate to the pelvis and affect both the lower back stability and lower extremity balance. Hip flexors (iliopsoas) in particular are extensively used by ballet dancers. This muscle must be flexible enough to achieve a neutral pelvic position. Dancers with tight hip flexors, combined with weak abdominals, cause excessive pelvic tilt and increased disk compression in the spinal column.
- Hamstrings: one of the most important muscles in dancers, as this muscle is used in almost every movement. A lack of flexibility and strength in this muscle can cause excessive compression forces in the lower back.
- Core muscles: obliques, rectus abdominus and the spinal erectors.
Most Common Ballet Injuries
Ballet dancers suffer injuries of similar severity and frequency as other athletes. Most injuries in dancers are of the over-use type, due to the repetitive nature of the training, but acute injuries can also occur when a dancer uses incorrect technique or experiences lack of focus and fatigue.
Most commonly, ballet dancers experience injuries in the lower limbs, hip and back.
- Ankle and Foot Sprains: dancers experience problems in this part of their body quite often. Those who dance in pointes can develop posterior impingement syndrome. Others can develop Achilles tendinitis and stress fracture of the foot. One of the most common injuries is a lateral ligament injury of the ankle due to inversion. Some ankle problem stem from muscular and anatomical problems in the hips.
- Back Strain: dancers need a strong, flexible back. They can experience muscle spasm and disc compression problems if they try a high level dance without proper technical and anatomical preparation.
- Pulled Hamstring: this muscle can develop excessive tightness and eventual small tears and scarring.
- Shin Splints: often due to tight calf muscles and a tight Achilles tendon.
- Ligament Sprains and Meniscal Tears of the Knee: these injuries often stem from limited hip rotation. Dancers with “tight” hips tend to compensate with their knees and ankles, thus placing abnormal forces on these joints, leading to injury.
Injury Prevention Strategies
In order to minimize the occurrence of injuries dancers must attend to various areas that impact how their body will experience the training and performance.
- Instruction in proper technique is critical. Dancers must pay very close attention to proper posture and alignment: “shoulders over hips, over knees, over ankles” is an important concept to remember.
- Pacing the training: This means, new more difficult movements and combinations should only be introduced when the dancer has developed sufficient strength, flexibility and technical foundation to perform the new movement correctly and with ease. “Pushing” a dancer can be counter productive.
- Regular stretching: it is recommended that all ballet dancers incorporate a thorough stretching program into their training, if not daily, then at least 3-4 times per week. The areas that require particular attention are the hip flexors, hamstrings and calves as well as working to develop a good hip turnout.
- Strength training: Although dancers do not commonly use weight lifting, they can benefit greatly from dance specific strength training using one’s own body weight. Aside from a good overall program, special attention should be given to balancing the hamstring and quadriceps strength, as imbalances in that area are at the root of many back and lower body overuse problems. Many dancers also find that regular core strengthening helps create good balance and control, thus minimizing excessive work by the wrong muscle groups.
- Manage fatigue and stress: it is a known fact that most athletes and dancers perform best when rested and relaxed. Fatigue and stress cause muscle tightness and lack of focus, thus greatly increasing the risk of acute injuries.
- Special attention to the needs of growing dancers: during the growth spurts of adolescence dancers lose a great deal of flexibility, strength and balance. During this critical time of increased injury risk, a thorough strength and stretching regimen is even more crucial.
The Top 3 Ballet Stretches
Stretching is one of the most under-utilized techniques for improving athletic performance, preventing sports injury and properly rehabilitating sprain and strain injury. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that something as simple as stretching won’t be effective. Below are 3 very beneficial stretches for ballet; obviously there are a lot more, but these are a great place to start. Please make special note of the instructions below each stretch.
Standing Reach-up Quad Stretch: Stand upright and take one small step forwards. Reach up with both hands, push your hips forwards, lean back and then lean away from your back leg.
Single Heel-drop Achilles Stretch: Stand on a raised object or step and place the ball of one foot on the edge of the step. Bend your knee slightly and let your heel drop towards the ground.
Kneeling Heel-down Achilles Stretch: Kneel on one foot and place your body weight over your knee. Keep your heel on the ground and lean forward.
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About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.