What is the key to getting higher extensions to the front and side? I've gotten many suggestions to use my psoas, but during all of the exercises I've done to try to strengthen them, I always end up using my hip flexor. —Hadley
What a great question and one that many dancers are interested in!
You are right that the iliopsoas muscle (psoas for short) is the primary muscle that lifts your legs above 90 degrees to the front and side. The iliopsoas is a hip flexor that works with the quads to begin lifting the leg before taking over above the 90-degree point.
You will still feel that the quads are strongly engaged throughout an extension, but don't worry about that. They should be engaged whenever you are flexing at the hip. The myth that you should "lift your leg from underneath" is still floating around, and I'm here to unequivocally state: It is anatomically impossible to use the muscles on the backside of the leg to lift the leg up. Let's put that myth to rest!
Here is how I suggest you strengthen your iliopsoas for higher extensions:
1. Start by sitting on the front edge of a chair, keeping equal weight on both sits bones.
2. Without shifting in any direction, lift one knee up as high as possible.
3. Lower your leg to touch just the toe to the ground.
Repeat this 15–25 times. It won't take very long before you'll experience that deep "tired" feeling in the front of the hip.
To increase the challenge, you can wrap a TheraBand around your legs above both knees and use the resistance to increase the work of the iliopsoas. Want a further challenge? After lifting the knee up, développé your leg forward. That's hard!
After strengthening both sides, you'll want to stretch out and release both your quads and iliopsoas muscles.
Try this for a few weeks and let me know what your results are!
To your success,
Director, The Body Series
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