Forum: Ballet / Guys in Ballet

Strong legs
By PerfectFeet
On Sat Mar 20, 2010 07:42 PM

Whenever I see a male ballet dancer who is capable of huge, impressive leaps, he always has gigantic quadriceps and just big, strong legs in general.

I take either a ballet class or a pilates or core or "functional training" (very intense) class every day, and incorporating more leg work seems like a necessary evil, as I get exhausted as it is.

Now granted, I've only been dancing for 2 1/2 years (and I'm 29), most of which has been comprised of Cecchetti classes and pas de deux roles, and although I do consider myself to have a great body for ballet (I'm long, thin, flexible, and relatively strong), I still lack the ability to hold myself rock solid in a multiple pirouette and do insanely large jumps. I know I'm capable of this, and it should just be a matter of achieving the strength.

If for instance, I was at a major ballet school/academy who turns out high-end dancers, what sorts of supplemental leg exercises would I be doing? How much weight lifting, as opposed to things like jumping drills (where you might just be doing super-jumps in second position or something). Or maybe something like the scissor-motions you can do with your legs to improve beats/entrechats etc...

What else should I be doing? (and let it be known that more protein is necessary as well to build the strength)

12 Replies to Strong legs

re: Strong legs
By greenpumpkinmember has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Sun Mar 21, 2010 12:24 PM
Edited by greenpumpkin (189572) on 2010-03-21 12:26:29
Big quads are not desirable for ballet, not for men or women. The kinds of training that produce big quads are considered somewhat outdated, and ultimately limits the body's ability to really move freely and perform well.

For that reason, supplemental resistance training of the legs for ballet dancers just does not happen. (If you need to partner, you can bulk up with weight training on your upper body, but not your legs).

You should be looking for training that strengthens your legs while stretching them out at the same time --- to produce strong but long muscles. I can almost guarantee you will find it harder, and more tiring, than what you're doing now.
re: Strong legs
By PerfectFeet
On Sun Mar 21, 2010 02:59 PM
I guess I wasn't clear. I do indeed want to remain as small and light as possible. (but I've got to figure that with the increase in strength that I seem to need, along will come a bit of size with it)

You say "You should be looking for training that strengthens your legs while stretching them out at the same time --- to produce strong but long muscles" and that "supplemental resistance training of the legs for ballet dancers just does not happen" - So then if I understand you correctly, you are saying that ballet dancers should never do weight-lifting/cable/resistance training for their legs? That sounds a bit strange, but if you care to further elaborate, I'd love to hear what you have to say. What types of exercises are you referring to? Can you give me any examples?

But yeah, please understand, my intent is not to get huge legs. I just want to be able to jump through the ceiling and hold my leg solid for 5-10+ pirouettes etc. The core work I've been doing lately seems to be paying off. I know I'm still a newbie, and the other 29 year olds I'm comparing myself to have been dancing since they were in the womb, so I know it's not even fair to do so to myself. But I've got ambitious but reasonable aspirations as far as I'm concerned, and the right body to be working with.
re: Strong legs
By kenwoodman
On Sun Mar 21, 2010 03:30 PM
I was in a similar boat to you PerfectFeet, I started late (22) and have been dancing for 5.5 years and right now I'm auditioning for professional companies. If we'd started dancing when we were 12, leg strength wouldn't be an issue, but since we started late it is. There's really two types of leg exercises that will get you where you want to be, plyometrics and weights. I prefer a mix of both, but the goal of each is the same.

Plyometrics are essentially explosiveness training for your legs, hence helping you jump better. They involve box jumps, skips, rapid change of direction, etc. They will increase your ability to feel and push off the ground. I'm now one of the best jumpers in class, thanks in large part to plyos.

Contrary to popular belief, fairly big, defined quads are desirable. Look at really any male ballet dancer(Acosta, Bolle, any principal), they've all got them. Even many of the younger ballerinas are going to a more athletic build as opposed to the older style stick thin body idea(check out Kathi Martuza from OBT www.ballet-dance.com . . . ). While there is too big, with how it sounds like your built, and with the stretching and lengthening from ballet, it's doubtful that will ever be an issue. I'm also a long, lean build, and trashing my thighs did make them a little bigger, but I now get compliments on how nice my legs are.

The second way to supplement your training is weights. This can help get you the raw power you need; leg press, leg extentions, heavy calf exercises, and leg curls will just help beef up your legs (in a good way) so that you have more power when pushing off the ground. You won't get super bulky from doing any of these exercises in addition to ballet, if you were only doing heavy weights and no other leg exercises then it could be a concern.

Every male dancer I've talked to supplements their dancing with weights, and not just upper body, it might not be the thing for some of them, but all of the guys I've talked to like it.

It sucks that there isn't a "cross training for the male ballet dancer" book. The closest thing I have found is information on cross training for jumpers and martial artists. If you're anything like me, you're trying to work and dance and stay in the shape to dance well. If you were dancing professionally you would be working out 5-8 hours a day, and might not need a large amount of supplemental training. Starting late means we need to play catchup with our bodies. Go ahead and message me if you have any questions.
re: Strong legs
By greenpumpkinmember has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Mon Mar 22, 2010 08:08 AM
I do not agree with the advice above. I started when I was 5 and have finished a professional career.

Generally, large quads are built up if you try to hold your leg up in extension using your quads. Every ballet teacher in the world will tell you this is the wrong way to do it; and thus, large quads are a symptom of working wrong. You should be holding your legs up using muscles like the psoas, deep inside your pelvic region. The quads are mainly for holding up your knee cap and keeping your knee straight.

And no, I don't know any men in ballet who do weight training on their legs. The exercises you do in ballet class should be plenty for strong legs. I would seek a lot of advice before rushing off to the gym to bulk up your legs. If you get your quads mis-balanced (through the wrong exercises), you can develop un-ending knee problems. (Rond de jambe en l'air is the best thing around to keep your quads correctly balanced, along with stretches to the outside, especially the IT band).

I would say it sounds like more core strength will help you a lot more than big quads. You could cross-train core strength types of exercises if you like, including things like Pilates, sit-ups, etc.
re: Strong legs
By kenwoodman
On Wed Mar 24, 2010 01:07 AM
A few points to reply and this will be my last post on this subject (not going to get into a flame war over this).

1. The post was about a dancer who started late, not a dancer who started at a young age. There are difficulties to building your body up to doing ballet correctly if someone hasn't been doing it their whole life. I wish I would have started ballet at a younger age, but that wasn't an option. For those of us starting late

2. It's a misconception that lifting weights = being bulky, if it was true, almost half the population would look like bodybuilders. Note Bruce Lee, he loved lifting weights (he was also a ballroom dancer).

3. The post was also about strong legs, not core strength, core strength is obviously essential to ballet and helps you hold your position in the air, and in general. Your abdominals, obliques, psoas, etc will never propel you into the air, if they did there would be no need to plie to jump.

4.Almost all professional athletes cross train with weights. Granted 30 years ago this wasn't the case, but as more research is done the benefits are proven time and time again. Gymnasts, martial artists, runners, jumpers, etc all use weights when they perform at a professional level. Dancers are also athletes, there is nothing about our movement repertoire that exempts us from these same benefits.

I could go on and on, but I'll leave you with this. A few pictures of guys with clearly bad technique.

www.exploredance.com . . .

www.nationaldanceawards.com . . .

www.danser-en-france.com . . .

farm4.static.flickr.com . . .

blog.livemygoals.com . . .(3)(1).jpg
re: Strong legs
By PerfectFeet
On Wed Mar 24, 2010 07:20 AM
Ok I'm a little slow this morning-

that last part was supposed to be sarcastic, right? Their legs look great to me!
re: Strong legs
By greenpumpkinmember has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Wed Mar 24, 2010 08:38 AM
Hey, if you want to develop big quads, I'm not going to stop you. But I WILL tell you it's not the aesthetic that one generally aims for in ballet.

There are plenty of articles out there on how to do it. Just do the OPPOSITE of what they say for developing lean thighs. Work with your pelvis tucked and not pulled up, and it will happen quite naturally:

ezinearticles.com . . .

A few notes on the photos:

* exploredance photo: This might not be in a ballet context. Aesthetic is different for modern dance.

* at_kirov: OK, there's a professional dancer with big thighs. Yes, it happens. I still don't think it's desirable.

* danser-en-france: Do you REALLY want to look like these dancers? The man's free leg is barely rotated, the knee actually seems to be pointing down. Any less rotation, and you'd see his heel. The woman's position is atrocious: flexed foot, bent knee, not over the leg she's about to land on, plus affected hands. Good dancers avoid these horrific in-between poses.

* farm4: Very nice. But also notice, the guy's thighs are not bulky. He's very muscular, and the muscles are well-defined. But they're long muscles, not bulky muscles. This is what you get when you do ballet exercises correctly and DON'T try to bulk up your quads.

* livemygoals: The picture wouldn't display for me.

====

A few other points:

1. The myth about never being able to achieve good technique if you start late is just that, a myth. I've seen plenty of dancer start late and make it. But to do so, you need to commit your whole life to training for a few years, just like the kids do --- something most late-stars cannot do for practical reasons.

4. Ballet is different from what almost all athletes do, starting with the fact that it's an art, not a sport.

But beyond that: the ballet training program has been very carefully constructed over hundreds of years. People have spent their lives figuring out what training methodologies are best for developing dancers, and they've implemented those methodologies at dance schools around the world. If you don't understand how ballet training works (and most dancers don't really), then your best bet is to follow what the well-regarded schools do (eg, Kirov, RAD, etc). Randomly adding weight training to your existing training program is unlikely to yield the best results.

In general, you can train a muscle to be strong through resistance training (and it will get shorter, stronger and bulkier). Or you can train it to be flexible through stretching (and it will get longer and weaker). Body builders go for the former, while contortionists go for the latter.

Ballet is relatively unique in that you are training your muscles for LENGTH and STRENGTH simultaneously, in the same exercise. That's right: every ballet exercise should be STRETCHING and STRENGHTENING your muscles, that's one thing that makes ballet so hard. Stretching is NOT just something you do inbetween barre and center. That is, if you do the exercises right --- which takes years to really figure out. Until you're doing them right, you're not really getting full benefit out of your 90 minute class.

That is the fundamental reason why weight training is of limited value for a ballet dancer --- because it works the strength without the stretch. This throws off the carefully balanced tone of your body that ballet exercises are meant to create, which will allow you to dance your best. That's also why Pilates is generally recommended as a more useful form of cross-training for ballet dancers.

You also need to watch out for Patellar-Femoral Syndrome. It is caused, most fundamentally, by an over-development of the quads on the outside of your leg and an under-development of the quads on the inside of your leg, combined with a shortened (not stretched-out) IT band. Ballet already has that tenancy because you work turned out so much. Pushing it further by SEEKING to develop large quads (and potentially shorter IT band) through weight training is sheer insanity. No... you should be always seeking to STRETCH your IT band. And rond de jambe en l'air is a very important exercise because it exercises the quads on the INSIDE of your leg --- exactly the ones that help keep your kneecap in the proper place.

OK, you heard it here, in great detail. Don't blame me if your knees start to hurt.


====

Patellar-Femoral Syndrome (Chondromalacia)
“I have pain on the front of my knee. It gets worse with stairs, and sitting for a long time.”

Patella-Femoral Syndrome (PFS) is a general term to describe pain affecting the joint surface between the patella and the femur underneath. Behind the patella is a cartilage lining which provides for a smooth gliding surface between these two structures. Chondromalacia is a softening or wearing away of this articular cartilage under the patella, resulting in pain and inflammation.

Causes
Typically, pain with PFS and chondromalacia will present over a period of time. Dancers will notice pain during class, especially with jumps and/or grande plié. The knee may begin to swell at the kneecap and may start to become painful with stairs and sometimes sitting for a long time. Overuse during training and technique or mechanical faults employed by the dancer can aggravate this condition. Very often, dancers will present with iliotibial band tightness along the outside of the thigh or weakness in the medial quadriceps muscle. If the condition persists over time, the cartilage behind the kneecap can begin to soften and become damaged due to the repeated compression on the femur.
re: Strong legs
By PerfectFeet
On Wed Mar 24, 2010 06:40 PM
I'll say it again - I'm not after BIG legs, I'm after STRONG legs.

I appreciate both points of view.
re: Strong legs
By luv2plie
On Thu Mar 25, 2010 12:30 AM
If you take ballet....your legs will become very strong!

Kev
re: Strong legs
By PerfectFeet
On Wed Mar 31, 2010 09:08 PM
I've gotten my butt back in the gym and after a few leg workouts, have seen an immediate improvement in just about everything I'm doing with my legs. I was (still am) lacking in leg strength. But I'm on the right track now. I think the biggest challenge will be eating a lot of protein.

Only problem is, now my legs (and the rest of my body) are sore from working out, and it detracts from the strength! I just need to stick with it... lose the tiredness, keep the strength.
re: Strong legs
By fleshjazzpants
On Thu May 20, 2010 10:25 PM
keep it up! just keep doing what you're doing and the strength will come. the classes that you're taking seem like great classes to build muscle strength. I just suggest that you keep working hard and keep you head up. You're doing good!
re: Strong legs
By keno
On Sun May 30, 2010 06:55 PM
I'm certainly not a personal trainer, but would suggest squats as a quick and effective way to build leg strength. Preferably, you should use free weights versus a machine as the former forces you to focus on balance and technique.

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