In dance, especially in ballet, it’s fairly common to hear corrections to lift the leg to the front or to the side by using the hamstrings in an attempt to “turn-off” or inhibit the quads from over compensating. Although dancers can sometimes over utilize their quads, it is physiologically impossible to “turn-off” the quads and it is physiologically impossible to lift the leg forward using the hamstrings. This correction is often a huge frustration for many dancers to say they can’t “feel” the hamstrings lifting their leg forward like they are told they should. First of all, let’s go over the muscles that flex the hip and lift the leg forward. The two muscles that primarily lift the leg forward are often called the “hip flexors”. These muscles run from the spine and pelvis and attach on the femur (large thigh bone).
- Iiacus and psoas (aka iliopsoas)
There are also a few muscles that assist in this motion. These muscles have their own primary function but also help the hip flexors:
- Adductor longus, adductor brevis and gracilis (or inner thigh muscles)
- Pectineus, which also “turns out” or externally rotates the leg
- Tensor fascia lata (TFL), which connects to the IT-band
- Rectus femoris, which is one of the quad muscles
- Sartorius, which is another muscle that runs across the top of the thigh
The main function of the quads is to extend, or straighten, the knee. Therefore, if you are performing a grand battement, extending into a develope, or doing any type of kick or lift to the front, the quadscannot be “turned off” if the knee is straight. The three hamstring muscles in the back of the thigh generally have two functions, bending the knee and extending the hip (lifting the leg to the back).
Now dancers can stop worrying about trying to “feel” their hamstrings working or “turning off their quads” when lifting the leg to the front. However, the correction to try to lift with the back of the leg may not be useless. The idea behind it can very well be an attempt to maintain correct alignment and decrease compensation in order to increase the correct use of the hip flexors while lifting the leg. Both the core and the back should be straight and “lifted” and the leg should lift from a right angle. To train correct alignment while lifting the leg to the front, practice while lying flat or sitting with legs out in front and lift the leg making sure to not let the back arch or the hips tilt.