Getty Images

Improve Your Extensions With These 3 Strengthening Exercises

Have you spent countless time and energy throughout your career stretching religiously in hopes of achieving stunning extensions? To get stronger, higher and more effortless legs in steps like développé or battement lent, you need more than just stretching. You need control, strength and better muscle engagement. A key element to achieving this is first understanding the difference between active and passive flexibility.


Active flexibility (sometimes referred to as "active mobility") is when your muscles do the work themselves. Think about doing a slow développé in center—the muscles have to do it all on their own.

This isn't the case with passive flexibility. A simple example of this would be propping your leg on a barre and bending forward to touch your toes. You are pulling your body into a position with help from your hands, the barre and maybe even a partner. This is passive motion, meaning the body part (your hip) didn't have to do any of the work; it just went along for the ride.

A limitation with passive stretching is that our muscles aren't learning or controlling anything. Plus, you may be pulling them too far. This could lead to small strains/injuries or actually make dancing right after stretching more uncomfortable because you are too loose. As the muscles relax and the joints become looser, it's harder to produce power and engage those muscles.

Dance isn't a passive activity—you need your muscles active and ready to work. So, what should you do?

Active-flexibility exercises! Strengthening your muscles through their full range of motion is the key to improved height in your extensions.

Below are three of the best exercises for the job. But first, you might want to test your passive and active flexibility. This way, you'll really appreciate your improvements. Check out this video for a quick tutorial, or read below. You can even film these assessments for yourself and look back on them to see how far you've come.

  • To test your active flexibility in extensions, stand perfectly straight and slowly lift your leg to the front or side without momentum or leaning from side to side. Pause at the top. This is your active flexibility, or active control of your extensions.
  • Now, have a friend lift your leg up as high as it can go (or use your hand to do it), keeping your back straight and still. This height is your passive flexibility.

If there's a big difference between the two, stretching will not improve your extensions. You need to gain control of your flexibility to see maximum improvements.

All the following exercises train your hip flexor, the most important muscle for extensions to the front or side. If these are new exercises for you, start slowly with just one exercise per day or even every other day.

If you feel any pinching, try to not pull so hard or not lift your knee as high.

Supine Band March

You'll need: A tight/heavy resistance loop to limit the total motion

Working in the middle of your range of motion can improve your activation of a muscle before getting higher into the end range.

  • Lie on your back with a resistance loop (or a resistance band with the ends tied together) around your feet. Engage your core to keep your ribs from flaring up and your lower back flat.
  • From here, gradually pull one knee up with your foot flexed, pulling against the loop. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement before completing on the other leg.
  • Start with 5 on each leg with a 1-second hold. As it gets easier, work up to 10 on each leg with a 3-second hold.

Stability Ball Wall Compress

You'll need: A physio ball. (If you don't have one, you can lie down under a sturdy barre or have a friend push against your leg.)

The bigger the ball or the closer you are to the wall, the easier this move is. The further you are from the wall, the higher the extension your leg has to control. Don't rush into a position that's too high—work closer to the wall and with lower legs until you are strong enough to progress further.

  • Lie on your back with your head towards the wall. Position the ball above your head and directly in the center of your body and hold it in place with your right foot. You should feel your core and the front of your hip/thigh engaging.
  • Lift the left leg up to hold the ball in place, then slowly lower your right leg to the ground. If you can't get all the way to the ground, scoot closer to the wall or use a bigger ball.
  • Start with your legs in parallel. As the exercise gets easier, add a bit of turnout.
  • Do 5 on each leg, working up to 15 as you are able.

Extension Liftoffs

You'll need: A partner or any elevated surface, such as a barre, table or the back of a couch

This exercise works the very top of your range of motion and can be done to both the front and the side.

  • Holding on to a barre or wall for balance, do a slow active extension, such as a développé devant or à la seconde, to your highest controlled position. Then have your partner take your heel, holding it about an inch lower than your maximum height.
  • Keeping the rest of your body still, slowly lift your foot off your partner's hand (or the surface). Hold for 3 to 4 seconds, then lower back down into the hand and rest 4 to 5 seconds.
  • If you could lift your leg more than 2 inches, have your partner raise their hand an inch, or find a slightly higher surface. The goal is to work the muscles at the very top of your range.
  • You may feel some cramping as those muscles struggle to work. Take a break if needed. As you practice, the legs will get stronger and lift higher.
  • Start with 4 lifts per leg, 2 to 3 times a week. Build up to 6 to 8 lifts per leg as it becomes easier.

Latest Posts


Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

As we push into May, the ballet world presents another lineup of exciting digital performances. We've rounded up a few of the season finales, collaborations and special programs coming up this month. Check them out below!

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks