I can barely get my leg up to 90 degrees in grand battement, and I still don't have my splits. How do I become more flexible? —Kassidy
I can relate. I struggled with tight hamstrings and hip flexors and had to work hard to get my extensions to an acceptable height. Sometimes anatomical factors—such as how the hip socket or sacroiliac joint is structured—can limit your range of motion. But you can improve muscular flexibility through proper stretching and strengthening. Just remember that there's no quick fix. A slow and steady method is safest and most effective.
First, don't attempt the splits or any static stretches before class when you're stone cold. "Research tells us that stretching is only beneficial once the body warms up and the heart rate is raised," says Bené Barrera, head athletic trainer for Houston Ballet. Carve out 15 minutes a day to stretch after class or rehearsal, when you're warm.
For better extensions, stretch a range of muscles, not just your hamstrings.
How you stretch also matters. While hanging out in extreme positions is all the rage, avoid attempting it. "You should not hold a stretch for any longer than 30 seconds," says Barerra. Doing so can lead to injuries and decreased power in jumps. According to the International Association of Dance Medicine & Science, it's more beneficial to work on flexibility for shorter intervals—aim for three to five repetitions, once a day. Mild discomfort is normal, but back off if you feel sharp pain or tingling.
And focus on more than your hamstrings or practicing your splits. You should be stretching a range of muscles: "Dancers also need to focus on their hip rotators, quadriceps, glutes and obliques," says Barrera, who adds that the psoas must also be lengthened and strengthened.
Lastly, adding strengthening exercises to your regimen will complement your stretching routine and allow you to better hold your extensions.
For specific exercises designed to help you achieve a safer, stronger split, check out this conditioning video from our friends at Dance Spirit.