1. Rotator Activation
This simple exercise isolates turnout from the hips, says the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries' Emily Sandow. Lie on your back with legs in the air and feet flexed. Rotate from parallel into first position and back again, seeing how the upper leg rotates and the feet follow. Feel the muscles at the backs of your legs—where the elastic of your leotard's leg seam is—and your inner thighs engaging to make the rotation happen. Notice how you can turn out without using your bigger gluteal muscles.
Physical therapist Lisa Apple recommends doing this common exercise against a wall to prevent tipping the pelvis backwards or forwards. Lie on your side with your back and feet flat against a wall, both knees bent and the legs stacked. Open your top knee as far as you can. Hold this position before slowly bringing your knee down. Repeat until the point of fatigue and switch sides.
3. Hip Abduction with External Rotation
Still lying with your back against a wall, bend your bottom leg with your foot flat against the wall and straighten your top leg. Turn out the top leg and lift it slightly (like a small dégagé), keeping it firmly pressed against the wall. Progressively lift your leg an inch or two higher at a time, holding at each level for 1–2 seconds. Go as high as you can go without losing contact with the wall. Lower slowly with control, maintaining the turnout you achieved on the way up. "Holding your placement against the wall going both up and down is key for pelvic alignment," says Apple. Start with 6 reps per side, aiming for quality over quantity.
To reproduce this feeling standing, Apple recommends standing in parallel with a paper plate under each foot (or rotation discs if you have them) and rotating to first using the same muscles.
4. More is Not Always Better
Spending hours each day in turnout causes the external rotators to shorten, tighten and work less effectively, Sandow says. To maximize your potential turnout, balance stretches (like the figure four stretch and pigeon pose above) with strength work and spend time not turned out. "If you're taking class and rehearsing all day, walking turned out just leads to chronic overuse of those muscles," she says. "Plus, you're unnecessarily stressing the ankle ligaments and tendons." Try something as simple as walking in parallel.