So you want to get your leg up higher, eh?

If you’re finding that your arabesque is prone to “dropping”, you might just have some hip compression going on.  It’s ok, that’s a normal thing to happen after years of forcing your leg up as high as it’ll go, over and over and over, ignoring when it causes pain. I did that too! And my hips tend to be compressed. Chances are, if you dance, yours are too.

Are any of the following complaints familiar?

  • You find it hard to “get on your leg” to do balances and turns
  • It’s difficult to lift your leg above 90 degrees
  • Your hips pinch in certain ranges of motion
  • Sciatic nerve irritation (pain radiating down the back of the leg)
  • Your hips and IT band feel “tight” but stretching does little to help anything
  • Your resting posture is a pretty heavy anterior tilt and lordosis
  • You’ve ever injured anything in and around your lumbo-pelvic area (including hamstring, groin, low back, SI joint, hips, etc)
  • You hike your hip up to lift your leg higher in developpe front and side, and arabesque
  • Neutral spine is HARD to do
  • Jumps don’t feel so “springy”
  • What does “pull-up” mean??

Your hips may be a tad compressed.

Anecdotally, as I have become more proficient at assessing hip compression, I see it in nearly all of my dance clients to varying degrees. I have seen how it interferes with their ability to activate their glutes and abdominals, and stabilize their hips in standing and kneeling positions, and even lock up their ankles. Many have even had an “a-ha” moment where they feel what it’s actually like to “pull up the front of the hip”, and “push into the floor”.

Below are a few examples of beautiful, dance-induced hip compression:

Mary-Helen Bowers

Rachel Meyer of Ballet British Columbia

What is hip compression? Joint compression can happen anywhere, not just the hip, and it refers to the inability of said joint to absorb and re-translate kinetic energy.

Hip compression involves all or several of the following actions of the hips and pelvis (and is liable to be spotted with it’s best friend, breath-holding):

  • Rotating the femur out
  • Rotating the hemi-pelvis internally
  • Anterior pelvic tilt
  • Flexing the hip

Those aren’t “bad” movements, but are ones you do frequently when you dance and they can lead to hip compression if performed with zero neuromuscular control, over and over, with little awareness of the ramifications over time. When you dance, you will get into these positions a LOT. It’s the sacrifice you choose to make- Life is tough when the aesthetic is hip-jamming.

Think of hip compression as an energy leak– When force cannot be transmitted from the contact of the foot with the floor through the hip.This will inhibit the muscles that stabilize the hip from firing at the proper time, and so in an attempt for stability the joint will suck the bones into itself instead.

The external rotators of the hip are often the culprits and will get very tight and painful, while other muscles that create movement at the hip will become weak (think quads, glutes, hamstrings, all of em’) because the joint is stuck together and they aren’t in the right position to fire.

The hip isn’t supposed to be stuck together like that, it needs to be mobile for you to be able to lift your leg. So when the hip can’t move freely due to compression, you will have to do other compensatory movements to lift your leg, find your balance, propel yourself through space, etc.

A person with compressed hips performing a single leg hip bridge, for example, would look a little like the picture below. Notice the inability to extend the hips, and how all the hip thrusting that should be happening is from the lower back and ribcage, and her hips are still in a flexed position. She’s also pointing her left foot pretty hard, which makes me suspect she also uses her calves to stabilize her hips.

Thought of this way, a low leg is often not due to lack of flexibility, but by hip compression, poor hip stability, and the accompanying compensations. You don’t need to stretch your hips.

As for myself and my own hip compression issues, since I have started  performing exercises to decompress and restabilize my own hips (of which  I have a video of below), I have noticed a HUGE reduction in knee, SI joint, lower back, hip and hamstring pain.

Life is good with decompressed hips.

I made a short video with one of my summer dancers to show you how easy it is to decompress your hips. All you need is a lacrosse or massage ball, and your brain. And while hip compression is a huge part of dance, many non-dancers also have jammed up hips from  doing silly things like sitting for 12 hours a day.

One contemporary/ballet/jazz dancer I am currently working with was experiencing bilateral hip impingement upon active AND passive end range hip internal and external rotation when we first assessed (pain and pinching while turning in and out). By performing the simple exercises in the video below, she now has no pain with passive hip rotation, and only slight pain with active external rotation on one leg (the left leg). That’s a HUGE improvement from only 10 minutes of work.

So you should definitely try these exercises at home. If you’re a teacher, share this with your students. I wish I knew how to take of my body like this when I was 12.

PREREQUISITE: You must be able to get into neutral spine and pelvis or this probably won’t be effective. Work with someone on that first (pilates teacher, personal trainer, physio, someone knowledgeable like that).

Sorry for the noisy setting (we were in the boxing gym).

To recap the steps in the video….

Hip decompression 101:

1. Release hip external rotators

These guys… I find the parts that attach to the sacrum are the most “fun” to release.

Deep lateral rotators- Have fun rolling these out.

Some spots might feel hard, almost like bone, but will soften and release if you  hold for long enough and breathe deeply to relax the muscles. Remember, these muscles are holding your hip together right now and don’t want to let go. It will take time for them to relax.

Step 2: Decompressed straight leg raises.

So now you have some stuff loosened up, and your hip is now decompressed (but unstable). Time to strengthen it back up with a straight leg raise.

Get into neutral spine (or even a bit of posterior tilt and lumbar flexion) with one leg bent. Elongate the working leg, sliding your heel down the floor, like you’re pulling it out of the socket. That feeling of length and space in the hip is KEY.

Keep the knee perfectly straight as you exhale to lift the leg. As you lift keep the feeling of space and decompression in the hip. Keep the ankle relaxed. Do 8 to 12 reps at first, or until it gets tiring to maintain the form perfectly.

You will feel your quad working (rectus femoris to be exact). That’s good. It needs to be stronger whilst decompressed.

Because it crosses the knee AND hip, it’s an important muscle for your brain to be able to use.

Step 3: Integrate using multi joint exercises emphasizing neutral spine and pelvis with hip extension and slight internal rotation

Try this as a restorative strength training session after performing the hip decompression program above in your warm-up:

1.  Deadbug with decompression focus (6 to 8 reps right and left)

2.  Hip bridge with foam roller (15 reps with 3-5 second hold)

The foam roller is to keep your femurs from rotating out to avoid re-tightening the external rotators.

3. Tall kneeling anti-rot press (8 to 12 reps both sides)

I like this one because it will help you actively stretch the front of the hip while engaging the glutes. Focus on getting tall in the front of your hips (decompress them). Like when dance teachers say “get on your leg”. Thats what this should feel like.

Repeat these three exercises for 3 or 4 sets with minimal rest between each one. Not meant to be intense and kill you (like a cross-fit workout). You’ll should feel like a million bucks after, but also that you have worked hard, feel like there’s a bit more space in your hips, and be better aligned.

*Please note that at the time I filmed those exercises my hips and lower back were SUPER jammed up. You’ll notice it’s really hard for me to get full hip extension and control my pelvic tilt. Things are much better now.

Try it out, let me know how it goes. I hope you found this post helpful.

If you’d like to learn more about strength training to support your body and improve your dancing, check out Dance Stronger. It’s a 150 page ebook, a 4 week training program, and a supportive online community where you can ask questions and share experiences. Joining Dance Stronger is completely available by donation. See you there 😉

strength training for dance

Click here to get free chapters from Dance Stronger and see if it’s a good fit for you.

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