“Don’t grip your quads!”
“The movement should come from underneath the leg, use your hamstrings, not your quads!”
“Don’t do squats, you don’t want to over-develop your quads.”
“Your quads are too big.” (FYI if a teacher ever tells you that, find a new teacher! Just my opinion…)
I’ve got news for you: Your quads aren’t bad.
And I’m going to explain why in today’s post.
NO MUSCLES OR MOVEMENTS ARE “BAD”
Just like pronation isn’t bad. You may be warned against using your quads or pronating your feet, but you actually need these important muscles and movements to function optimally and avoid injury in dance.
You need to use your quads to dance, and ideally they should be strong. Trying to dance without your quads is just silly so you can stop feeling bad about it right now.
I’m talking about the “Lift your leg using your hamstring” cue during developpe or grand battement front and side, and other such movements. Sorry, it just isn’t possible. Your hamstrings don’t do that.
I’m sure you’ve had teachers tell you that to lift the leg, you shouldn’t be using your quads, but rather your inner thighs (adductors), hamstrings, and butt. And if you feel your quads “gripping” that’s bad bad bad and you will get big, bad, bulky quads as a result.
I have muscular legs. It’s my genetic programming since puberty and even before. I’m athletic. I’m not a perfect ballet body-type.
As such, I was always told that this was because I was working the wrong way. My technique was all backwards. I was using my quads too much and that I need to stop because my quads would get too big and I wouldn’t be hired as a dancer. It made me feel awful about myself, my body, and my abilities as a dancer.
I’m sure many of you can relate to this fear of quad over-use.
But for the record, that’s all BS. You quads are supposed to lift your leg. Let them do their dang job.
THE QUAD-FEAR IS EVERYWHERE
Here are a few examples of this quad fear mindset from around the net:
A Q&A from balletdancersguide.com:
Q: “For two years I took a ballet class for one day a week. And my teacher told me I had extreme potential to be a professional ballet dancer. So she told me to sign up for the alabama ballet school which I did. In january she let me en pointe but the pointe classes weren’t that good so I had to practice and learn by myself at home. Everything went well except for developpes and grand battements. I used my quads instead of my inner thigh muscles. now i’m trying to figure out how do I not use my quads and just my inner thigh muscles for the developpes.”
A: “…Always remember, your developpes and grand battements both initiate from the backs on the legs (glutes). So during all your ballet classes, try to feel each movement initiating from the glutes as this will help to stop using your quads…”
Ok so yes it’s true that many dancers have trouble activating their adductors, but your goal shouldn’t be to stop using your quads. And FYI, your glutes don’t flex the hip (anatomy speak for ‘lift the leg’), so it’s impossible to use your butt for this movement. Your butt actually stretches as you lift your leg up in front of you (more on that a bit further down this post).
And just check out some more comments under the main Q&A (in particular about the quads “bunching up”. How exactly does one make their muscles bunch up? Is that like an advanced spindle cell compression technique I don’t know about??)
Or check this out:
From this thread on dance.net :
“In ballet when lifting your leg for something like a grande battement, you are not supposed to grip with your quads, you are supposed to push from underneath the leg, more so with the hamstring. This can be quite difficult because our first instinct is to grab with the quad.”
Our first instinct is to “grab with the quad” because one of your quads, the big rectus femoris, was designed to help lift your leg. Again, let it do it’s dang job! The hamstring stretches when you lift your leg up, it does not do the work.
Nichelle from Dance Advantage does a really great job explaining the whole mis-interpreted “lift from underneath” cue HERE. She explains that this cue could just be a poor choice of language as the root of our quad confusion:
‘Note that the language in the phrase I’ve repeated above, “coming from underneath,” could easily be interpreted by students as implying that the muscles underneath the leg (the hamstrings) are responsible or must be used to lift the leg. It seems to me that this may be how the myth of lifting with the hamstrings gets passed along.’
Semantics are a bitch.
This post is to de-demonize the quads.
In fact, in the majority of dancers I work with, their quads are pretty dang weak. Sorry. It’s true.
All your quad aversion might be making you weaker.
For example, I love split squats as a supplemental strengthening exercise for dancers (more info on split squats later in this post). Many dancers I initially work with can only do 5 repetitions with their body weight before having to stop from intense quad burning. Does that sound like a dancer who needs to learn how to use their quads better?
And just a note, even though we’re focusing on the quads for this particular post, remember that it’s not productive to isolate one muscle group under a laser, but rather I encourage you to look at how it’s functioning in context of whole body movement.
That said, welcome to quad city.
WHAT DO THE QUADS DO?
Lets talk about quad function.
There are 4 quads—–>
All of them straighten your knee.
Only one of them straightens your knee all the way (vastus medialis).
Only one of them also flexes the hip (rectus femoris).
Main quadriceps group functions: Knee extension + hip flexion. Aka anything that lifts your leg up above 90 degrees with your knee straight. That’s, like, a lot of stuff you do in dance…
The rectus femoris in particular is the quad muscle that lifts your leg up in hip flexion. Because it crosses two joints- the hip AND the knee- it is more common for this muscle to be inhibited, or weak, because it is bigger and has more responsibilities.
Here are some other important muscles that help to flex the hip in a developpe:
- Adductors pectineus and magnus
- Psoas major
- Tensor fasciae latae (TFL)
Rectus femoris is the only hip flexor also responsible for keeping the knee straight. Because of it’s dual function, if it gets weak, any of the other hip flexors on that list could get over-used and tight.
Got tight hips? Maybe your quads are weak…
Or maybe one of the four quads is weaker than the other 3, and this imbalance itself makes your quads feel sore and “grippy”.
So to stretch or to strengthen- It’s not always a simple answer.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not an expert at teaching dance technique and I’m not a ballet teacher. What I do quite well, however is provide dancers with supplementary exercises to help them experience their bodies in new ways that will automatically help them perform their dance techniques better.
So I’ll share some of my more quad-related nuggets with you today.
It’s not so simple as “foam roll and stretch your quads”, or “strengthen your quads with lunges”. Re-training your quads for optimal function is movement pattern dependent, meaning your quads might quite strong doing one thing, but soft as sh!t at another movement pattern.
I hope today to show you a few examples of different ways that I’ve worked with dancers on their quad needs.
SHOULD YOU STRETCH YOUR TIGHT, OVERWORKING QUADS?
Most of the time, no.
Try first asking “why are they tight?” because “they need to be stretched” is rarely the answer.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s important to not just to stretch or strengthen the quads looking at them under a laser beam, in isolation. You have to look at whole body movement, and how and when the quads are working (or not) within that pattern.
Maybe your quads feel tight because they’re under-working and you need to stop stretching them… A viable possibility. A very similar thing happens with excessive hamstring stretching.
IMPROVE ALIGNMENT FOR OPTIMAL QUAD FUNCTION
Here’s what I see most often: A dancer who doesn’t have awareness of the position of their pelvis or spine or knees or feet during a given movement affecting how the quads (and other muscles, of course) are recruited.
Like the example of the split squat earlier, when a dancer learns where their pelvis should be in space during this exercise, it changes how it feels big time, and they go from being able to do 20 down to 5.
Another common example: Stiff feet and ankles can affect how the quads activate. Will just stretching the quads change how the foot functions? Probably not on its own, because the way your feet interact with the floor influence how things above them work.
And often hamstrings that hold too much protective tension (from overstretching, perhaps?) can prevent the quads from functioning properly. Trust me, all the hamstring stretching I did didn’t help me one bit to straighten my legs fully.
Stretching a muscle without working to improve the position of your bones- feet, pelvis, whatever- they are reacting to won’t change anything. It’ll just make that muscle feel kind of tight.
There are so many possibilities, and we all have our own unique story. I’ll share my own experience, and maybe you can relate.
MY QUAD CONUNDRUM
An n=1 example.
I’m a clear case of quads not functioning optimally because I never seem to be able to straighten my knees all the way while lifting my leg up. I got the “straighten your knees” correction a lot. Made me think, “dang, my quads are all grippy I should stretch them more”.
POP QUIZ: Which muscles straighten the knee and lift your leg? (you should know this by now…)
However, if I lie on my stomach and try to pull my heels to my butt to stretch my quads, I can’t get them all the way there. And I don’t feel a quad stretch despite the clear stiffness.
So which is it? Are my quads weak because I can’t straighten my knee? Or are they tight and need stretching because I can’t get my heels to my butt?
Should I stretch or should I strengthen?
The answer is kind of both, but mostly WORK ON ALIGNMENT. Which of course you couldn’t know without looking at me in person (this is why I can’t give you specific advice over the internet, guys!).
Remember your quads don’t work in isolation. They do what they do because of what’s happening above and below- The ankles, knees, pelvis, and spine.
In my case, mobilizing my hips and feet, and repositioning my pelvis helped me to feel better quad recruitment, and as a result of muscles doing their jobs properly and not needing to hold as much tension, I can get my heels closer to my butt, too.
I’ve seen this with several of my clients as well. Sometimes activating the quads will help them to release tension elsewhere that is preventing them from lengthening. Yes, activating the quads can release tension from the hips.
So yeah… It’s not as simple as stretch this, strengthen that.
Like many of my blog posts, you’ll probably have more questions than answers at this point. But that’s ok! I really do want you to think and ask questions. Don’t believe everything you think you know.
HOW TO OPTIMIZE QUAD FUNCTION FOR BETTER STRENGTH & EXTENSIBILITY
Strength meaning, you can activate them at the right time, generate enough force to lift your leg as high as you want, and protect your knees from exploding?
Extensibility meaning that because they activate at the right time, harmoniously with other muscles with similar and opposite functions, they can lengthen further because they don’t hold the excess tension that a poorly coordinated movement pattern tends to accumulate.
If movements like plies, squats, lunges, hip bridges and even back-bends cause discomfort in your hips, lower back, or knees, could be sign your quads need some lovin’.
I’m going to suggest that the supplemental work you do to help re-train your quads should include movements and positions you don’t into very often in dance.
This means doing exercises that require:
- Breathing- Hard because I reckon you hold your breath for stability.
- Hip extension– Hard because our hip flexors get pretty tight and short in dance.
- Hip adduction– Hard because we’re always stretching our adductors
- Hip internal rotation– Hard because we’re always turning out.
Your quads might be pretty good at the dance moves, but get out of dance mode and the quad truth is revealed.
Not sure what any of those terms meant? I’m too lazy to explain in this post (it’s already too long), so prof Google can help you out if you want more info.
So what’s the solution for quad mastery?
MY FAVOURITE QUAD EXERCISES
For strength, releasing tension, and general awareness.
These will also help you to find center with your pelvis, making life better in general.
Split stance breathing
Inspired by Anatomy in Motion.
In this exercise you must stand with both legs parallel (internal rotation), and as narrow as you can manage (adducted). The back leg (extended hip) is the “working” leg, that you’ll be focusing on straightening while it is in extension behind you.
All you have to do is breathe. Put one hand on your back, one on your stomach, or even put your hands on the sides of your ribs. As you inhale, expand into your hands. As you exhale, get all the air out. Aim for a 3 times as long exhale to inhale. Exhale so much that you give yourself no choice but to inhale. Try to keep your butt relaxed.
As you do this, you may notice that the position of your pelvis changes subtly. As you keep your awareness on your back leg straightening, you may notice your hip, calf, or ankle stretching, and your quad starting to burn. Good. Keep going. Keep breathing. Go until that quad burn becomes too intense. I don’t know how long this will take you.
Go for a little walk around. How does it feel to have awoken your quad and reposition your pelvis with your breath and focused awareness? Probably kind of lopsided, but loose in the hip and awesome. Do the other side now.
From here, some exercises to strengthen your quads and improve alignment include:
Try these out, and see how your new positionally stronger quads feel in dance.
One client asked me once, how do these exercises transfer into dance?
Think of it this way- You were a human first, and a dancer second. Make the human stronger, and the dancer will be too.
Also, take a look at the performance pyramid below.
Many dancers specialize so early and start dancing as young as 2, and so never got the functional movement, or general physical preparation part. Our performance pyramids are all upside-down!
By re-balancing our bodies to be good a general movement first, and then layering back on the performance, and THEN specific skill (arabesques and stuff), you’ll definitely notice a difference.
You’ll also be a lot more durable and won’t have to worry about your knees while you dance.
But you don’t have to agree with me or believe me. Just give the advice and exercises a try for yourself. Try strengthening your quads rather than stretching them. I think you’ll notice a huge difference in your alignment, your movement, mobility and strength, and how your body feels on a daily basis.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. How did these exercises work for you? And if you’re a life-long quad-stretcher, let me know how it feels, perhaps, to stop stretching them, and work on strength instead.
And if you want more exercises and ideas like the ones in this post, then you’re going to LOVE Dance Stronger. Dance Stronger is a book and 4 week training program designed to get you stronger for dance (duh).
The exercises in this post are actually directly from the program (these are the reject videos, because of the bad sound quality, sorry!), but to get a full understanding of how to integrate them into your dance cross-training, you’ll have to join the full program, which is available 100% by donation!
I think you’ll really love it.
And if you loved this post (or if you hated it) please let me know in the comments below, and share with a friend. Let’s stop the quad fear, together.
PS *Misty Copeland’s legs. Obviously