I get at least a few emails a month asking how to improve turnout. It’s kind of a big deal. Especially if you do ballet.

I know that not all readers of this blog are ballet/contemporary dancers, but every dance form relies on turnout to a certain extent.

I’ve already written a rather lengthy article about turnout HERE, so I recommend you read that too when you’re done with this one. But unlike my first turnout article, what I have to say today has a different tone.

Disclaimer- This will not be a “how to” guide for increasing turnout. I’m not going to give you exercises and stretches that will help your turnout, nor will I claim that it’s even possible to increase your turnout beyond a certain extent.

So, umm, what does that leave to talk about? Attitude.

Not that kind of attitude… Bad joke. I know.

Rather, after having read this, I want you to have a full understanding of why turnout is so hard to change, and why you should focus instead on having a more realistic attitude about your turnout capabilities. And maybe I’ll throw in a few fun anatomy words. Like gastrocnemius. By far the best muscle name of all time.

Ok let’s get started.

What is turnout?

First, I want you to remember that turnout is not the same things as hip external rotation. Turnout is the sum of rotation that occurs at the hip, knee and ankle. Obviously it’s safer to get the majority of your turnout range of motion from the hip, because it’s the most mobile of the three joints, and was designed to rotate in it’s socket.

The tibia can rotate internally and externally, with the range of motion varying from 16  to 60 degrees between individuals.

The foot, too, has a certain degree of external rotation, and it also glides, or tilts side to side into pronation and supination (though it’s a lot more complex that that, in real life), To get more turnout we often see dancers who roll in the foot (pronate). This is most commonly seen in 5th position with the feet. Is not good. Encourage dancers to use a more neutral foot alignment.

Notice the rolling in, especially on the right foot. Don't do that.

Relax. You are not Svetlana.

Many dancers, dance teachers and parents, don’t understand that not everyone is able to get to 90 degrees of “perfect” turnout. Or even 80, or 50 degrees.

Everyone’s body is different. We all have unique variations. I definitely don’t have perfect turnout, and it was actually a relief when I learned that there wasn’t much I could do about it.

In anatomy class, my first year at Ryerson, is when I learned for the first time from our prof that were anatomical factors affecting turnout that we have no control over. It really took the pressure off, after having teachers tell me my whole life that I needed better turnout. This new understanding of my body was a relief, and so I encourage dance teachers to let their students know too, so they don’t stress themselves out.

We can’t all have turnout like Svetlana, nor should we. What a boring world that would be.

Damn you, Svetlana, and your bony retroversion and hypermobility.

The main problems with this whole “I need more turnout” thing:

  • If bone is hitting bone, you can’t turnout farther than that. Get over it. Trying to grind bone against bone also feels really awful. Don’t make your labrum hate you (how’s that for a fun anatomy word?)

  • For you young, aspiring professional ballerinas (and men too)- if you are anteverted   (click the link to read more about that), then it probably wasn’t meant to be. 90 degree turnout won’t be possible for you. Get over it. You can still dance,  just maybe not professional ballet (which isn’t as glamorous as you might think).
  • Forcing your turnout past it’s natural point in dance class won’t help to improve it. You’ll probably just screw up your knees and have to stop dancing. It also doesn’t look very nice. But that’s subjective…
  • You know that “clam” exercise that you do to strengthen your “turnout muscles”? They’re probably not doing anything. Your hip external rotators are likely to be chronically tight and even causing pelvic dysfunction that should be addressed before you try to develop more strength in them.

 

  • Don’t forget about the internal rotators- The loss of hip internal rotation is indicative of potential pelvic dysfunction which could lead to injury and stability issues, and should be addressed in a training program (more on that later on in this post though…)

I’ve also noticed some interesting things in dancer hips that are good to know about before you start trying to get more turnout (bear in mind I work mostly with university level dancers who train primarily in ballet, modern and jazz).

1) Overall loss of internal rotation range of motion in both hips. In regular populations, loss of internal rotation is associated with low back pain, and SI joint dysfunction… Hmm. Internal rotation is actually important. Read more about that HERE on Mike Reinhold’s site. Seriously. It’s a good read with some interesting case studies correlating loss of hip rotation (on one and/or both sides) with low back pain and SI joint dysfunction.

2) More hip external rotation on the RIGHT, and subsequently, more hip internal rotation on the LEFT. I’ve even seen the opposite, which seems to be related to what age the dancer started their studies. Any imbalance side to side can be a risk factor for injury, so maybe you should try to sort that out before trying to add more external rotation.

3) Inability to actively achieve their passive range of motion in hip rotation. Meaning that if I took your leg and manually moved you to your end range of motion in external rotation, and then asked you to try to get to the same place using your own strength, it probably wouldn’t add up to the same amount. In theory, you should be able to get the same active and passive ROM, so maybe you should work on that before trying to get more turnout.

4) Inhibition of the abdominals and glutes. This means they don’t work as hard as they need to, causing other muscles (like the hip external rotators) to compensate to stabilize and align your body. This makes getting more turnout hard, and even risky.

The good news is that those 4 things are mostly trainable, meaning you can improve them with training. Yay!

But your hips don’t lie. And more importantly, your bones don’t lie.

You can’t change your bones

I won’t go  into excruciating detail, because I’ve already done that in another article, but things like angle of femoral anteversion, orientation of the hip socket, width and length of femoral shaft, and anterior pelvic ligament laxity will affect how much turnout you can get. And there’s no way to train these things.

For example, I just assessed a dancer who looks a little anteverted. I can’t claim that for sure without an expert second opinion, but you can sort of see it through palpation. Anteversion means the head of her femur faces a little more to the front, and that kind of sucks if you want 90 degree turnout. In her case, forcing it to go farther will only cause her hip pain (which she is already experiencing).

fenoral anteversion in dancers

To quote Bill Hartman from an article of his on femoral anteversion

Because this [anteversion]  is a structural adaptation, the rotation is not something that will change with typical hip rotation mobility exercises and attempting to do so will only result in injury.  If you should have an athlete with excessive hip internal rotation, developing a stronger core and glutes is essential.

So please understand that there are a lot of things about turnout that you don’t have power over, and in some cases it can be dangerous to try to get more turnout without a full understanding of what’s happening in your body.

I guess the underlying theme of this post is it might be time let it go. Change your mindset. Stop stressing out about turnout. 

Dancers- Explain your anatomical limitations to your teachers if and when you feel too much pressure from them.

Dance teachers- Understand these limitations, educate your dancers, and encourage them to do the best with what they’ve got.

Here’s my personal opinion on training turnout- There are other things more important and more productive to train. Additional training time is better spent on things like strength development, that are proven to be effective and safe.

Rather than focusing on turnout, focus first on alignment.

We know that we can improve alignment through soft tissue release, exercise, and postural awareness. We know we can train the the core to become stronger and develop better control. But we don’t know if it’s possible to change your turnout beyond your genetic bony structure. It’s probably not. Not safely anyway.

Training turnout can be potentially risky, and I think many experts agree that a safer thing to do would be to work only with functional turnout (from hips, without twisting the knees and ankles).

Focus on what you can control (functional turnout, core strength, alignment), and don’t stress about what you can’t. It’s not the turnout that makes one dancer better than another. Although it is a nice bonus.

An important note on core strength

Remember that if you do decide to focus on training your turnout, you should first develop core strength, and in particular, a good understanding of what neutral spine is for you. Again, alignment is one of the most important thing that you can actually improve.

Many dancers (and most people, in general) have weakness and inhibition of their abdominals, glutes and other stabillizers of the spine and pelvis, with tons of compensation strategies to make up for this weakness. They might also have no idea where neutral is. Couple those trends with our obsession with forcing turnout, and you’ve got a recipe for pain.

Who and when should you train for more turnout?

In my opinion, the only time you should focus directly on improving turnout is if your active range of motion is less than you can get passively. Note you should also work on developing more hip internal rotation for injury prevention, as I mentioned earlier. But that’s a post for another time.

As a strength and conditioning specialist, I do not claim to be an expert on improving turnout. However, my dancers, after becoming stronger, and better aligned, reap the benefits of improved body awareness, and are able to work better with their functional turnout, which I think is more important than focusing on something they might never be able to attain (90 degree turnout).

For more info on turnout, check out these two great resources on the IADMS website:

Hip Anatomy and Factors Influencing Turnout

Turnout for Dancers: Supplemental Training

I’d love to hear about your turnout training philosophies. Have you had success improving yours? What do you do to improve your turnout? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

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