Exercise builds muscles, right? So how can you stop them getting too big? Janet Karin explains.
How can I develop long, lean muscles?
The key is muscle balance. Muscles work in groups and each group is designed to work in partnership with another group, with one group lengthening while the opposite group shortens.
Your thighs are a good example: your hamstrings, which run down the back of your thigh, should work in harmony with your quadriceps at the front. Your quadriceps (usually known as “quads”) take the main responsibility for stretching your knee, but your hamstrings should pull in the opposite direction to keep your quads stretched as long as possible and to control the movement.
Imagine muscle balance like stretching a piece of elastic. If you pull one end away from the other, you can control the stretch and the elastic becomes long and thin, but if you let one end go, you lose control and the elastic shortens.
If you keep shortening (contracting) your quads without involving your hamstrings, your quads will gradually get big and bulky, but if they always work together, your muscles will start to look longer and leaner.
Coordinating all this may sound an impossible task but good imagery, or mental pictures, will help your brain to sort out exactly which muscles to use and how to coordinate them.
Always think about the area that needs to lengthen, not the “working” muscles. Stretch and lengthen the back of your leg instead of “pulling up” your knee. Lift your leg from underneath rather than from the top.
Stretch through the middle of your waist instead of pulling your tummy in.
Will lots of repetitious, weight bearing movements (such as releves) give me big muscles?
Quite the opposite! As an example, if you perform releve repetitions correctly, the muscle groups involved are challenged differently on the way up and the way down, so you actually enhance muscle balance. Wellperformed repetitions fatigue, or tire, your muscles and this is how your body builds strength – your brain tells your body to build stronger muscles so you can cope more easily the next time. However, fatigued muscles need stretching out after working, and they need good nutrition and plenty of sleep to recover and become stronger. On the other hand, over-fatigue can weaken them, so you need to offset any repetitious movements such as releve with others like plie, to relax and stretch out the hard-worked muscles.
Obviously, it is dangerous to overfatigue your muscles so much that you can’t maintain correct technique, and your teacher will be constantly monitoring how your muscles are reacting to the work-load.
Will lots of repetitious, non-weight bearing movements (such as tendus) give me big muscles?
The same principles of good imagery and efficient muscle balance apply. If you think of tendus as shortened, forceful, tense movements with your quads strongly contracted throughout and your weight staying on your supporting leg, you will certainly build muscle bulk. In good tendus, the working leg stretches from sit-bone to heel when it is weight-bearing in 5th or 1st position, but then stretches from the sit-bone to toe when the leg is extended.
Even the demi-pointe stage of tendu uses the muscles differently, so there is a constant interplay between the muscle groups. The supporting leg also changes, sharing your weight with the other leg in 1st or 5th position, but then taking all your weight as you extend the working leg. Alternating working legs and adding plies can also help you maintain muscle balance and long, lean muscles.
How do I not bulk my quads when lifting my legs?
As always, good technique is the answer. It’s essential to start with correct spine and pelvic alignment supported by good “core” control* and to make sure that your leg is able to move freely in your hip joint.
You should imagine your legs like the hands of a clock, with your hips at the centre-point and your feet pointing to 6.30. When you lift your leg, imagine your working toes tracing a large smooth circle, so your legs change from 6.30 to 6.35, 6.40 and so on, as far as you want.
Once you have passed 6.45, you get the benefit of your toes coming closer to your centre of balance, so the weight of your leg falls down into your hip joint instead of hanging out at the side, front or back. Remember to keep the lengthening muscles in mind, extending your legs through your hamstrings.
*I discussed spine and pelvic alignment and core control in my article on floor barres in the April/May 2006 issue.
To what extent can I deny my natural muscle shape?
Some people have long muscles while others have short ‘bellied’ muscles: some men’s calves will always be thin, no matter what they do! I have seen people make amazing changes to the shape of their muscles, because muscles respond beautifully to the demands placed on them. People do start with different muscle types, which is the reason some people find it easy to jump and others are better at adage, but persistent, intelligent work can extend the natural tendency of your muscles.
However, your muscle shape is also dependant on the proportions of your skeleton. For instance, if your thigh bones are short in relation to the rest of your body, your quads and hamstrings will be packed into a shorter space and so appear thicker than muscles that are spread over a longer thigh bone.
While you can always work to improve your muscle shape, you should also remember that every physique has advantages as well as disadvantages. Shorter muscles are more powerful, longer ones move more fluidly, but both can be beautiful. You need to focus on how your muscles work, because wellbalanced, efficient, healthy, strong muscles are wonderful to look at, regardless of their natural shape.
Janet Karin is the Artistic Educator and Injury Prevention Specialist at the Australian Ballet School.
This article was first published in the February/March 2007 issue of Dance Australia