Welcome to part 3 of my series on Leg Intention
Last month in part 1, and earlier this month in part 2, we discussed what leg intention is and how to use it in movements, training and exercises. We explored a few positions when on all-fours, standing on the ground and standing in the air. This final post will finish up with the section on standing in the air and then we’ll discuss leg intention in our splits–both on the ground and in the air.
Standing in the Air (cont’d)
The second standing in the air position I want to discuss is the Arabesque: standing on one foot with the other raised somewhat behind you. This is a shape found on many aerial apparatus and in dance, too! My photos below will be me demonstrating on silks.
Leg intention in an Arabesque means engagement through both legs. In the lifting leg, the core contraction helps the obliques curl the torso into the fabric and it radiates out to a really strong glute contraction, sending that energy and tension out your pointed toe. There is also a lot of contraction in the quad of the lifting leg to keep that leg straight.
The leg intention of our bottom leg is to ensure that our bottom leg is straight, and to make sure that we are not putting excess strain on our knee joint causing it to hyperextend or begin stressing the knee into places that, over time, could cause hyperextension. The isometric contraction of both the hamstring and the quad of the standing leg help to hold the knee in proper joint alignment. Proper alignment will mean you are standing on the leg, sending energy out through the foot or toe-point of that leg and that your ankle and knee will line up under your hip.
For those of us whose knees hyperextend, this will be work to pull back from what naturally feels straight and easy. But to reiterate, as I have said in the previous posts, this is putting excess strain on the knee’s soft tissue that aren’t meant to be stretched: ligaments and joint capsule. To keep the knee in good alignment we will need to have lots of thought and intention in the hamstring and the quad of the standing leg. This goes for anyone, not only for the people whose knees hyperextend.
When looking at the photos below, the bottom left shows leg intention in both the lifting leg and the standing leg. The bottom right photo shows that the leg intention has been lost in the standing leg by the (slight) hyperextension of my knee. (My knees only hyperextend about 5 degrees.) However, in both photos I have my ankle (and knee) under my hip. Where this position can be a big strain on our hip is if this shape goes into an unsupported straddle split. (see next photo below)
Below is a photo that shows two knees without leg intention in the standing leg in the Arabesque positions and how their knees are hyperextending. As mentioned above, this is more of an unsupported split position because the foot is no longer under the hip.
This is not to say you can’t split your leg a bit further in front of you, but can you do it with good leg intention and supporting your joints?
Regardless of whether your knee doesn’t hyperextend or it does hyperextend, we want to keep our knees healthy, strong and safe by engaging the muscles around the knee and creating good leg intention.
Splits, Splits and More Splits
In this final section, splits on the ground and in the air (on silks, but can be applied to other apparatus) will be discussed. Leg intention for both the front and back leg will be addressed.
Splits in the air
When performing a split from double foot locks, aside from helping you to create nice lines, one really big reason to have leg intention is to keep both your hip and knee joints from excessive capsular and ligament strain. We create the leg intention for the front leg by radiating our core contraction to the contraction of both the quad and the hamstring, with a bit more focus on the hamstring, since the hamstring flexes our leg at the knee, we want it to be a bit more contracted in the front leg to keep the knee out of hyperextension. There is also contraction and intention through the calf and foot muscles to create your toe point.
Leg intention for the back leg comes from contraction of the glute, hamstring and quad, with lots of focus on the glute and the quad. Glute contraction keeps the head of your femur in the hip socket so it doesn’t push forward causing strain on your joint capsule and ligaments, while the quad is to really extend the back knee so that it’s nice and straight-because the quad’s purpose is to extend your leg straight. Just as with the front leg, the quad and hamstring together support the knee in this straight position. There is also lots of intention around the ankle to point the back foot.
The photo below on the left is me showing leg intention in both the front and back legs–all the muscles throughout my legs, from my core, are contracted. While the photo on the right shows where leg intention has been lost.
To examine the photo on the right more closely, the person’s hip sockets are extended quite a lot–showing a lack of glute, core and hamstring contraction. Their front knee is hyperextended, which shows also a lack of hamstring and quad contraction, but especially hamstring. Lastly their back knee is not fully extended; a clear indicator that they haven’t contracted their quad to fully extend their knee. All of these issues show that they are just dumping into their passive flexibility and are not being active and engaged in their splits. (Don’t get me started on the shoulder–that’s not what this post’s about!).
The person in the photo on the right most likely is hypermobile, which means this person has to pay even more attention to being active in their stretches and bendy positions for the health of their joints.
There are other things that get me all worked up about the photo on the right, like the person in the photo is young and if they continue training this way could cause some serious injury, but I need to just breathe through it and let it go. The photo suited its purpose for this post.
However, I am not saying that if you have the ability to go this deep in your split that you shouldn’t. I am saying that you should be able to do it under control and with good core engagement and great leg intention AKA muscle engagement/tension. And I say this so that you and your joints will stay healthy and strong and so that you can be moving and enjoying aerial for many, many years to come.
Before I leave the Splits in the Air section, I want to mention straddles in the air. These principles, of course, also apply to straddles in the air (which I touched base on in Part 2 of this series).
Split’s on the Ground
Splits or straddle splits on the ground require the same muscles to activate as when you are in the air. We could, of course, just passively stretch into wherever our split happens to be, but 1) as I have mentioned many times, this puts a lot of stress on your joints and the immediate soft tissue around them and 2) passive stretching is a really ineffective way to make gains in your flexibility.
In front splits, whether you have a squared hip split to the floor or not doesn’t change which muscles you want to be contracting to create leg intention. Beginning in your core, you want your quad and hamstrings to be contracted in the front leg, while your glute, quad and hamstrings will be contracted in the back leg to secure the hip socket and knee joints of both legs. Send that isometric contraction down into the lower leg muscles for a strong point of the ankles and toes.
I chose the photo below for its demonstration of a person just hanging out in their passive flexibility and not being active in the position (you can see this by their relaxed posture). This is not to say that all people that have oversplits are dumping into their passive flexibility; I am definitely not saying that. What I am saying is wherever your split happens to be, if you are not engaging your core and leg muscles, then you are just dumping into your passive flexibility and causing excess strain on your joints. This is regardless of whether you have a 180 degree (plus or minus) split. Stay active and keep your joints happy and healthy.
Straddle splits leg intention comes from the glutes constantly contracting to pull the legs as wide as possible, the quads contracting to get the legs straight and the lower leg muscles contracting for a good pointed foot.
Important tidbit of info: if you are working on your pancake in your straddle, you really want to make sure your quads are contracted because one of the four quad muscles (rectus femorus) helps to tilt your pelvis to hinge at the hips and bring your chest closer to the floor. I talk in detail about straddles in this post and this post, so I won’t go into too much here. But the photos below show that you want to make sure to be up on your sitz bones and not rolled back on your tail bone. You also want to make sure your posture stays tall. Again if my core is not engaged, as is the case in the photo on the right (shown with my slouch) I can’t engage the leg muscles and create good leg intention.
This brings me to the end of my series on leg intention. I hope what you learned is the importance of being braced in your core and sending that strength and isometric contraction out through your legs to hold yourself in your positions and not to just passively hang out on your joints. I hope that you learned that this ‘hanging out’ is placing lots of stress on your joint capsules and ligaments of both your hips and knees.
My goal was to inform you that creating leg intention gives our legs purpose and we create nice lines while holding them in any number of positions on the floor, standing or in the air on an aerial apparatus.
One last thing: Leg intention is how Danielle (an amazing student of mine) can do this fabulous split. There are, of course, many other factors that go into how this amazing straddle split is performed; just know that one of them is leg intention: isometrically contracting all the leg muscles to hold that shape. The other factors I’ll save for another post.