Leg Tension or Leg Intention as I like to call it.
No, I am not referring to leg tension where you are feeling tight muscles restricting your movement, but rather tension you created with muscle contraction. Leg Intention, as I usually say, is creating purpose in your legs. It’s an isometric contraction of some or all of your leg muscles. It can also be a feeling of pushing off or pushing away from somewhere-the floor, your aerial apparatus or fitness equipment. This idea of intention is, of course, a concept that you can bring to all of your muscle contractions, throughout your body, like radiating energy from your core to your appendages.
In circus, one of the the ways we use leg intention is to create those straight, long lines in our splits or straddles… or any time our legs are extended and creating a shape. In fitness, leg intention is being utilized as we extend our leg for exercises like Bird Dog, Dead Bugs or in the lifting leg in a Single Leg Deadlift. Other examples are when we’re doing planks, push-ups or hollow body holds, just to name a few.
There are so many exercises where leg intention should be incorporated, too many to list, so I won’t.
In yoga we’re (hopefully) using leg intention while performing almost all yoga poses (and if you’re not, you should start). In Triangle pose, for example (see photo to the right demonstrating good leg intention), your legs want to be isometrically contracting, especially the quad of the front leg to prevent hyper-extension of the knee and to help facilitate more of a stretch in the hamstring of the front leg. While the back leg wants to be lifting through the arch of the foot and through the inner thigh.
This also applies to static stretching as well. Contracting the muscles on the opposite side of the joint is going to help stretch the muscle you are intending to stretch-this is called reciprocal inhibition. For example, in a pike stretch you want to contract the quads to help the hamstrings relax deeper into the stretch; this also helps the pelvis tip forward to facilitate better alignment–hinging from the hips and not through the low back..
Protecting Your Knees & Hips
The biggest reason for creating leg intention is for injury prevention. When you isometrically contract the muscles of your legs and hips (the glutes in your hip complex) you are creating strength and stability in the hip and knees joints.
Let’s talk anatomy real quick…
Your knees are a modified hinge joint. They flex and extend and also allow for a little internal and external rotation of the lower leg. The former being what we do most with our knees throughout our daily life. I want to bring attention to knee hyperextension as this is a movement past the ‘normal range’ of extension of the knee and a position that some of you may experience-myself included. Contracting the muscles around the knee: quad (most specifically your rectus femoris), hamstrings and calves will help ensure that the knees are not at risk of excess load, potentially pushing them into hyperextension-whether your knees already hyperextend or not.
- If your knees do hyperextend, you’ll want to pull back from what feels like full extension and hold the knee with these muscles isometrically contracting to bring the legs to straight from past straight, creating strength and stability of your knee joint and less wear and tear on the knee. This ‘pulling back‘ will feel weird and challenging at first, because standing all the way into your full extension is easy, but it’s ditching into your joints and over-stretching your ligaments and your joint capsule (the soft tissue that is not meant to be stretched–they’re meant to stabilize your joints).
- If your knees do not hyperextend, contracting the leg muscles helps ensure that you don’t potentially cause pressure to the knees (joint capsule or the ligaments) that could lead to hyperextension over time due to poor engagement of the muscles around your knee. Bringing this leg intention to your training will ensure you are stabilizing the knee joint and reducing your chance of injury by holding the knee in proper alignment.
Our hips are a ball and socket joint, just like the shoulder, but with less range of motion than the shoulder. Our hip joints allow for our legs to extend, flex and rotate; this helps us make shapes like splits, straddles or straddle pancake, but also allows for every day movements like hinging in half, walking, standing up, sitting down and climbing stairs. Isometrically contracting the muscles around the hip complex: glutes, external/internal rotators and inner thigh muscles can help ensure you don’t over-stretch into too much of a split or straddle while performing certain circus, stretching or fitness movements.
Incorporating Leg Intention
Let’s take a look at a few positions a little more closely where really focusing on your leg intention and the isometric contraction is going to help protect your knees and hips.
On All Fours and Other Positions Close to the Ground
The photos below show me demonstrating Bird Dog with good leg intention of the lifting leg (top left) and the other two photos where I am not. In the top right photo and the bottom left photo, I am not creating intention in my arm either. The top right photo has less arm intention. You will be able to perform the exercise more easily if you have intention in your appendages: you can balance more easily, make the transitions from lifting side to side with more control and it means you’re contracting your core more, too! It’s pretty hard to isometrically contract your arm and leg muscles without your core, but I am also sure someone has probably figured it out (don’t let that be you!).
- Quick note on why the second two photos are incorrect form. Aside from not having leg intention, the top right photo lacks core engagement. You can see this in the swoop of my low back. Also, my head is also drooping down a bit out of proper alignment; my lifting arm lacks intention as does my arm with the hand on the floor. You can see this when you look at my shoulder: it’s a bit slouchy toward the spine and I am not actively pressing out and into the floor.
- The last photo (bottom left) is also incorrect for different reasons. Core engagement is lost and I am demonstrating this by the sway in my back and thus a bit of a rib flare. My hips are no longer square to the floor because my core is not engaged to help square me, but also because instead of lifting the leg with my glutes I am lifting the leg with my low back muscles and this also contributes to the swayed back and loss of core contraction. The lifting leg needs to be lifting from the glute and when this is done correctly as in the photo on the left you will see and feel that it only lifts to about parallel with the floor. Lifting from my glute (helps) maintains core contraction. Lastly, my head is way out of alignment in the photo on the right, placing lots of stress on the upper traps and the vertebrae of my neck.
Next, let’s examine the Dead Bug exercise. In the photo on the left–the correct form–you will notice I have leg intention-energy radiating from my core through the heel of my foot (and also out the the opposite arm reaching up!). You will also notice that my core is contracted because my ribs are not flaring and I have a nice neutral spine. The photo on the right–the incorrect form–I am demonstrating not have leg intention. My leg is soft, demonstrated via a slight bend in my knee and my ankle is soft as well as it is neither pointing nor flexing. I also have no core contraction which can be seen with my rib flare and the slight arch in my back.
- Quick note on the 2 photos above. The photo on the left is demonstrating how a strong core contraction sends this isometric engagement out through the whole body and creates leg intention. From the contracting quad for a super straight leg to the flexed heel on that foot and the active point of the bent leg, all the way up to the arms pointing up towards the ceiling or reaching over the head, you can see the energy of the isometric contraction.
- In the photo on the right, it’s subtle, but you can see the lack of core engagement through the slight arch in the back and rib flare; the soft elbow and knee bends and curled fingers and the relaxed ankles.
Next post I will continue with movements close to the ground and creating leg intention in planks and push-up and then delve into standing positions. We’ll examine yoga poses like Warrior 3 or Triangle. We’ll talk about standing positions in fitness like the Single Leg Deadlift, as well as standing on the silks, rope or other aerial apparatus in various positions. Lastly we’ll touch base on leg intention in splits and straddle, whether on the ground or in the air.
Please feel free to reach out and ask questions or leave comments.