Do Your Legs Have Intention (part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of my posts on Leg Intention.

Last month in part 1 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 and I am going to pick up with a few other positions to add in leg intention while close to the ground. Then we’ll move on to standing movements and in the air positions.

On All Fours and Other Positions Close to the Ground (Cont’d)

Continuing on, let’s look at planks and push-ups. These two are basically the same thing, except a push-up is a plank with a repetitive elbow bend/straightening movement. How leg intention plays a role in these positions is in the squeezing of your glutes, quads, inner thighs, anterior tibialis and even your hamstrings and calf muscles.

In plank or in a push-up your core will be braced (engaged) to keep either a nice neutral placement of the spine while holding plank or holding this neutral spine through space as the elbows bend during the movement of a push-up. Your braced core keeps the upper body–ribs, shoulders and head–moving in alignment with your lower body–hips and legs. This core muscular engagement radiates through the upper and lower body and is what creates your leg intention. Your core engagement must transfer to the rest of your muscles in your body–creating the isometric contraction in your legs for your leg intention. If you lose the neutral placement of your spine, it is an indicator that you have lost your core contraction to hold the spine safe throughout the movement you are performing. This is when you should stop and reset or just stop as you may be fatigued. You should not continue trying to do a movement pattern if you are not performing it with good form. In the case of planks or push-us, if you begin to look like the 1980’s break dance move The Worm, STOP. You are hurting yourself.

(side note The Worm is actually quite a hard skill that takes a lot of muscular effort and I do not want to take away from that, but often people who have lost their core engagement and are not demonstrating good plank/push-up form, tend to look like a slow, uncontrolled version of The Worm.)

Below are photos of both planks and push-ups. We’ll take a closer look at these exercises and I’ll talk about the examples which are demonstrating good leg intention and which examples are demonstrating a lack of leg intention or any core engagement and body tension at all.

First the plank. The top left photo I’m demonstrating good form. My core is braced. I’m creating leg intention by isometrically contracting my glutes, quads, anterior tib. and inner thighs. I’m engaged in my shoulder girdle and ankles as I press the floor away with both my hands and feet and lastly my chin is tucked back, not down towards the chest. This is important as many people end up forgetting this last bit of alignment and engagement of the neck and end up letting their heads sag as shown in the bottom left photo. 

In the next four photos you will notice that there are many postural deviations demonstrated, but none that are showing any difference in the legs. This is because leg intention can be lost even when legs are straight. All these postural deviations and loss of leg intention come from a loss of core engagement and spinal alignment: rib flare, arched back, shoulder blades collapsing to the spine, hips too high/arched/low, head hanging low/reaching forward and soft knees.

Now to look at the push-up. The starting positioning of a push-up will look just like ‘Correct Form’ of a plank (from above). The down position, with good leg intention is demonstrated in the photo on the left. Core contraction radiating out to all of the muscles, keeping the spine aligned so that a straight line can be drawn from the top of the head all the way to the ankles. The next three photos are all demonstrating poor postures and thus a lack of core engagement and a loss of leg intention: arched back, rib flare, hips too high/arched/low, shoulder blades collapsing towards spine, head low/reaching and soft legs/bent knees.

Standing on Your Leg

Moving on to standing positions. This is where for those of us (like me) with knees that hyperextend we need to pay some extra attention to this section and the next. Because for those of us who do have knees that hyperextend this ‘locked out’ position feels comfortable, but we’ll need to pull back from that placement and really focus on our leg intention.

We’ll take a look at some common Standing on One Leg positions in the following 2 sections: Standing on the Ground and Standing in the Air. We’ll examine the Single Leg Deadlift and Warrior 3 for ground positions and a Vertical Split and Arabesque on silks for in the air positions. There are two things I will address with the photos below: leg intention in relation to the lifting leg and leg intention in relation to the standing or weight -bearing leg.

Standing on the Ground

There are, of course, many exercises and positions that have you standing on one leg, but I will talk about these two and then you can take this knowledge to other exercises that find you in a similar situation.

Single Leg Deadlift

In this exercise, your leg that is on the ground needs to bend (for better glute activation) as you hinge at the hips to create a lever forward and a weight shift backwards, hips remain square and there is a straight line from the top of your head through the heel of your lifting leg. Your core is braced and radiating that contraction out through each leg.

Looking at the photos below. The first photo is correct form because it demonstrating all the reasons just listed. This photo is also demonstrating great leg intention via the strong glute and quad engagement, the flexed ankle and even the isometric muscular contraction in the standing leg. I think of this (and will cue it this way in classes) like I am sending laser beams out my heel of the lifting leg.

The next three photos of incorrect form are all common misalignments. All of these photo have something slightly different happening in them, but what they do all have in common is the lack core engagement and thus a lack of leg intention. Because without core contraction it’s pretty hard to have leg intention as your isometric core contraction can’t be radiating out through the leg.

The second incorrect form photo is close to correct as there is a (mostly) straight line from the top of the head to the heel, but leg intention is lost which is shown by the relaxed ankle of the lifted leg. Mostly this photo shows a lack of core control to keep the hips parallel to the floor. The lifting of the pelvis to the side like this makes it easier to balance, but also less of a core challenge. The last photo also demonstrates the loss of core engagement because of the lack of a strong line of engagement from the top of the head to the heel of the lifted leg. The photo also shows that the upper and lower body are moving independently of one another–another sign that the core is not engaged–because the upper body is way past parallel to the floor and the lifting leg, without having leg intention, is forgetting to contract the glute to lift that leg. I call this the arrow shape ⬆️.

Lastly, the standing leg is straight (or as best as I could do with incorrect form-who knew it was so hard to demo the incorrect versions!) meaning that if you are performing a single leg deadlift with a straight standing leg you can’t adequately activate the glute of your standing leg. And any deadlift exercise, whether on one leg or two, is a glute and posterior chain exercise, so you need to have a slight bend in the standing leg to get better glute activation.

**Note: in a single leg deadlift it is not imperative that you get you body parallel to the floor in the down position, it is however, important to stay a strong, engaged, isometrically-contracted, straight line from the top of the head to the heel. In time you may be able to perform this skill and get parallel to the floor, but it may take a bit as this is skill is also a big balance challenge. And here we are back at core engagement to help balance and contract the glute, because although some of our balance is definitely from our ankle, it begins with muscle contraction of our deep hip and glute muscles.**

Warrior 3

This yoga pose is very similar to a single leg deadlift, except your arms will not be holding a weight (though they still play an active role!). As always, your leg intention begins with your core engagement and then you want that engagement to radiate out your center towards your fingers and heels.

In Warrior 3, most of the leg intention is going to be in the lifted leg, which I will talk about in a second, the standing leg will be isometrically contracting the leg, glute and deep hip muscles to help with balance and to ensure the standing leg knee isn’t hyperextending.  (See photo below with a hyperextended standing leg). This is where you folks who feel that hyperextension is your natural place will want to pull back. This will feel like a lot of work in your leg muscles compared to just ditching into your joint–your hyperextended joint.

Copyright: fizkes / 123RF Stock Photo

The lifted leg wants to be isometrically contracting the quad and hamstring, sending energy out the heel and radiating from your core and glute. This is demonstrated in the photo on the left below. The other two photos demonstrate some very common incorrect forms: too much arching, signifying a loss of core contraction and overuse of the low back muscles. A lifted head, bringing the neck out of neutral alignment and potentially causing more flaring at the ribs. Lack of leg intention in the lifted leg seen via the quad not being engaged to keep the leg very straight; the glute not being engaged to be the prime mover for the lifted leg, too much turn out of the hip and foot and the hyperextension in the standing leg–as seen in the photo above.

Again, as with the single leg deadlift, you don’t have to be parallel to the floor, you want to be a straight line from the crown of your head to your heel, and as you get stronger and less wobbly you’ll be able to hold this pose parallel to the floor without losing your good form.

Standing in the Air

Here, I will examine two different aerial poses. I’ll show them on silks, but these skills are also skills in other aerial disciplines. Just as with standing positions on the ground, there are many standing positions in the air that this leg intention should be incorporated into, not just these two positions.

Vertical Split (or the name you know this skill as)

In this skill, one foot is in a foot lock and one is up on the fabric. This is either done with both fabrics together or splitting them and performing the split on only one of the fabrics. The position is actually a straddle split, not a front split.

Your leg intention here is actually coming from a really strong engagement, of course from your core, but also from your adductors (inner thigh muscles) and your deep hip muscles. This contraction is creating a push into the fabric to keep your muscles safe. It’s a feeling like you are trying to close your straddle. It should not feel like the fabric is trying to split your legs apart like the wishbone at a turkey dinner.

The photo on the left below is me demonstrating an engaged core seen via the angle of my torso (mostly parallel to the floor) and transferring that isometric contraction to my inner thighs and pressing my legs into the fabric. The photo on the right below is a photo I purchased. This photo is  demonstrating a lack of core engagement since the person in the photo is holding on and pulling themselves upright. They may be engaging their legs a little, but with a lack of core strength or engagement, it’s hard to have an effective contraction in the legs to create leg intention and then press into the fabric.


I’ll wrap this post up here. (It’s getting a bit long). Next blog post, that will be out mid-month, I will finish up my thoughts on leg intention and discuss more standing in the air positions as well as splits positions on the floor and in the air.

As always, please comment or email if you have any questions and feel free to share this post with your friends who will find this post helpful.

Be Well,

~Theresa

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