At the Academy Awards, Natalie Portman didn’t look much like a dancer, with her baby bump showing under a red carpet-ready dress. But there’s a reason she thanked Mary Helen Bowers in her acceptance speech. The trainer got her in shape for the most demanding role of her life (besides “mom”): a ballerina.
A ballerina’s body shape, with long lean muscles and elongated posture, is unique because their workout engages smaller muscles.
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“I work those muscles that are important for a dancer's strength,” explains Bowers.
Instead of working your quads, ballet works the inside and the back of your leg. It also raises your centre of gravity as you’re often pulling up through your stomach and opening your shoulders so that you’re working your back and upper body. Combining resistance work and low impact cardio is key.
The four areas targeted by Ballet Beautiful, a program developed by Bowers, illuminate more.
Legs and bum
The focus is on the inside and the back of the legs; the inner thighs, the hamstrings and the bum. All are targeted in isolation to build up resistance and allow the body to become more flexible. “I work the inner thigh with leg lifts and do bridges for the bum,” says Bowers.
Your centre of balance or “core” is your stomach. “Strengthen this area by doing some abdominal series and always thinking about pulling in your stomach,” says Bowers.
“People envy a dancer’s long neck, open shoulders and beautiful posture, but without inner strength and structure, this isn’t going to happen,” says Bowers. Conscientiously opening and lifting your shoulders will help develop a perfect pose.
Arm dips are the best way of getting strong arms that aren’t bulky. “Use your own body weight — there is no danger of building up too much muscle.”
The Ballet Beautiful Workout
Dancers stretch at the beginning, middle and end of a workout to keep muscles long and limber. Begin by bending your front knee towards the hip and stretch the back knee out long behind you. Lift up through your chest and use hands as a brace. Don’t work beyond your range of motion.
Abs with a twist
Begin seated on the floor with the legs slightly bent. Open the arms to the first position, pulling the stomach in flat. Twist to one side with the arms in first, keeping your chest open and your abs engaged. Lift and change sides, pulling in with your stomach the entire time. Repeat 30 times.
This lift targets the muscles in your bum, hamstrings and lower abs. Begin on your hands and knees and extend one leg to hip height behind you with the knee bent. Pull the stomach in flat and lift the leg higher. Lower back down to hip height and lift the leg again. Repeat 30 times.
Place your hands just behind your hips and the feet in front of you with the knees bent. Keep your chest open and the stomach flat. Keep the hands facing front towards the toes and the feet flat. Pull in and lift the hips off the floor, stretching the elbows, lifting a foot if you can. Repeat 30 times.
Begin either standing or sitting up straight pulling in through the stomach and opening the chest. Stretch the arms out. Drop and bend the elbows down, lowering the arms. Then lift the elbows and raise the arms from the elbow. Lower again and lift. Repeat 30 times.
Work the inside and back of your legs, your centre and your bum. Keep your chest open and stomach pulled in. Lift the extended leg into the air behind you while the knee is stretching straight back. Bend and straighten the standing knee.
This releases muscles in the front of the hips and thigh, keeping the muscles long and supple. Sit on the floor, bending the front knee. Bend the back leg and lift the foot towards your upper body, stretching through the front of the leg. Keep lifted through your upper body centre and chest.