The Best Exercises To Sculpt Your Legs, Straight From A Ballerina

The lean, sculpted legs of ballerinas are beyond enviable, but for those of us who can’t dedicate hours to the craft (or are just really clumsy), graceful stems can seem out of reach. That’s where these leg toning exercises come in. We tapped former professional ballerina Mary Helen Bowers, the founder of Ballet Beautiful—a cult-favorite workout studio in New York City with celeb devotees—to break down the best moves for your legs. (She also trained Natalie Portman for her role in Black Swan.)

These ballet-inspired moves target your inner and outer thighs to reap maximum benefits, creating lean muscle without adding bulk. “Toning the outer thighs keeps the legs long and lean and the butt lifted and toned,” explains Bowers. Inner thigh exercises, she adds, are crucial to a dancer’s daily training. “I look at inner thigh exercises like brushing my teeth—a little every day is a must for me!”


Tone Your Legs Like A Ballerina

Image courtesy of Ballet Beautiful

Tendu From First Or Fifth Position

Target Area: Inner thighs

What It Is: "Tendu means to stretch, and that is exactly how we will use this exercise to shape long, lean muscles in the inner thigh and core," says Bowers.

How to Do It: Start in either first position, with the heels together and toes slightly open, or fifth position, with feet together (right in front of left) and toes of the back foot meeting the heel of the front foot. Slide the front foot into a tendu position by lifting up through both knees and extending the front toes to a fully pointed position. Keeping your stomach engaged and legs long, resist while you slide the front foot back into the starting position and think of squeezing the thighs together as you close. Do two sets of eight, stretch and repeat on other side.

Image courtesy of Ballet Beautiful

Tendu Extension On The Mat

Target Area: Inner thighs

What It Is: "I love the way this simple mat exercise tightens and tones the inner thigh, creating long muscles that define a ballerina's legs," says Bowers.

How to Do It: Begin by lying on the mat on your right side. Bend the left knee and place the left foot either in front or behind the right leg. (The right leg should be stretched out long.) Pull in your stomach to engage the center and stretch long through the right knee. Raise and lower the right leg 10 to 12 inches, keeping the knee straight and the leg in the air for four sets of eight. Hold in the lifted position for another four sets of eight, stretch and repeat other side.

Image courtesy of Ballet Beautiful

Tendu Lift With High Extension

Target Area: Outer thighs

What It Is: "This exercise sculpts lean muscles in the legs and butt, which are the muscles that power dancers to jump and turn," explains Bowers.

How to Do It: Lying on your side, stretch both legs out long on the mat and keep both knees straight. Keep the top leg lifted and rest the bottom leg on the mat. Point through the foot of the top leg and lift the leg as high as you can while keeping your stomach engaged and hips stable and turned in to target the outer thighs. Continue to lower and lift the top leg.

Image courtesy of Ballet Beautiful

Arabesque Lunge

Target Area: Outer thighs

What It Is: A lunge combined with the arabesque position to sculpt lean muscle

How to Do It: Begin by standing with the right leg in front of the left in an arabesque tendu. Most of the weight should be in the standing right leg, and the back left leg is stretched long behind you with the toes touching the floor. Deeply bend the right knee and reach for the floor as your back leg slides out further behind you, keeping your right knee over your toes. Press into the right leg and heel as you bring the upper body back to upright and come to standing, leaving your left toes on the floor and getting to a fully straight, right supporting leg. Perform one to two sets of eight.

Image courtesy of Ballet Beautiful

Classic Ballet Beautiful Bridge And Single Leg Bridge

Target Areas: Lower body and core

What It Is: "I love the way that bridge work sculpts and tightens the legs, butt, hips, center and thighs! It's a multi-tasking power workout that delivers great results," says Bowers.

How to Do It: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor (or bring to demi pointe for a more advanced version). Press your shoulders and upper back into the floor and pull in tight through your stomach. Keep your feet together and knees closed to engage your inner thighs. Lift your hips high toward the ceiling while keeping your stomach tight to take the stress out of your lower back, and engage your butt. Lower your hips without letting them touch the mat.

To target legs individually, extend one leg off the mat and straight up at a 90-degree angle from the hip. The lower to the floor the extended leg is, the more challenging the exercise. Pull in tight through the stomach and lower the hips so that they barely touch the mat. Make sure that both hips stay level and continue to lower and lift the hips concentrating on engaging your butt and hamstrings. Perform two to four sets of eight.