How To Get The Splits
The front splits is one of those positions I think people remember doing as a kid, when they were slim and nimble, instead of something they've never been able to do. This trend is one of the reasons I think anyone is capable of achieving the front splits. This is juxtaposed to the middle splits, “the Van Damme Splits”, which some people will never be able to get due to their hip structure. I was not one of the lucky few kids to spend my childhood learning how to catapult my body through the air with just my own weight and a spring board. Actually, the first time I ever did gymnastics was when I was 22 in college and I had a blast. I loved it so much I continued to train gymnastics on my own at home and especially during lock-down. I know that If I started a young age I'd be doing it to this day. But you don't have to share this love of gymnastics or be an ex-gymnast to get the front splits.
Compound Lifts, Compound Stretches
At my gym and to the people I train I'm known as the guy with really big legs who can do the splits(not very catchy, but at least it's something), I'm also known as the barefoot guy but that's another story. My background in Powerlifting gave me an appreciation for big, effective, and efficient compound lifts. If you've ever Powerlifted or you've been lifting for a decent amount of time you've probably heard of the Big 3. That's the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift. The big 3 are also the powerlifts, they're called the Big 3 because they represent a selection of exercises that have the biggest bang for buck. Meaning, if you did these exercises, and only these exercises, you would be able to build a strong and respectable physique. Why? because these lifts are compound, meaning they hit multiple muscle groups at the same time. Compare a squat to a bicep curl, and don't worry I have nothing against curls (Curls for the girls); a squat hits all extensors of the back, the glutes, the quads, the calves (yes it's true), and even the core. Meanwhile, a bicep curl hits the bicep and a bit of the forearm. Now if i asked you to just pick an exercise to build as much muscle as you could in the next 3 months which one would you choose? Exactly. The bicep curl! —just kidding— the squat obviously because it hits so many muscles at once.
This concept can likewise be carried over to stretching and mobility. Stretching has a 'Big 3'. Compound stretches, like compound lifts, are stretches that stretch multiple muscle groups at once. For instance, the front splits represents one of the Big 3, the other two are the middle splits and the back bridge. The front splits can hit the hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, and depending on your hip angle the inner groin. If you take the stretch further and lift your arms straight up and bend laterally you'll stretching the lats and core. Compare this to a simple hamstring stretch or the dreaded and hopelessly ineffective quad stretch, you know the one all runners halfheartedly do prior to a workout. Again if you were to choose one to get as nimble as you could, you'd have to pick the front splits. And this is where the benefits begin to accrue for normal-not interested in handstands and flips-people.
The benefits of the splits.
Because the splits represents one of the big 3 compound stretches and is therefore one of the best bang for buck in terms of mobility training. Those who are busy, or have other concerns and obligations, can spend a little time working the splits and undo a lot of the damage that a sedentary lifestyle has done to them. Likewise, their increased flexibility can extend their safe range of motion during regular exercise and make it less likely that they injure themselves in any given workout. Winter is coming up and maybe you're a runner. Imagine slipping on ice, sometimes you just fall on your ass, other times your legs decide they don't like each other and THEY SPLIT. Wouldn't it be better to already be able to do the splits, then to learn them in the middle of a run? Take it from me, it's not fun to learn them in 3 seconds and it also makes it very hard to walk home afterward.
In short, you should work on getting the front splits because:
- They represent one of the 'best-bang-for-buck' compound stretches. Quick. Efficient.
- You can begin to undo the damage sitting has done to your hips and back.
- Being more flexible means your body can safely move through larger ranges of motion, this means you're less likely to injure yourself during exercise or during a fall.
- It's a cool party trick!
Universal Principles of Stretching
Flexibility isn't rocket science and usually just requires small and consistent effort over time. The splits may seem out of reach to you if you've never trained them or cant touch your toes, but getting them is actually rather simple. For a majority of people and an overwhelming majority of the time you will just be sitting in the splits for 30-60 seconds 3 times a day. That's usually enough to illicit a change. And by “sitting in the splits” I don't mean the full splits, I mean at your current level of splits whether that be 2 feet above the ground or 3 inches. Before I introduce the program I used to get the front splits, I will introduce a few simple, but important, principles of stretching.
1) Relax – If you're super tense while stretching, especially to the point that your breathing is abnormal, you will not make progress. This may seem optional because it's so simple, but relaxation plays a vital role in increasing your range of motion. The reason for this has to do with the nervous system and it's two main divisions: The sympathetic and the parasympathetic. For instance, take a man that's never stretched a day in his life. If you asked him to do the splits, there's no way in hell he could do it. But, if that man for whatever reason was unconscious and you propped him up he'd be able to get into the splits no problem. You see this all the time with unconscious people, their bodies go completely limp and they can assume some pretty wild positions. Why? because their nervous system is no longer restricting movement, in other words it's maximally relaxed. Prior to being knocked out, the brain/nervous system was inhibiting range of motion because it deemed that position unsafe. It activated the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. fight-or-flight) and contracted the muscles in your hips and legs to keep the body in a position it deems safe. Why would your body do this if you physically have the ability? Well, it's actually right in assuming the position is unsafe. If you never spend any time in the splits, you probably don't have the strength to be in that position and could injure yourself trying to support your weight down there. It's like a man that hasn't walked in 5 years, all of the sudden (by a miracle i guess) deciding its time to go for a sprint. Bad idea. But that doesn't mean sprinting is bad for you or dangerous, likewise the splits aren't dangerous. This is why I say everyone has the ability to do the splits, it's just convincing your body it can. And you will never convince your body it can do something if your reaction to that stimulus is 'Oh no I'm in danger', it'll just tighten up more next time because you've reinforced what it already knows.
2) Stretch to discomfort, not pain– this is an extension of the first principle in a way. When you stretch to pain you will unwillingly tense up and thus activate the sympathetic nervous system. This will result in unproductive stretching. However, you don't want to be completely and utterly discomfort free. To get better at anything you need to go slightly beyond what your capable of now, you need to get out of your comfort zone. Likewise with the splits, you need to go just a bit beyond your comfortable range of motion, into discomfort and stay there until its normal, then repeat, ad infinitum (or stretchitum?). 3) Stretch warm – There's nothing wrong with limbering up cold as a warm-up, but these should just be stretches to reestablish a range of motion you already currently possess. Furthermore, these stretches should be dynamic in nature. Think leg swings, butt kickers, etc. You shouldn't try to test your limits of flexibility while cold because you could end up tweaking something or at a minimum cramping. 4) Never exit the stretch using the same muscles you've been stretching. – When doing the front splits I like to exit by just falling towards my belly and using my hands as support until I can get my legs out of the position. 5) Rest! – No I don't mean sleep. You should treat flexibility training like barbell training. You have sets and rests. You do your 30-60 seconds of static stretching to discomfort, not pain, then you rest of a minute or two and walk around or do a stretch that hits another set of muscles. I prefer the latter as it's just more efficient to get all my mobility done in a circuit.
Now that you have the principles of stretching down pat, you can start to learn the routine!
1) The first part of the routine, and hopefully the only part you need, is static stretching!
Static stretching is: * After a decent warm up you will assume the position you're trying to improve. If it's the front splits, mimic the front splits, if its the bridge, get into the bridge or a close variation. * You will lower yourself into the stretch until you reach discomfort, then you will hold the stretch there until the time is up (30-60s). Remember to RELAX and breath deeply. Many times you will find that the initial discomfort you were feeling fades and you can descend further, by all means. * Rest for a minute or two then get back into the same position, usually a bit lower than last. Repeat this 3-5 times.
That's it. Super simple! Now again, this tends to be all most people need to achieve the splits, but if you find that after 2 weeks you haven't made any progress, and no other variables have changed, you may have to use more advanced techniques to continue improving. So, first give this a shot, bookmark the article and come back to it if you get stuck. Otherwise, ta-ta for now!
2) Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching
PNF stretching is similar to static stretching in that you will hold a position for an extended period of time and slowly descend, but you're adding a little bit of sauce on top of this one.
a) Descend into a stretch the same way you would if you're were doing normal static stretching. b) Once you reach discomfort, take a deep breath and on an exhale go a bit more. c) Now, and this is the reason its a bit more advanced, you will contract the stretching muscles as hard as you can without tensing up globally. d) Sit in this isometric contraction for about 10 seconds then relax and you'll descend more, repeat 2-3 times and then rest.
Again this bears repeating. RELAX. This is rather counter-intuitive considering you have to tense in some places and not others, but it's crucial that you're sending the “A OKAY” signal to your nervous system so that you don't end up tightening up more after you stretch. Because that's what will happen, you think you're making 'extra progress' by really pushing your limits that day, but really your body remembers how painful that position was and says 'no no no'.
3) If PNF stretching didn't get you to the full, ass-to-floor, splits then you may need to add a bit of weight to sink further.
a) Again get into the splits like you normally would, stretch to discomfort. b) Then grab a dumbbell or kettlebell and hold it while you go through a PNF protocol again. This extra weight should help sink you further and strengthen the muscles that are contracting in that position so they allow further range of motion later.
Warning: Weighted stretching is an advanced technique and you can hurt yourself if you are not paying attention. I know this because I have. If you start to panic or something feels off, drop the weight and roll out of the stretch. But really the key is to keep calm and stay focused.
And that's all I have for you right now, there are some types of stretches and mobility work I didn't go over and they definitely deserve their own post. But, hopefully you can use this simple routine and the principles that underline it to achieve the splits this year! P.S. you can do this routine everyday, go by feel, if you're feeling really sore its time to take a day off!