August 23rd 2019 was the day before my 28th birthday and while I’m not anti celebration, material gifts don’t do much for me. I was always stumped when asked ‘what do you want for your birthday?’ I’d answer with my own question……..’What do I really need?’
And the true answer to the question was precious little. What do I want? Well, instantly when I think about desires I think in terms of progress – be it physical, professional, personal and whatever else. So imagine my delight at achieving one of my year goals the day before my birthday, the completely flat front split. Let me share my journey with you; why I wanted a split, how I got the split, what I intend to do going forward and most importantly, how far away I was when my journey began.
The starting blocks
In 2012/2013 I had just lost lots of weight (30 kg+) and was introduced to the practice that was yoga. I distinctly remember anything involving front folding (hamstring flexibility) being straight up hell. This prompted me to do some minor research on the subject. It didn’t take me long to find the infamous ‘prone 90 degree test’. A shaky 45 degrees was all I brought to the table……
(credit: peakendurancesport.com – the standard hamstring flexibility test)
This should give you an idea of how ‘naturally flexible’ I am. Things like splits were so far from my mind they might as well not have existed. I would have liked to have known what I’d have said back then, had you asked me if I thought I could ever do the splits. Although even then I would probably have said it was possible, as I’ve always had the mindset of anything is achievable with enough desire, application and patience.
The takeaway here is I was so far away it wasn’t even worth humorous consideration, let alone serious consideration.
Over the last few years, working within fitness, I started teaching numerous classes that emphasise flexibility; Pilates & Yoga among others. I’m a firm believer in being able to do what you coach, so needless to say this encouraged me to appear relatively flexible and mobile. So I took the classes seriously and did some intuitive stretching of tight areas in my own time.
As my general base improved, my ‘all in’ personality began kicking in and I started to see correlations between success within my calisthenics training and how my mobility had improved. I read more on the subject and began to see the theme more and more and it just made sense. This caused me to write the article: How Flexibility Makes Calisthenics Easier.
So it was no longer a case of wanting to be flexible just to be flexible. The flexibility would be used elsewhere. This alone makes the journey far easier from a motivational standpoint, at the very least.
At the beginning of 2019, I vowed to sort out many weaknesses (most of which have been documented on this site) – the handstand, mobility and numerous strength imbalances. I aimed high and said I’d use this year to get all the gold standards of lower body mobility: pancake, front splits and side splits.
I followed CaliMove’s program (Read The Review) religiously while being a long way from a clean, flat, front split. Some times I’d get pretty low on random tries but when I hit my limit, I was done and dusted. I couldn’t sink another millimeter. During this time I trailed forums, read books by Kit Laughlin, Thomas Kurz and reread the course material from Emmet Louis. I also attended Tom Merrick & Ulrik On Hands’ workshop in London which covered lots of lower body mobility because of it’s relevance to advanced hand-balancing.
And it was a classic case of taking all the tidbits from these great names and applying them to my practice. Let’s cover different modalities/schools of thought on obtaining the splits and my opinion of them, based off my own experience.
I did PRECIOUS LITTLE static stretching in my splits journey. Occasionally in the aforementioned classes I teach I’d do some passive stretches for the hips and hamstrings but that was as far as it went. I think passive stretching has it’s place for relaxation and calming down a hyped up nervous system but past that it doesn’t yield efficient enough gains to be a serious option, in my opinion.
(You can read more on this topic in the following article: 5 Keys To LONG TERM Flexibility Gains)
Getting the splits from just trying the splits?
Again, some people will tout the benefits of just sitting in splits until the body eventually lets go. That’s cool but it takes ages and the gains are slow as hell! And what happens when you go to try them again? Do you need another 2 hour pre-stretch to get there?! Fuck that, we want to be able to pull them off whenever, wherever. Out of bed, reasonably cold, at parties and whatever else.
I worked hard on the hip flexors personally. You don’t need earth shattering hamstring flexibility to hit a front split; the limiting factor is always the hip extension in the rear leg(s). I used PNF for this but I ensured I kept a good pelvis position – posteriorly tilted as much as possible, so the stretch was actually on the psoas.
(Credit: myrehabconnection.com) – example of true hip extension; note the flat lower back.
Of course I spent a fair bit of time in the split position but in conjunction with specific drills for limiting areas.
PNF/Active Mobility/loaded stretching etc?
I’m a big fan of PNF (proprioceptive-neuromuscular-facillitation) which is basically contract-relax stretching; tensing the stretched muscle in a lengthened position to signal to the nervous system that the muscle/body is safe and secure in this position and thus, the nervous system will allow you to go there again…….this is essentially a summarised version of the process of improving flexibility.
This builds a stronger ‘mind-muscle connection’ to all the muscles involved in whatever position you’re looking to improve, as well.
Active mobility is essentially stretching where you oppose gravity. A fine example of this is standing upright on one leg and lifting the other leg up as far as you can, keeping the leg straight.
(Again, you can read more on this here: 5 Keys To LONG TERM Flexibility Gains).
This is very useful too for pulling into the stretch rather than just hoping gravity will do it for you. Emmet Louis talks about this quite extensively; working on the closing side of the joint as opposed to just lengthening a muscle. Again, a simple example of this would be in a forward fold……rather than thinking you’re stretching the hamstrings, how about trying to compress the chest to the thighs by contracting the abs, quads and hip flexors?
Doing so will relax the hamstrings, glutes and lower back. This is ‘reciprocal inhibition’ in a nutshell.
Loaded mobility work is the application of external load to help us get deeper into a stretch as well as to strengthen the target muscles across the range with more intensity. I didn’t use this much in my splits journey but have a fair bit of experience using loaded mobility for other areas – Jefferson curls for pike, loaded ‘butcher’s block’ for shoulders etc…
The Jefferson Curl – a top choice for improving forward fold mobility.
The time scale
So how long did it take? Can you really go from very average mobility to splits in 30 days? Not in my opinion. My journey took me around 8 months of pretty specific work done 1-2 times per week on average. And let’s also realise that I only have splits warmed up and on one side (my ‘bad side’ is still 2-3 inches from the floor). To have splits colder would take longer.
(‘Bad’ side – still a good 2/3 inches for flat, balls to floor contact).
It’s very easy to injure yourself on a splits journey too. When you start getting close the tendency is to force the issue but doing so can so easily tear a hamstring or strain a hip. I experienced a few niggles like these from the times I really pushed it.
Of course you want to push it and you need to push it but often when you really go for it, you can’t access anywhere near the range you managed for days and days after, due to soreness and the body trying to recover from last sessions work. It’s far more sensible to attack it from a ‘few cms further every session’ mindset.
Practical takeaways for you
- Accept getting the splits takes longer than you’d think. Forget about these supposed month long miracle journeys.
- Make sure you have some kind of foundation of flexibility before seriously considering the splits. Simple standards like a comfortable forward fold & a deep resting squat are a good starting point.
- Just practicing the splits everyday will take MUCH longer than breaking the move down into its components: hip extension, hip flexion strength, hamstring mobility & correct hip positioning.
- One side will always be better than the other, at least initially. As you get more experienced in your mobility journey you will iron out any differences.
- When you get flat for the first time, it will most likely be a good while before you get flat again. In other words, the journey has only just begun.
- Keeping advanced levels of flexibility is much easier than obtaining them in the first place. Use the new range and it will stay easier, don’t and watch it slip away.
Going forward I intend to target the middle splits as well as flat front splits on the ‘bad’ side. I will keep logs of my progress and share my journey when the time comes. A cute idea I have floating around in my head is having side splits by the end of the year……which maybe a bit ambitious but one thing’s for sure, I will be much closer than I am now.
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