One of my finest moments last year was getting completely flat in a front split the day before my 28th birthday. At the time it served as a catalyst for more goals. It prompted me to share my experiences and findings in the post, How I Achieved A Flat Front Split As An Adult Male. That post outlined I only had a front split on one side – my good side.
It’s very common to have some marked discrepancies between sides at first and my ‘gap’ was about 3 inches, although I’ve known people with far worse ‘imbalances’ when it comes to front splits!
At the time of writing (The night of May 7th 2020) I can proudly say I touched down on my ‘bad side’ yesterday (May 6th), some 8 months or so later. While I’d love to tell you it’s been a long and arduous grind throughout the entire 8 months, the truth is different……….I actually spent much of the winter season not working on flexibility at all – and by ‘working on’, I mean where I was trying to gain range of motion. Sure, I taught my usual Pilates & Yoga classes and did some stretches dynamically in warm ups but I never really went anywhere near a split or pancake!
You could argue I took a U-turn as I actually spent large parts of the autumn/winter season heavily training the lower body with weighted moves for high volume. But doing so actually served as a wonderful experiment as I was able to see just how much flexibility I could maintain while seemingly going in the opposite direction, and training in manner conventional wisdom would tell us I’d ‘tighten up’. I covered my findings in the post, Will A Month’s Worth Of Lower Body Training Ruin Your Flexibility?
Fast forwarding to the absolute insanity of the 2020 Corona virus saga, I began working on – or at least considering working on – the front splits and other mobility goals still unticked (those fucking side splits) alongside general leg strength. As it turned out, I’ve been lucky enough to train outside with a friend of mine and this forced us away from barbells and spinally loaded lifting. Instead, we’ve worked on weighted pistol squats, single leg jumps, Nordic hamstring curls and single leg calf work – a pretty standard leg day.
In many ways this served as a nice break from all the heavier, bilateral and spinally loaded moves I’d done through winter. It was also a chance to start working on mobility with a slightly different approach to last time, which I’d like to share with you now as I believe if you’re a naturally tight male who finds gaining strength manageable but yet flexibility gains seem painstakingly impossible, then you need to tackle these high level moves differently; you need to be smarter and think outside the box. 3 sets of 60 second passive stretches and random yoga routines might get you the splits if you’re consistent for another 10 years, sure……….
Passive Vs Active Stretching – The Age Old Debate!
My opinions in 2019 were that passive stretching only takes you so far in terms of drastically overhauling your flexibility. I stand by those sentiments today more than ever as the only passive stretching I did throughout the second leg of my journey was a few tension clearing 2 minute holds, after finishing the strength based lower body moves.
The main reason for them is to just feel out the position and tell the body it was time to get into stretch mode. After that though, it was all strictly PNF/active isometric drills. Now obviously PNF incorporates passive relaxation phases but they only serve as nice breaks from the intense contractions.
For front splits my favourtie by far and away is the active long lunge that actually becomes an active front split when you get strong enough and mobile enough in it. I first heard of this drill courtesy of Emmet Louis’ Modern Methods Of Mobility Seminar which I attended 3 years ago now!
(Example of when the long lunge becomes an active front split)
Emmet endorses building up long hold times here in a similar way to Thomas Kurz’ recommendations on the horse stance for side splits. However what worked phenomenally well for me was using a 10 second on, 10 second off contract/relax approach. Relax into a passive lunge with the back knee down for 10 seconds, then lift the back knee off the ground while using the glute to pull the leg back as much as you can. And as I mentioned a moment ago, when you get real motion with this is when you naturally start ending up in an active front split quite early on.
After 2-3 sets of these I was pretty much in a full front split! What was even stranger was my active range is/was virtually the same as my passive range. I always remember Emmet telling us any less than an 20% gap in active to passive range was sub optimal for stability within the joints and structures but I was shocked to see mine catch up so much, so quickly.
And this led to a personal epiphany: by constantly observing the passive/active balance, you can forever fine tune your approach to gaining more flexibility. Where my active has caught up so well, it’s allowed me to express my full range much easier. The way forward for me now could be a little more passive work to supplement the vast gains in active range I’ve recently made. Although I do think for the majority of folk reading this, you’ll need more active work as it’s very common to see shocking discrepancies between passive range and active range in moves like splits. Women in particular tend to be worse due to their naturally higher elasticity.
Here comes another epiphany……..this time around I hit the front splits and all lower body work for that matter, in one single session, every fifth day. I took the same approach as you would to strength training; one that allows for full recovery of the area. This allows not only a clear and focused mind but also a fresh body. Back in the glory days of 2019 my schedule with regards to flexibility work was nowhere near as rigid. I’d have weeks where I’d work on splits 3 times per week and others where I’d barely hit them at all.
This time was like clockwork. Every 5th day, rain or shine, it was leg day and mobility work day. And even though my expectations weren’t exceptionally high, I found the results to be fairly linear: I’d either gain range session to session or I’d reach my max quicker, OR I’d feel less taxed – sometimes it would be a mix of all three!
With the thoughts from the last section in mind I will go forward by continuing in this fashion but with the addition of some gentle ‘limbering’ here and there. A great way to do this is to throw in some passive split holds between handstand sets or other sill based moves, especially now the weather is better and the outdoor training season has FINALLY landed.
These holds won’t be crazy long or intense, they’ll just be whatever they are on the day. If I’m sore, I’ll be gentle. If I feel good and the flexibility is there, maybe I’ll push it a bit more. I guess what I’ve just described is good old ‘auto-regulation’.
The bottom line is: when working on splits and other mobility demanding positions in the active manner I’m endorsing here, the nervous system and muscular system takes a fair beating. Therefore ample recovery is crucial. Every 5th day is a time tested frequency for intense work.
What Next? Side Splits?!
Obviously my front splits and pancake aren’t perfect by any means. My hips aren’t fully square in the splits as I’m still in need of more true hip extension, and my pancake isn’t with a flat/extended spine due to hamstring limitations/compression weakness. But at the start of last year my basic vision was to try and get all 4 major big lower body mobility markers – pancake, front splits on both sides and the mighty middle splits!
3 are ticked as of now and one remains……….THE MIDDLE SPLIT.
This is one I’m working on alongside the front split and have seen decent progress with virtually the same approach; strengthening the muscles at length, active style. Successful middle splits seems to be a battle of the mind but it’s one I know I can win, as the front splits were exactly the same some 12 months ago. Below you see my best side split to date which is about 7-8 inches from balls to floor! Interestingly, my active range here is almost the same as my passive but the exertion feels much higher than in the front split!
The goal is to have a flat side split by the end of the summer 2020!
The work continues as always……….
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