August 23rd 2019 was the day I experienced the surreal sensation of sitting in the front splits with my back thigh and front hamstring sitting flush with the ground, for the first time in my life. I’d got the front splits, a goal of mine since the beginning of 2019.
The significance of the day was strong as my birthday is the 24th of August. It was almost like a gift to myself, but a meaningful gift. The feeling of personal achievement was awesome and has never left my memory. So much so that even from that day on, I fantasised about what I could do this year.
Back then, one whole year ago now, I still thought about how cool it would be to have a similar story with the side splits! I was far away then and I know all too well how long genuine mobility adaptations take………so a year seemed sensible and fitting.
As is common, I lost sight of mobility goals for a while – pretty much for the whole of the winter season – as I just didn’t want to work on these moves in busy gyms. I have always enjoyed being outdoors when it comes to working on mobility.
Nevertheless, my overall lower body mobility never declined all that much, thankfully. And come the end of winter/start of spring, I was forced outdoors thanks to the current worldwide pandemic situation, which suited me fine as I’ve got a rich history with outdoor training.
And as I documented in my post on getting flat on both sides in the front split, I’d added in mobility work to compliment the calisthenics orientated lower body moves I was doing. Gradually the side split was becoming more of the focus and more realistic as the weeks of training it accumulated.
Methods – approach, frequency & rate of progress
For the entirety of my resurrected (volume 2/2020 edition) mobility journey I worked on various mobility drills every 5th day. On some incredibly extreme and weird occasions I might have gone 6 days between lower body sessions, but every 5th day was a rock solid overall average.
Doing so allows full recovery which in turn allows you to use enough intensity within the exercises designed to improve the middle split.
As regular readers will know, I don’t care very much for pure passive stretching so accordingly, the only real passive work I did on the middle split itself was a 2 minute hold AFTER the main strength work for the lower body was complete (single leg jumps, weighted pistols, Nordic curls etc etc).
For a while I used PNF with the classic, 10 sec relax, 10 sec contract approach. Then after 12 weeks plus of this, I switched it up to a more repetition based approach. While the PNF worked well initially, I found past a certain point it became very erratic; some days were easy and range was there, other days I was just stuck at a resting level and wouldn’t budge.
Real world comparisons of the 2 methods –
2 x PNF sets (3 x 10 sec relax, 10 sec contract + 30 sec relax into new range) on the butterfly/’Tailor’s pose’
2-3 x PNF sets (exact protocol as above) on the pancake
3 x PNF sets (again, same protocol as the first 2) on the middle split itself
The more recent REP BASED approach…….
A1) Tailor’s Pose/Butterfly x 5-8 reps (5 sec active bottom contraction on each rep)
A2) Horse Stance Hold/Reps x 30-90 sec/ 10 reps (3 sec active pause at bottom of each rep & 10 sec hold on last rep)
A3) Pancake Good Morning x 10 reps + 10 sec active hold on last rep
Repeat for 3 rounds.
Sometimes on the horse squat work I would slide out to a middle split after the last rep and hold. And I varied between long holds in the squat and reps with weight. Needless to say, the holds are far more mentally torturing than the reps.
Rate of progress?
I found the middle split to be a bit more steady and slow than the front split. With the front split I found it would vary pretty widely. Some days I would get flat from nowhere and other days I’d be nowhere near touch down. Whereas with the middle split I didn’t notice any wild swings outside of an expected bell curve.
There were 2 moments that stand out in memory as milestones, if you will. One was when I managed to get my thighs to the parallette as you can see below……….
Which is still a good 5 inches away from the coveted ‘balls-to-floor’ landing. Prior to this I’d only ever really managed to hang out in the 6-8 inches from touchdown neighborhood.
The other time was of course, as the sun slipped below the horizon on the evening of the August 23rd 2020. This time I worked my way down to flat for a few seconds! The discomfort was far greater than the front splits as even with my poker face, I couldn’t pose.
First the calves touch the floor which is surreal in itself, then the thighs start touching and that’s when you know shit has just got real.
Interestingly, the commonality between the 2 events was the method that led me to getting new ranges each time aka my secret weapon………
Credit goes to the genius himself, Mr Emmet Louis, for this movement. It’s essentially a side split entry from a horse stance/squat. You use the horse squat to set the hip mechanics in place, then slide the legs out to your best split. The idea is not to go crazy long on the eventual hold but more to repeat the sensation of pulling the legs apart and feeling the side split position.
I used this at the end of the tri-sets I outlined earlier for anywhere up to 10 or so repeats. And it came with great success! It bought me range I’d never accessed before on both occasions – and pretty drastically.
The side splits are iconic thanks to the likes of Van Damme and with that often comes limiting self beliefs. Kit Laughlin talks a lot about the difference between those who can do the middle splits and those who can’t being simple recognition of the position and sheer fear of such a position.
Obviously it’s not as cut and dry as that but many of you will believe the position is flat out impossible for you, unless you were a gymnast in your youth or are ‘naturally flexible’.
I won’t bore you with my story again but as you can read in my front splits posts, I was never ever naturally flexible and I’m not even pliable to any real degree anywhere. If you lay me on a physio table and push me into passive stretches you’ll be met with more muscle tone than the average person for sure.
This is why there’s so much time involved for an endeavor such as this. You need to have very good muscle control and experience with stretching generally before having any real shot at pulling such a feat off. All the months of glute and hip drills armed me with a rock solid mind muscle connection with the glutes and AB/AD-ductors.
Controlling your breath and not panicking is key here too, as unless your flexibility is god like, you’ll have to tune into the right sensations of what your legs and muscles should be doing. For me it was consciously allowing my pelvis to drop while actively pulling my legs apart with the glutes, while trying to maintain an anterior tilt at the pelvis.
Then it’s a game of ’embracing the suck’ as Tom Merrick says. It really depends how you’re wired, too. I’ve always been quite psychotic in that regard and love being backed into a corner – even if in my own head and thoughts. The ‘deadline’ brought the best out in me and I patiently pushed further and further, but I was also at peace with the idea of not getting it.
That calm and indifferent state of mind is crucial.
A middle split success breakdown
While there are a plethora of possible roadblocks to the middle splits, I’ll do my best to simplify things into 3 general categories based off my experience.
1. Short adductor length
This is essentially your tailor’s pose/butterfly range. It’s generally a decent prerequisite to proper side split training. As I flattened mine out I did find the split not only became deeper but easier to access and hold for longer. That said, I wasn’t blessed with a naturally good butterfly compared to some, and still managed a pretty low middle split without addressing this restriction.
This pose displays the mobility/looseness of your short adductors – right up close to the groin. I’ll spare you all the anatomy this time!
2. Closing side of the joint/glute medius/ABduction strength
In order for your legs to be fully apart as they need to be in a side split, the hip AB-ductors have to be able to maximally shorten/contract. Otherwise you’ll just experience an unbearable cramping where the limitation will shift from the length of the AD-ductors to the strength of your AB-ductors – namely the glute medius.
This is where diligence in all the aforementioned drills really pays off. The contractions of the glutes and the active conscious intent to PULL THE LEGS APART really makes or breaks it.
A great drill for this is the ‘pissing dog’ as coined by Emmet Louis once again. Which is essentially an advanced spin on the classic quadruped bent knee hip abduction exercise; only with this one you’re keeping the leg STRAIGHT.
I used this on the day of my touchdown as I began experiencing that very same sensation………being limited by my glutes’ ability to shorten. Some 10 sec active contractions here made all the difference as you can literally carry the sensation straight over to the middle split itself!
3. Long adductor length
This section encompasses all moves and stretches involving a straight leg and focuses less on the short adductors near the groin, and more on the adductors themselves, spanning the whole thigh.
What’s interesting here is you’ll see people with amazing butterfly mobility but they’ll still be a good way from the split itself. This is a pretty good diagnosis that the long addcutors need more work or focus.
This was an area I was always naturally decent in. I could abduct my leg (or legs) out pretty far, especially with a push while having them straight but the same cannot be said for the seated bent knee versions (tailor’s pose/butterfly). So it’s worth using these 3 as a rough assessment. Quite often one will be lacking compared to the other. It’s not uncommon for the activation of the glute medius to be the limiting factor for many.
So, what’s next?!
I’ve been asked this quite a bit on Instagram since sharing my moment of success. Obviously I’ve only touched down once in my life so before getting cute with grandiose ambitions, I think it’s wise to simply solidify and improve the consistency within the pose itself.
I will keep training the move as if I haven’t got the move because realistically, I can’t wholeheartedly claim it when I’ve done it once. Although it was still an amazing moment.
I would love to make my middle split like my front split; basically be able to hit it on a decent day with a general warm up. That would make me plenty content over the next few months. Then after that maybe I’ll play with some nice active stunts/drills, subject to how strong I can become in the position. Although for now, JujiMufu and Van Damme have nothing to worry about!
What will be next year’s pre birthday milestone? Well I’ll be 30 then so it will be just that, a milestone. The idea I have now is to be able to do a clean 90 degree handstand push up, which for me is like moving mountains as anyone who knows me knows I’m naturally very poor with overhead strength.
Thanks so much for reading and I hope this inspires you to push for things that may seem completely out of reach right now………
Visualise, plan, execute and stay consistent. Let the rest happen.
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