If you’re a bendy human, or a human trying to be bendier, you’ve probably come across splits, and splits training. We see them in performances, in classes, and they’re a great trick.
I love a good split like the next person, and I love helping folks get them safely (curious about my splits programming? Reach out to me at jj@theembodiedphyzio with the tag SPLITS and we can talk about getting you some splits specific training!)
However, I want to talk about a few of the nuts and bolts of splits, and some tips and tricks to make sure you’re getting that motion, and getting strength into that range of motion.
In PT world, we classify things into groups. How much motion does someone have? How much strength does someone have? And most importantly, how much strength do they have through a full range of motion? IE, how much motion have you got, and how much motion can you control? The bigger the difference between those two things, the more likely you are to get injured, which makes sense. It’s easy to get injured if you get yourself into a spot where you have no control.
This is where and why a lot of people hit a “wall” in splits, because “no matter how much stretching I do, I don’t make progress.”
Odds are, you’re trying to stretch into that range of motion, rather than strengthening it. This brings me to a subtle and underlying point. Not all, but many tight muscles are weak muscles. You wanna get stronger and more flexible? Strengthen yourself into your end range.
Stretching is great, and a key component of splits, but so is strengthening, it’s just that we’re so used to the vision of a Russian ballet teacher pushing our leg past our head that we forget what active splits training looks like. That’s why I’ve designed a 3 week active splits program, that’s designed to help you feel stronger in your splits, and help you take control of your own training.
So, great, we have some principles lying around here; the difference between range of motion and motion you can control, tight muscles are weak muscles.
When it comes to splits, that means stop trying to stretch your tight hip flexors, but instead thinking about actively strengthening them in those end range positions, and engaging your glutes to stabilize your pelvis at end range like this Long lunge Variation or these Heel Taps that are driven by gltue activation.
For your hamstrings, it means not only stretching them, but strengthening your hip rotators, but also strengthening your hip flexors to actively pull you deeper forward, like in this quad/hamstring drill or these straddle splits that utilize bands to put you under resistane at end range.
So where’s the safety component?
I want to talk about “square” hips, or not.
This is specificialy for front splits, where one leg is flexed forward, and the other is extended behind. When I cue “square,” what I’m speaking to is the position of the pelvis. In a muscle based split, the bones of the pelvis continue to point forward, like the headlights on a car. This forces more stretch through the muscles, and puts more load on them. This is ideal, most of the time, because muscles can recover more easily and it is their job to handle load.
However, with front splits, you will often seen the pelvis “turn out” towards the rear leg, to accommodate muscle tightness and weakness. The body is trying to achieve the position, and tweaking where it can.
The issue with this “turned out” position is that it puts more load and stretch on the hip capsule itself. The hip capsule is the dense fibrous tissue that wraps around a joint, and help keeps the bones in place. Capsular tissue isn’t contractile like muscle, which means it can’t “Squeeze” to hold you hip and as you stretch it, it doesn’t necessarily come back either. IE, you stretch it too much, that change might become permanents. That could lead to permanent hip instability, pinching, pain, and damage to other tissues in the socket.
Which is why I always coach people to stay with square hips.
Now, there’s some flexibility (hah) around this.
If you are underload in your split, as if you’re in the air with wraps around both ankles, I absolutely want your hips square, because that’s. a lot of load and I want muscle activation to help you control it.
But an active split in the air, while you’re inverted? Feel free to open up some. A split while you’re in a jump across the stage? Feel free to open up, as long as you can control your landing on that front leg. This is because there’s far less load going through the tissue, and it’s a shorter moment.
The simplest rule; if there’s weight on it, I want it square, because I want your muscles to be takin the load, not the capsule, because they have a better change of controlling the motion, and recovering from it.