7 Core Principles To Get You Into The Splits
If you’re here, most likely you have already been trying to achieve the splits and it’s just not working. The really good news is that there is plenty you can do about that.
Most likely you’re following old stretching techniques that can work fantastically for kids and the lucky few who are just ‘naturals’. There is no such thing as a flexibility ‘natural’. No matter what your age or fitness level and no matter how many times you have tried and failed to get into the splits in the past, if you do the right kind of stretching, you will see the right kind of results.
Following these 7 core principles for improved flexibility will have you busting into new levels non-stop.
Make sure you make it all the way to the bottom for your action plan to put these principles into practice.
1. Mix Up Your Stretching Routine
Most likely you have your stretching routine that stays the same most days. This is likely because you learned how to stretch from your martial arts club, sports team, dance academy etc… when you were young and never really questioned whether or not they were effective for gaining flexibility.
So, you probably have a routine that focuses on the main muscle groups that you have been using for warm ups and cool downs. Maybe they have been effective, but if they had been truly effective, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Don’t worry - your routine is fine. In fact, many of the stretches you do are probably great. However, the problem with a routine is that things get stale. Imagine doing your same stretching routine every day for the next 6 months… Now snap out of it!
It’s time to start mixing your routine up. There are countless ways to stretch each muscle group. Each time you add a new stretch into your routine or change it up a bit, it forces you to focus on the stretch. No longer are you simply going through motions, but your stretching has become a truly active and engaging part of your workout.
2. Time Doesn't Matter When It Comes To Stretching
You might have come here hoping to find the answer to the magical question: ‘How long should I hold a stretch for?’ – You’re not going to find that answer here. Why not? It’s because you’re asking the wrong question.
The question you want to be asking is: ‘How do I know my stretch has been effective?’
Now we can start delve into how to stretch. You never want to stretch by an external, arbitrary time source. Is it 30 seconds? 1 minute? 90 seconds? Who cares? Everyone’s body is different and because stretching is such a mental game (see below), you need to start getting in tune with your own body.
Here’s how long you should hold your stretch… Wait for it… As long as your body is still rejecting the stretch – by this I mean shaking – intense tightness – stretching pain (not sharp pain – see below) – Then you should hold the stretch longer. You want to reach the point where your body is able to relax. At this point, your muscles will loosen up and you will feel the tight feeling begin to disappear. If you are stretching too far, it may take a long time for the muscle to relax. Take it incrementally (a splits ready body isn’t built in a day).
3. Mind Truly Is Over Matter
Stretching is easy… if you can tune your mind in to it that is. You are going to need to stop struggling against the stretch. Stop trying to force your way into positions. Pretty much all of us (that includes you) have perfectly long enough muscles and proper bone structure to allow us to sit in the splits no problem. So why can’t we all just plop down onto the ground?
Our mind controls our muscles. Try this now. Squeeze your hand tight and then relax it completely. Easy peasy. Your mind told your muscles to tighten up and loosen. The same can be achieved when stretching.
For ways to actively achieve this without being a Jedi, go down to point 5 on this list!
4. Never Give Up - But Taking A Break Could Be What You Need
What on earth am I talking about? Well, we should break this down into two parts:
Never Give Up: Sounds obvious right? Start nodding your head here. Chances are, this sounds like a familiar pattern to you.
- Have a brilliant plan to get insanely flexible!
- Have a goal to stretch every day
- Make some good initial progress
- Become frustrated by a lack of obvious progress.
- Start putting in less effort during your stretching sessions.
- Stretch less and less
- Make no progress
By giving up I don’t mean you stop stretching altogether. Giving up in this context simply means not taking active steps to reach your flexibility potential. So, giving up may mean that you are still stretching every day, but you’ve stopped seeing gains and you’re simply going through the motions.
It is okay to “give up”, but only for a short while. When is it okay to stop pushing yourself?
You have lost all motivation – Perhaps you need to take a week and reconsider your priorities. Is achieving the splits really that important to you? If the answer is no, then your usual cool down routine is probably sufficient.
You have hit a brick wall – Your gains stop but you’re still trying to push hard. It is absolutely fine to give your body and mind a little rest, re-evaluate your routine and attack it again with renewed enthusiasm. Sometimes, all you need is a break to push on through to the next level. Try not to leave it longer than a week.
Injury – Sometimes this is just unavoidable. However, if you’re getting injured because of your stretching, you should probably stop for a few days and re-evaluate your routine and figure out why you are injured. Chances are it is because you’re not listening to your body. How do you listen to your body? Read on my friend…
So how can you re-evaluate your stretching routine and get back in the game? Check out points 6 and 7. We’ve got your back here.
This is incredibly sound advice, so don’t skip this section. Understanding your body means keeping actively focused when you are stretching. Always try to listen to your entire body and feel what is happening to each and every part of you while you’re stretching.
Ways to do this include:
- Controlling Your Breath - This is an incredibly simple idea but one of the most important for your stretching. Try this now. Go down into the splits as far as you can. As it gets tighter and you reach your maximum range of motion you will probably find that your breathing gets shallower. This leads, believe it or not, to increased tension, tightness and it puts you firmly in the zone of fighting to reach the stretch. Remember point 3 – you want to relax as much as possible. Breathing is the best way to trick your brain into relaxation. You must pay attention to your breath the entire time. You will notice that when you are at your maximum, if you start to breath deeply and evenly (think 3 seconds and 7 seconds out) you will be able to go a little deeper into your stretch. This is supercharged when you use point 3 and actively tell yourself to relax and that the stretch is completely easy.
- Think About How You Are Stretching - This again seems obvious but try this – sit down on the ground and perform a hamstring stretch by reach out to touch your toes. Go as far as you can. If you are quite flexible, you might have your head on your knee while holding onto your foot
- Understand Good And Bad Pain - I touched on this in point 1 but it is so important that is worth repeating. You need to start to feel what separates ideal stretching pain from dangerous pain. It is different for everyone so take the following as a good indication.
Ideal Stretching Pain is not actually pain at all. It can be somewhat uncomfortable but after the first couple of weeks (where your muscles may be in a bit of shock) you should not be experiencing any actual pain. There can be the feeling of the muscles pulling tight (until they relax – see point 3) but the discomfort should be consistent throughout the muscle and then ease off as the muscle relaxes.
Dangerous Stretching Pain is sharp and located usually in one part of the stretched muscle. To know when it might happen, look for some warning signs. These include:
- Your muscles start shaking.
- You are unable to get your mind and muscles to relax, even through deep breathing.
- Your stretched muscle starts to give way. It may feel like it might start ‘slipping’.
- Your tendons and ligaments begin to hurt at one end of your muscle.
6. Strength, Strength and more STRENGTH!
It may seem strange to think that building strength could be essential for great flexibility. When you think of strength, you might have a guy like Arnold Schwarzenegger pop into your mind. He doesn’t seem very flexible does he? Well, that’s not the sort of strength I’m talking about.
We want strength in extended positions. This will help you bust through plateaus like nothing else. You’re probably thinking that you are strong. Perhaps you have fairly well developed muscles in your legs, you can kick hard, jump high, run quickly etc… However, try this little test.
Stand and perform a normal jump. Squat down, pause and then jump. Well done. Now, get into a side split position. Go only as far as you can without losing stability and having to put your hands on the ground to stabilize yourself. Now, try to jump again. Chances are you didn’t move at all. Why not? It’s because your muscles are not strong in that extended position. You need to start building that strength and keep building that strength.
How to build strength? There are a number of ways you can do this. These include:
- Isometric holds with and without weights
You’re about to do an isometric strength exercise for the side splits. This particular example is not hugely efficient but it will show the principle in action. Get into your side split position. Again, do not go far enough that you need to hold onto something. You may need to hold something to begin with to get into the position. Now you’re there, take your hands away and only support your weight with the stretched muscles. Squeeze your legs against the ground so that the stretched muscles are completely contracted. You want the muscles that are stretched to be supporting your weight. Hold that for as long as possible. Congratulations! You have just improved your strength in that range of motion.
Isometrics are a fantastic way to keep building your strength. Using these will prevent flexibility plateaus, help you to improve your flexibility faster, keep you safe and stable and importantly, they will give you functional flexibility (what’s the point of being able to get down into the splits without being able to get back up?)
To give your isometrics a boost, you can use weights. Be careful though as weights can cause injury if you don’t protect your joints, especially your knees. Remember point 5 – listen to your body.
- Dynamic strength building with and without weights - You can also build strength while moving the muscle through its range of motion. Here you’re going to do a dynamic strength building exercise. Get a skipping rope if you have one, or any piece of rope about the same length. A towel should work as well. Lie on your back with your body straight. Loop the rope / towel around one of your feet. Pull the rope so that your leg comes up (keep it straight). Now, you are going to want to contract your hamstrings to lower your foot back to the ground. While you do this, pull on the rope to provide resistance against the movement. You will need to actively push your foot to the ground using the muscles that are in an extended range of motion. Keep the hamstring contracted and pull the rope so that your leg comes back up again and repeat.
This is an example of dynamic strength building and will strengthen the muscles as they are moving throughout a range of motion.
There are many examples of isometric stretching and dynamic strength building. These are only two. Keep reading on for some great resources you can get your hands on to take your flexibility to the next level.
7. Get Modern With Your Flexibility Program
Following advanced stretching methods means faster progress, fewer to no plateaus and means you will actually reach your goal of getting into the splits!
Out with the old and in with the new. You’re going to want to get used to the terms isometric, PNF and dynamic stretching. You now already know all about isometric and dynamic strength building. But what on earth is PNF?
PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. Don’t let the fancy name fool you. It is simply a combination of isometric stretching (as you can see above) and relaxation. You’re going to perform a PNF stretch right now. Put your leg up on a bar. Any height will do for now. Bend at the waist (not the upper back) and go as far as you can. When you have reached your maximum, push against the stretch with your raised leg. This is a normal isometric stretch. You are pushing as hard as you can with your stretched muscles against the ground. After 20 seconds, stop pushing and relax. Now you will be able to bend further. As if by magic, you are now more flexible. This can be repeated until you feel you have reached your limit.
Just be careful not to perform this too often. Usually once every second day is fine. If you perform PNF stretching every day you increase your risk of injuring yourself.
What Can You Do Now?
At this point, you’re probably scrambling to make an action plan out of all of these points. One program that incorporates modern flexibility methods and a proper daily action plan is GMB’s focused flexibility. We thoroughly recommend picking up focused flexibility to kickstart your splits training. It will give you a personalized flexibility system that you can use before, during or after coming to train with us here at the Middle Kingdom. We’ve used their methods personally to great success and it can be used in conjunction with all of the principles listed here. You can get focused flexibility here: Focused Flexibility.