Note: Toward the end of this article, there is an update to my progress pics, with even more tips.
Visually, there doesn’t seem to be a huge improvement, but there have been A LOT of changes. I feel like I am in a completely different body when I do yoga sometimes!
Since this is a completely visual comparison… For the front splits, I tried to keep the comparison useful by setting the back foot to be near the edge of the mat with the toes tucked. And basically my “gains” are how much more the front foot can extend ahead of the mat than before, which I marked with a red line.
I think most of my gains came in the first couple months and in the last month progress felt excruciatingly slow. But then again, I also got much more in touch with how to square the hips and use that to my advantage.
Before this challenge, I could touch my toes with straight legs. After just the first two weeks, I was already able to put my hands completely flat on the floor with my legs straight. This was actually extremely rewarding because this extra pike compression is what’s needed to start practicing a press to handstand.
Early on in the challenge, I had a lot of dreams of things I could do once I achieved the splits.
The blog post about those “dreams” are right here. Some of those dreams came true:
- I am now a much more stable base in Acro-Yoga, to the point of it actually becoming useful.
- My half-moon pose feels a lot more stable and I could do sugar cane pose with both legs.
- I could do staff pose on my surf board without falling in the water.
- I could feel my legs straddling a lot more while doing cartwheels.
- I can almost bring my forearms down in lizard pose.
- I can raise my legs higher in the standing splits.
- I can do mermaid pose on BOTH sides now.
- Pigeon pose opened up dramatically.
- And a lot more STUFF!
Here are all the things I learned.
Every week, we had a check-in on reddit, and I learned a lot from others. We also had a facebook group for support, which was equally informational and motivational. Here are some of the tips I gathered throughout the challenge.
Prioritizing which splits to work on
Somewhere in the middle of the challenge I realized that it’s going to be impossible to get the pancake splits or middle splits if I was still struggling with the front splits. So I made the front splits my priority. I worked on the middle splits and pancakes only once a week. They still improved during those sessions, which is amazing. I also felt like the middle splits were too hard on the inner knee ligaments at times, so I wasn’t really crazy about pushing the limits with them frequently.
My Priority: Front Splits (with hips squared) -> Middle Splits -> Pancake Splits
Q&A: Is it bad to do open front splits? (back leg turned out)
I was not sure how important keeping the hips squared was or turning the legs out to do the “open” front splits, so I asked this contortionist the question:
Question: “I want to achieve my front splits first. And I try A LOT to square my hips. And that’s what I am always striving for and it makes the stretch nice and intense when I go deeper. Is there anything wrong with sometimes letting them be unsquared? I never turn out my back leg. I’ve never tried it actually cause I wasn’t sure if it was bad to. Is that true? I tried searching on these topics and there doesn’t seem to be a solid answer put there. Lots of conflicting opinions. I figured no one better but you would know!”
Answer: You will not injure yourself by doing a turned out split. Lots of people, including dancers and rhythmic gymnasts, only ever do turned out splits because it creates longer lines for the legs, so there are certain times that it is better to do a turned out split if that is the effect you are looking for.
The reason it is better to do a squared split when you are training is because it is a deeper and more thorough stretch of the hip and hamstring muscles. A turned out split only stretches the outside of the back hip and the inside of the front hamstring. If you want to be able to do positions like needle (back leg scale, scorpion), contortion handstand, handstand split, and front leg scale (for pole dancers cocoon or rainbow marchenko) then you need to stretch the hips fully.
If you can do a beautiful square split, you can also do a beautiful turned out split, but the reverse is not necessarily true.
So there is nothing wrong with practicing turned out splits, just be sure to train your square splits as well because that will give you a deeper stretch.
Here’s how to square the hips in the front splits
Imagine the inner hip of the front leg is going back and the inner hip of the back left going forward… so the inner hips are scissoring/hugging each other. That should square them nicely. If your belly button isn’t facing forward, your hips aren’t square. Your ability to do this will increase as you do it more often.
So… I don’t get into the splits by only extending the front foot. I start somewhere in the middle, square the hips, extend the back leg back, square the hips, extend the front leg forward, square the hips, extend the back leg back, maybe go in a back bend to open up the front hip flexors of the back leg, square the hips, try to forward fold (throat to knee; not forehead to knee) to open up the hamstrings of the front leg and keep repeating that and staying still and breathing.
Do lots of yoga to change things up
I kept trying different things. One week, all I did was a lot of yoga classes to change things up. I also tried many different videos online. Here’s something new I tried called Happy Hamstrings. On another day I also followed Esther Ekharts hip opening video which was extremely gentle and gradual and chill. It was very soothing and calming for my nervous system. Afterwards I worked on my front splits and pancake splits and got deeper than I ever could.
Keep things warm and sweat
- Close the doors/windows of the room you’re in.
- Do an intense warmup (jog/sprint/jog around the block), it helps a lot to be extremely warm.
- Wear two layers: Wear tights/athletic stretchy pants and a pair of loose pants over them. The tights act as a thermal which retains more heat and increases blood flow and relaxation.
Visualize yourself actually in the splits
Since the start of this challenge, I’ve always had trouble imagining/visualizing myself, ME, ANTO, being in the splits. I still have trouble with it, but my mind is slowly starting to paint the picture. And I’m inching along, quite literally every week.
Emmet Louis says, “This is a very important aspect that a lot of people gloss over. With the goals of changing your flexibility as an adult you’ve inhabited that body in its current form for however long. Its been programmed to move and behave a certain way when you start trying to change that you’ll encounter resistance. By beginning to believe and visualize yourself as flexible you can begin to remove that armour that has been built up and see a new you.”
Try twists such as…
Go in the middle splits. Place both hands on the floor, in the center right in front of you. And now… we go in a twist, by simply raising only one hand up to the sky (and look at that hand). Repeat the other side. Go deeper in your middle splits and keep on twistin’.
Try this twist in your front splits:
About 2 months into the challenge, I find myself able to TWIST, FORWARD BEND, BACK BEND in the front splits with much more comfort and it just feels OH SO GOOD AFTERWARDS!
Here’s a good ol’ back-bend to pry the front hip of the back-leg wide open! (Flex that glute when you do this!)
Read everyone’s splits routines
I have my own splits routine here, but there are many others that everyone should also read!
- Anthony mychals beginner front split stretching circuit
- phrakture’s mini-guide to attaining the splits (front and side)
- power splits on the rings (if you have a pair of rings, that is)
- YogaJournals “monkey god” article
- Greg Everet’s splits routine
- Tim Halls splits routine
- Isometric split progression
- This video by Sadie Nardini is still my favorite video for getting into the front splits
- A Deep Release for the Hips, Hamstrings and Lower Back with David Procyshyn
- sabetts tips and his personal story
- imaginary_douchebags tips and reflection on my progress
- For hamstring specific stretches, such as pike stretches, and whatever else: Try to bring your throat to your knees, rather than forehead to knees. Huge difference.
- Go for a vigorous bike ride or a run, really accentuate bring your knees up to get those hamstrings working… and then go for your splits stretching and you’ll find the hammies are so tired that they have no choice but to LET GO.
- Kit Laughlins “Supported bent-leg partial front splits” video (I needed 3 GIANT pillows to actually be able to have the front leg touch the pillows… and they say your front foot should be on something that could slide easily… I just wore clean socks and did it on a hardwood floor (tile) and that was slippery enough.)
- Kit laughlin’s Half-Pancake
- Standing Cross Leg Hamstring Stretch (if your hands touch the floor just grasp opposite elbows and remember, throat to knee!)
- More hamstring stretches
Happy Hip Flexors / Psoas
Couch stretch is the ultimate and will keep you busy for months (if not all year):
Go from Right Front Split to Middle to Left Front Split
Something to try (maybe you already do this) is to move from one side split to the other and back. Feels good.
Build strength in those thighs.
Everything I read (about middle splits especially) is that you need to build up the strength in your legs to sort of convince your body that it can actually do the splits. One of the reasons you reach a limit in your flexibility/stretching is because the muscle contracts to not allow yourself to go further, because it doesn’t feel it can actually control or feel safe to go further.
- Hold Horse Stance for time (what is your record?)
- Do Cossack Squats, Pistol Squats, Shrimp Squats, etc
You don’t have to stretch every single day
When I first started the challenge, I was trying to do it everyday. But I found that sometimes the inflammation or soreness was still quite high so I didn’t feel like it was a good idea to stretch again so soon. I ended up finding myself stretching vigorously only about 3-4x a week. I felt like my body needed more rest days and going everyday would burn me out way too fast, especially because I’m trying to do many sets in one session.
While in the front splits, move the ankle of your front foot clockwise and counter clockwise. Feels good.
I’ll end with funny videos of old guys doing splits
Update! I finished my second round of the 90-days splits and here is what I learned!
First, some progress pics… Photos go from March to May to September 2014
Analysis of the photos:
- Note how in the first photo, I can’t even balance unless the blocks are up on the highest position and I’m holding onto them. That was day 1 of every going in the front split position.
- At the end of the first 90-days, notice how I didn’t have to hold onto anything, I was able to balance my own bodyweight easily. I put the block underneath my front hamstring to show how close it is to the block.
- In the first two pics you could see how my back leg is literally in the same position. (“Your hip flexors look frozen” was the quote.) Any of the progress came solely due to the hamstring lengthening for that first round.
- For the second round, I worked on stretching my hip flexors constantly, and that’s why my back leg is able to be much lower to the ground thanks to these efforts. This time, to make the yoga block fit under my hamstring, I had to put on the shortest-side for it to fit. And last, but not least, instead of balancing only with my own body weight, I now have a dumbbell hoisted on my shoulder to help drive me down further and give me the DOMS.
Here’s some stuff I learned off the top of my head for the second round:
- In the first splits challenge, I gained flexibility in my hamstrings but someone pointed out, from my photos, that I didn’t gain much in my hip flexors. The exact words were, “Your flexors look frozen.” Initially I felt insulted (come on man I’ve been working hard, how could they be frozen!)… but I swallowed my pride and realized that they indeed were stuck for all 3 months in the previous round and the only improvement I had were in my hamstrings. So for this round, I focused primarily on opening up my hip flexors. I kept trying to open that hip into actual extension by way of the couch stretch over and over. Just a few days ago, I asked my brother to help sit on me (sacrum to sacrum) while in the couch stretch to help open my hips more. God damn that feels amazing. I recommend it highly.
- Somewhere along the middle of the challenge, I discovered this skandasana flow, which helped open up my middle splits, without actually having to be in the middle splits, which was good because I got knee pain from pedicabbing too much. That flow is basically like doing cossack squats, but with the heel on the ground, so it forces the hips to open even more. If this skandasana flow is too intense, just do cossack squats with the heel lifted as a warm up.
- Like I said above, I had knee pain, so that broke up my consistency and I stopped doing any stretches that hurt. I tend to be overly cautious and conservative with my progress because I never, ever, want to have a permanent injury from things that I do to better myself. (Cause then what’s the point?) So when the pain went away, I waited an extra 1-2 weeks just to be on the safe side and it took a while to get back into a good rhythm.
- When I got back into stretching for the front splits (my main focus for this challenge), I started holding a dumbbell and putting it on top of my shoulder to help drive me deeper. It worked like a charm. (Note: If you have any trouble whatsoever balancing your own bodyweight with your hands off the ground in the splits, then you’re not ready for any additional weight.)
- Here are the two best resources on the planet so far for understanding loaded progressive stretching. This videoand this video.
- Kit laughlin’s latest podcast on wellroundedathlete.net and his AMA are gold. I asked a lot of questions in the AMA, so take a look. But seriously, make the time to listen to that podcast, it may change your life (in regards to how you understanding what stretching is).
- One of the other things I started doing differently for this challenge as well, by way of a tip from another redditor was to keep the front leg bent in the front splits and go as deep as you can in the hip flexor stretch for the back leg before straightening out the front leg. This is an interesting trick and one that I am not used to doing… I have a habit of skipping that part, so thanks to that redditor whoever you are out there I can’t remember now for shaking up my “routine.”
So far, you might have noticed that I asked my brother to help push me deeper in the couch stretch and that I used a dumbbell to get deeper in my front splits. These external forces, what with partner stretching or using weights, I feel have become imperative for a strong guy like me. The amount of power my leg muscles have to resist the stretch if I only use my own bodyweight and antagonistic muscles, is insane. At this point, having someone push me deeper, I feel is not just a huge help, but necessary, because my own bodyweight isn’t enough. Note: I don’t just get pushed deeper into a stretch without thinking… I communicate with my partner and tell them when to push me deeper… I will do PNF (contract relax) style stretching to help me get deeper and with control and synchronize their push with it.