How come some people can do the splits?

What is flexibility and what are the benefits of it?

When most people take up a workout regime, flexibility is usually the last thing to spring to mind – yes, our toes might be more visible to us once we’ve lost those pesky pounds, but does it really matter whether or not we can touch them?

Flexibility is much more complex than the ability to be able to drop into the perfect split at the end of your favourite Beyoncé track on a Friday night (yes, we are making assumptions about your music taste, but who doesn’t like Queen Bey after a few “medicinal” beverages?); It involves both the range of motion of your joints and the stretch in your muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Some of the many benefits of increased flexibility are:

  • improved range of motion
  • less stiffness
  • a lower chance of injury, due to greater muscle nutrient supply
  • a decrease in muscle soreness after a workout, due to an increased blood supply
  • improved posture

Increasing Flexibility: Are my muscles really getting longer, or do they just feel like they are?

There are lots of theories behind the mechanism of how we can make ourselves more flexible. Most suggest a mechanical increase in length of the stretched muscle, however, more recently, a sensory alternative theory has been proposed that suggests that any new ability to extend our muscles is really just down to the fact that they simply feel different while that are being stretched – that a long term increase in range of motion could be down to an increased ‘stretch tolerance’, which basically means that our bodies have adapted to being stretched and are better able to tolerate the discomfort of being pulled around like Play-Doh in the hands of a toddler.

What are the splits?

The splits is a move that impresses people during a broad range social interactions (not all of them, though – we wouldn’t advise pulling this one out of the bag in a crowded lift or during Sunday dinner with the in-laws). More technically, it’s the position where the legs are in line with each other and extended in opposite directions. Later on, we will be focusing on the side split, where the body is facing towards the front, upwards facing leg and the back leg is downwards facing.

Why might I struggle to do the splits?

First, you need to identify which muscles are stopping you from emulating your inner gymnast.

A lot of people focus mainly on their hamstrings and gastrocnemius (which form part of the calf muscle), however they forget about the hip flexors and external rotators. Step away from the Googles! We have some stretches for all of these bits at the end of this article in a routine you can follow (disclaimer: it’s no Macarena as far as routines go, but who needs the Macarena when you can do the splits??).

If you’ve had previous injuries to a muscle, this can lead to densification and scarring of the tissues. When this happens, these structural adhesions can take longer to adjust to the stretching and may need some manual therapy to assist in breaking them down and returning the tissue to normal. See your friendly local Osteopath for a little hands-on help with this.

Sex and age are other factors that we need to take into account too – because of varieties in bone structure, women tend to be more flexible than males, so men tend to take longer to get the results they desire, and as we mature, our muscle fibres start to adhere to each other and gradually become unyielding, so they may be less thrilled about being stretched. However, don’t lose hope – just make sure to take things easy initially and don’t be disappointed if you’re not getting results as fast as you would like, as just with strength, flexibility can be increased in any individual performing good and regular stretching. You could probably force yourself into the splits if you go at it full pelt, but we imagine you’d also enjoy being able to get up again. Probably!

Unfortunately, for the more ‘hench’ among us, big, strong muscles can actually adversely affect range of motion. The increased muscle density and mass restricts the amount that a muscle can stretch, although this is just a limitation and certainly not a complete restriction to performing the splits. Keep at it, bro/bro-ette! *insert flexing bicep emoji here*

Lastly, joint hypo-mobility can restrict the flexibility of certain parts of the body. This may be just a mild restriction in the joint which can be freed off with the help of an osteopath, or it could be due to a congenital defect, which, if you have it, you will be aware of already. There also is a condition called coxa vara, which is a deformity of the hip that is present at birth, where the angle of head and shaft of femur is less than 120 degrees, which could affect your ability to do the splits.

There is a simple test which you can perform to show you whether the structure of your joints might prevent you from being able to perform the splits:

  1. Stand beside a hip-height table and put one of your legs up straight on it
  2. Optional: If another person is in the room with you, slowly turn your head and give them an enthusiastic wink before turning your attention back to the matter at hand
  3. Rotate your body away from the leg on the table as demonstrated in the figure below. As long as you are able to maintain this position (even if you can fell a strong pull in the muscles), this shows that (with a bit of work) you should be able to perform the splits. Hurrah!
  4. Optional: If you need help, and if the person you winked at hasn’t fled the room screaming, ask them to help you out of the position you’ve just wriggled your way into

How can I become bendy enough to do the splits?

Becoming more flexible and learning how to do the splits is a gradual process that will not suddenly happen overnight. It takes perseverance, but the end results (better posture, less stiffness etc) are well worth the wait. Below are some tips on how to improve your stretching routine:

  1. Start a regular and consistent stretching routine: We would advise that you initially get checked out by a health professional if you have any concerns before starting your new stretching routine, then, when given the all clear, aim to do 10-15 minutes of stretching at least 3-4 times a week.
  2. Stay hydrated: dehydrated muscles are stiff and tight due to the lack of glide between the muscle fibre layers. Lube ‘em up as you limber up!
  3. Warm up: flexibility increases significantly when the joints and tissues are warmed up, and it also decreases the chance of straining your muscles during stretching. You can do this by jogging around the garden for 5 minutes, doing some star jumps, or if you’re really committed, join a hot yoga class so you can have a fantastic work out at the same time!
  4. Focus on your breathing: allow yourself to relax and let your breathing correspond with your stretching. You can do this by inhaling in the hold and then exhaling deeper into the stretch.
  5. Build up to holding your stretches for 50-60 seconds: It has been reported that it takes up to 50-60 seconds to activate the muscle memory to allow the muscle to remember the new required length of the muscle. Obviously if you are a beginner, then you certainly shouldn’t delve into lots of long stretches as it is something your body is not used to. Instead, start with holding the stretches for 10-20 seconds and build this up over the period of weeks or even months!
  6. Stretch slowly: proprioceptors are small sensory receptors which are located in muscle fibres, which provide information to the brain about joint angle, muscle length, and muscle tension. Slow and gradual stretching ensures that these receptors don’t trigger spasms or reflex actions which restrict flexibility.
  7. Foam roll or have a massage: it’s important to make sure that you are removing any knots that may have built up in your muscles. You can do this yourself with a foam roller, or you can visit a massage therapist to help do this for you. You can also see an osteopath to help free off any stiff joints or muscles that you may have.

What stretches can I do to achieve the splits?

Below are a set of stretches that you can work on initially before you start attempting the splits. It is essential, especially if you are a beginner, to warm up with these stretches rather than going straight into them cold! Your muscles are less likely to co-operate if they are simultaneously screaming “AGH, WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO US?!!”
For each of these stretches, hold for 10-20 seconds (working up to 50-60) and repeat 3 times on both sides.

Gastrocnemius Stretch

Place the leg to be stretched behind and lean forward, ensuring the heel is kept in contact with the floor at all times. A stretch should be felt at the back of the lower leg. A more advanced version of a calf stretch is to use a step and drop the heel down off it.

Soleus Stretch

To stretch the soleus muscle, the back leg should be unlocked and slightly bent, with the front leg being the straight one. Place the relaxed leg backwards and lean against a wall keeping the back heel down. Then trying to get the heel as close to the wall as possible, place the front forefoot against the wall and lean your hips in towards the wall. A stretch should be felt lower down nearer the ankle at the back of the leg.

Quadriceps/Psoas Stretch

Kneel on one knee (pillow underneath knee) and put one foot in front. Transfer your weight onto the front foot and push your hips forward, until you feel a stretch along the front of your hip. Make sure that your hips are square and that your front knee doesn’t go over your toe.

To level up/increase difficulty, bend back knee and hold at the ankle.

Hamstrings Stretch

Sat on the floor with either both legs together and forward, or one leg forward (as in the diagram) lean forward to reach the toes. If you can’t touch them straight away, don’t worry, give your toes a cheery wave hello and have a go at the alternate version below.

Alternate version: sat on a chair with a stool to place the leg on (you can raise the stool the more flexible you become) and stretch forward to reach the toes.

Seated Adductor Stretch

Seated stretch: Sat on the floor with legs straight in front of you, open your legs so they are about 90 degrees apart. Stretch forward, keeping the toes pointing to the ceiling.

Advanced standing stretch:

Standing with hip-height (or lower if you need) table to the side of you. Place leg on table (with the knee bent or straight) and lean towards the leg.

Piriformis Stretch

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Cross right ankle onto left knee. Grasp left thigh and bring your left knee toward your chest and hold. Repeat on the other side.

For an increased stretch, you can bring your left knee toward your opposite shoulder.

Gluteal and Hip Abductor Rotation Stretch

Sitting on floor with both legs straight out in front of you, cross one leg over the other. Slowly twist towards your bent leg, putting your hand behind you for support. Place your opposite arm on the side of your bent thigh and use it to help you twist further.

Doing the splits

Once you’ve spent 1-3 weeks stretching (depending on your initial flexibility), you can build up to trying to give the splits a go each day, but only after a stretching session. Here’s how to get yourself into the best positioning for it:

  • 80s pop culture taught us that it’s Hip to be Square, so…both the hips need to be square (heh), and facing forward, with the toes pointing in the same direction.
  • Make sure that your front knee is directly facing the sky and your back knee is facing the floor
  • Keep your core engaged and back slightly arched so that your chest is pointing forwards and slightly upwards, with your shoulders squeezed back

Good luck, go slowly, and we’ll see you on the dancefloor!

Though we might not be able to help you do the splits…

There is no reason why you should put up with discomfort when exercising and when help is at hand

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