When I first started training contortion, after years of dance, I thought I had some pretty badass splits. I was solidly on the floor, and oh so comfy. Then I learned the terrible truth, I was supposed to have my hip bones even with each other and not arch my back??? Oh the horror!
Once I was in a squared position, I was about ten miles from a flat split. I couldn’t even feel the stretch because I was just working so hard to keep my hips in the right position without twisting out. It sucked. In despair, I asked my coach Serchmaa why I had to square my splits anyway. Why couldn’t I just let them be open and feel good?
She told me to go ahead, but down the road I would regret it. And, as always, she was right.
Not squaring your splits may work well for performance purposes, but they are terrible for training. By not squaring my splits I opened myself up to major hip imbalances and some pretty ugly backbend problems. Then later on I had to go back to square one and suffer in those humbling square splits after all in order to make progress with my training.
Let me save you the extra time. Square your splits now, have more fun later.
What is a Square Split?
A square split means that your pelvis is in a neutral position while your legs extend directly forward, and directly backward. You know that your pelvis is in a neutral position when both of your hip bones (as well as your pubic bone) are on the same plane. If you put your hands on your hip bones, they should be even with each other.
The simpler alternative is the open split. This split is prettier for performance purposes because the pelvis rotates towards the rear leg, which makes your legs look longer and gives the illusion of deeper flexibility. It is a cheat. Performance is built on cheats, but training is not.
What is the problem with Open Splits?
The problem with open splits is that, by letting your pelvis rotate, you end up stretching only some of your hip muscles while skipping what are, for most people, the tightest part of the hip complex.
When the hips rotate they move the front hip a little bit forward, taking the stress off of the outer part of the hamstrings and outer hip. For almost everyone, these outer muscles are much tighter than the others. At the same time the back leg moves a little bit backwards (and usually the back arches too) which takes the stretch off of the deep hip flexors like the illiopsoas and the adductors.
The result is that you are stretching the muscles that are already loose and skipping the muscles that are tight. That is why it feels so good and relaxing, but it is creating an ever-increasing imbalance in your hip muscles that can result in long-term hip tightness and even injury.
This is especially dangerous if you have a fairly flexible lower back and tight quads and hips (see The Curse of the Bendy Lower Back for more info on that challenge).
How Will This Affect my Training?
In addition to creating pesky and potentially injurious hip problems, training open splits will make for some challenges with backbends.
For the majority of people, one of the most frustrating limiting factors in increasing back flexibility is actually hip flexibility. Without flexible hips, deep backbending will always be limited and your chance of developing lower back pain is much higher. Also, if you have difficulty squaring your splits you will find that your backbends will be a bit froggy.
Have you every noticed in your bridges that your knees and feet need to be far apart and tend to turn out like frog’s legs? That comes from imbalanced hips and underdeveloped squaring muscles.
Have you ever tried to get your foot to your head and instead found it hovering somewhere past your opposite ear? Also imbalanced hips.
If your hips turn out in splits, they are 100% guaranteed to turn out in backbends and it will prove to be an endless source of frustration as you attempt to progress in your training.
So what do I Do to Improve my Splits?
1. Stretch your Hamstrings in Square: When doing your hamstring stretches notice if your hip wants to rotate up and forward. Use your oblique muscles and your inner thighs to pull that hip back and down. You may notice that this creates a deeper stretch in the outside of the hamstrings, maybe even in the outer hips muscles. This is a good thing.
2. Stretch your Lunges in Square: Learning how to maintain your neutral pelvis is lunge is probably the most important step in squaring your split. The muscles you want to feel are your meat corset (the band of muscles that runs around your waist and helps you lift your body up straight), lower abs (tuck that pelvis), downstairs butt (the upper hamstrings and lower glutes that work to push the hip bone forward), and the inner thighs/hamstrings of the front leg that keep that front hip from pulling forward.
3. Develop those squaring muscles listed above so that they hold your body in place while you stretch. You should never fully relax in any of these stretches because then your body will just take the path of least resistance. In order for some muscles to stretch, others must be engaged. Those same squaring muscles are also form the foundation for a healthy backbend with no frog legs.
4. Don’t worry if you are suddenly ten miles from the floor in all your stretches. That is just part of the process. Don’t worry if you don’t feel the same satisfying stretch that you are used to. It will come. When you start stretching chronically tight muscles it may feel like a lot of work, or just unpleasant. You are correcting some old imbalances. Once that shifts, your stretches will feel better.
How Long will it Take to Get a Square Split?
People ask me this all the time and, alas, I have no way of telling you. It depends on how tight you were when you started, how well your body responds to stretching, how often you stretch, and how rigorous you are in maintaining your form while you stretch.
What I can say is this. Stretching regularly with good form yields results almost universally. Stretching with poor form will not eventually lead to good form. And of course, not stretching at all because you feel discouraged will probably not help you get flexible. Is there hope? Of course! (see Can Anyone Get More Flexible? for more on this subject.
So get out there and find the joy in the process and square those splits! Yay Muscles!