In response to my “Help Me Help You” email (which you can subscribe to on the home page of this website), where I ask those of you conscientiously working through your own growth process to let me know where you could use support, Katja replied “front splits.”
I get so few responses to that letter, that I want to treat those I receive with substantial care.
So here we are.
Before I break down core elements of the front splits, and break down a few of Katja’s own observations and struggles (so that we can all learn from them), I’ll quickly refer you to two other letters, if you’re serious about making similar gains.
In You're as Young as Your Spine is Flexible I cover the three most essential stretches FOR ALL OF US, why they matter, how to do them, and why they’re the key to youth as we age. I refer you here because the front splits is merely a combination and greater test of range of two of the three most vital stretches. Understanding and practicing them WILL unlock the splits.
Second, in Long-Hold Stretching: Old-School Flexibility Training Did Something Right I cover essential principles of flexibility training - what flexibility is, whether it’s inhibition in YOUR body is the consequence of muscular tension or fascial molding, the benefits and curses of the stretch reflex, and breathwork that facilitates length and release in the body.
I’m not going to cover the same content here, so I highly recommend reading those if they peak your interest. Collectively, these three letters (the two above and the one to follow) should get you from stiff to elite flexibility in record time. Now, to Katja’s concerns:
- Quite flexible in some areas… -can put feet behind head
-can easily touch the floor in forward bend
- Working on the splits feels somewhat rough tough. As if trying to stretch metal chains in the hip flexor and especially ham strings.
- Running seems to make them more tense.
I’m not a fan of blind assessments, as they pail in comparison to what I can do when in the room with someone (or with video samples), but there are patterns here we can speculate from, and that are highly relevant for all of us. In a way, not having visual diagnostics is a great reason to address each possible issue, so that you, the reader, can cross reference with your own stuck points, and achieve the front splits in 30 days or less.
Let’s break them down.
Strain May Distributed Improperly | Alignment Concerns
Katja’s areas of flexibility are inconsistent with her areas of struggle, meaning she ought not to have her particular front splits challenges, given her capability in other stretches. If she can both put feet behind head AND do a full forward bend, yet cannot access the front splits, it screams compensation from secondary muscles in key exercises.
Some people compensate for tightness by improving (or relying on) length in contiguous muscles. My guess is she’s highly flexible in the lower and mid back, with support from flexibility in her glutes, and because of that, she’s accessing advanced stretches by putting the strain/stretch in those areas that bend easier, rather than the focal points.
This is something we all must be aware of, and all fall victim to.
The forward bend, for example, ought to be accessed first through reaching one’s limit in the hamstrings and glutes, maintaining neutral spine until max stretch is attained throughout the lower body. If one folds the torso, or bends the lower back too soon, the stretch/strain distributes, rather than localizing in the hamstrings and other lower body muscles in the rear train.
Metal Chains and Such
Tension in the hips and hamstrings together is generally the consequence of one movement (or lack thereof) pattern - sitting. This may or may not be the case here, but it’s something we should all be aware of. Sitting for hours a day places the hip flexors and hamstrings both in a shortened position. Doing this for decades will mold soft tissue (fascia) to accommodate this pattern, and make movement through greater ranges (i.e. the front splits) incredibly painful, with the feeling you’re pulling against immovable chains. Take note of the tip below on “extension before compression,” to fix this.
When Movement Exacerbates Tension
The range in one’s running/jogging stride is minuscule compared to the front splits, but… ITS THE SAME MOVEMENT PATTERN. The longer one’s stride becomes, the greater the stretch in the hip flexor during extension when pushing off the ground, and the greater the stretch in the hamstrings during extension when reaching for the next step. At an an extreme, this becomes a long lunge… or the front splits.
Intense sprinting can potentially trigger the stretch reflex and cause these muscles to seize as one’s stride tests max dynamic length (imagine a hurdler fully extending their front leg as they clear the hurdle), but that’s unlikely what we’re witnessing here.
Most of us have very limited strides, and so tension stemming from the stretch reflex is highly unlikely. What’s more likely is a tightening to preserve the integrity of her structure… stemming from weakness in the squat vector (which can be corrected with weighted squats and lunges in the 5-8 rep range for several sets, two to three times a week).
Steady state running should elicit the opposite effect - a warming and loosening of the joints and muscles throughout the lower body. If tension is the byproduct, there are two possibilities - it’s not a well defined / prepared movement pattern (she doesn’t run often), or she’s weak in those targeted muscles. This can be tested and counteracted from more frequent, but shorter running sessions, and/or hitting the primary strength exercises just mentioned a couple days a week.
How She, and YOU, Can Unlock the Front Splits in 30 Days or Less
Stop Stretching… Playfully Explore Your Range Instead
Your nervous system knows the difference between the work you have to do, and the work you get to do. The moment stretching became a chore, was the moment you began working against your own best interest.
While your mind says 'stretch,' your nervous system screams 'self-preserve,' and it does so by tightening the muscles you're trying to stretch.
Stretching shouldn’t be as it sounds. You’re not actually pulling the body in forceful manner. Rather, you’re mentally connecting with points of tension that inhibit length, and you’re releasing them. This takes time and repetition to develop, but it’s the defining trait of yogis and martial artists who drop down comfortably into the splits, versus those who laboriously bail out of painful stretches.
Consider flexibility training an opportunity to test your edges without expectation. To explore limitations in range, pain points, and to establish a new relationship with your body. This does two things - it makes a game of something otherwise tedious and perfunctory, giving it new life, and it signals to your nervous system that you’re under no threat of injury, and therefore giving no signals that tension is needed for self preservation.
The consequence? Deepening states of mind-body relaxation.
Strength at Length
I felt pretty old earlier this year when I referenced Van Damme to a younger client, only to hear, “Who’s that?” It truly took all my willpower not to scream, "He's one of the greatest heroes in modern history for crying out loud. In the 20th century there was Gandhi, there was Martin Luther King Junior, there was the guy who put Woodstock together, and there was Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport. You need to get with the program."
But I digress... for fear of truly owning my age, I’ll direct all of you to Van Damme too.
Strength at length not only fortifies joints through a full range of motion, it also signals to your nervous system that those ranges are in no risk of exceeding structural integrity, of straining or tearing muscles, or in some cases, breaking bones and damaging soft tissue within joints.
Strength at length training also has a miraculous way of removing the need for stretching altogether, as stretching itself becomes an act of strength training, at progressive lengths and depths.
An example, and highly recommended practice, is the knees-over-toes lunge. For decades trainees were cautioned against this type of exercise, because it puts the knee in a mechanically disadvantaged position, and, many assumed, placed soft tissue in the joint under increasing demands that would lead to injury. And yet…
And yet it seems the only way to truly fortify the integrity of the knee, and at the same time, it molds strength and length into the rear hip flexor. One doesn’t need to add much weight to this practice, and in fact should start with body weight only, until full range is accessed comfortably.
Another example is the Jefferson Curl, which is essentially the forward bend with added weight, exited with a rolling motion that articulates the spine one vertebrae at a time. This too is a discouraged movement by many, as it breaks a cardinal rule of fitness - neutral spine - but as I discussed in There Are No Straight Lines in Nature | On Neutral Spine, Functional Fitness, and Athletic Performance,capacity and function are often at cross purposes at higher levels of training.
The Jefferson Curl, however, has been used by gymnasts for generations to build superhuman strength and mobility.
These two exercises - the long lunge and the forward bend, weighted or otherwise, comprise all preparation needed for the front splits, addressing the hip flexors and the hamstrings. These are highly recommended practices regardless of whether the front splits are your end goal. But assuming they ARE your target, another variant of strength at length is the integration of both of the principles just mentioned - playful exploration and strength-at-length. Enter proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.
PNF Stretching | Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
PNF stretching is a technical way of saying stretch-and-hold, or perhaps more appropriately - relax, resist, relax. Shame they didn’t just call it that, but such is science.
Similarly to strength-at-length training, PNF stretching includes muscular contraction in the greatest range of motion, but rather moving dynamically back into a neutral position, the contraction/position is held statically while tension/resistance is applied in the prime movers being stretched.
This is incredibly beneficial to your regime, and in many cases, can shortcut the path to full front splits dramatically because it does two key things - it improves the strength of the muscles being stretched, thereby molding that range into a safe, functional movement pattern, and it also signals a safe range of motion to your nervous system - which counteracts the risk of unconscious ‘seizing’, or the stretch reflex.
Some people make a mess of this, and go too deep and squeeze too hard. Bring the spirit of play to this as well, and use this method to assist in exploring range.
Go to a depth in the splits that is mildly uncomfortable, BUT NOT PAINFUL. Hold for a few seconds and pay attention to points of resistance. Then contract relevant muscles by removing the support of your hands (within reason) and resisting gravity, for about ten seconds. Upon successive relaxation, sink deeper into the stretch in passive manner, supported by your hands as needed.
Several rounds of this should design deeper first attempts, followed by much deeper sinking post-contraction. It doesn’t need to be grueling work. And is best served with a mindset of curiosity and play.
Front Splits Training Tips:
Warm the body before stretching
Walking in the heat, relaxing in a hot sauna, or jogging for 10 to 20 minutes is more than enough to prime the body for the front splits. With growing mind-muscle connection cold stretching is not only acceptable, it’s recommended. But at early stages, stack the deck in your favor, and warm up.
Elevate the hands | Maintain neutral spine
This one is critical. Similar to the forward bend, max length with neutral spine should be accessed before the lower back rounds into full fold. The problem with this stretch is that the ideal way of training - sinking from standing into the full splits - places a lot of load on the muscles being stretched due to sinking body weight, which can often lead to an unconscious tightening of the muscles being stretched.
It's also often exacerbated if one holds themself up with hands placed on the ground, which guarantees a rounding of the back too early. The last thing you want is for your nervous system to perceive threat, and to work against you. That’s what a bent lower back will do.
Avoid this by holding yourself up between two chairs or yoga blocks, maintaining a straight back, thereby not adding further, unnecessary strain on the front hamstring… until you’re all the way down. And then you're ready to fold.
Square your hips!
Everyone cheats this exercise by opening the back hip and placing the legs / feet on a straight line. That’s not a true front split. It’s far better to take your time, be honest with your length, and work from square hips and shoulders. This makes the stretch far harder, but it is the stretch.
Imagine standing tall with feet under your hips. Now take the longest possible step without opening your hips or altering the lines your feet are on when standing, just follow them forward (and backward). That’s your true alignment for the stretch. Don’t cheat!
Test your range playfully, not aggressively
We’ve covered that above. Enjoy your damn self.
Extend before you compress
In all stretches, one should move away from the joint that’s hinging (that leads to muscular stretch) before compressing it. Creating space in the joint protects the joint, and it places strain in the region you’re trying to target.
In the forward bend, this means standing as tall as possibly, and rather than folding down initially, moving your torso up and away from your hips, then extending forward and away, and only when the limits of hamstring / glute / calf flexibility are reached, folding fully.
In the front splits, this means extending that front foot as far away from the rear as possible, before placing your weight fully and dropping down into it. Imagine someone pulling one foot forward and one foot back, creating the space for your hips to drop down effortlessly.
This requires practice and feel to master, but it makes a dramatic difference.
Another of those unconscious signals in the mind-body that either elicits relaxation or the fight-flight response. As best you can, breathe continuously and comfortably from the lower abdomen. On those occasional hard pushes, it’s ok to implement more forceful breathing, but again, refrain from holding it.
Prime the hip flexors and hamstrings individually
Use the long lunge and the forward bend to prime the body for the full front splits. These stretches are easier to access with less load (bodyweight), and they’re prime targets for strength-at-length training.
Perform multiple front splits sets
Starting from very short, modest depth, to longer holds at max depth in final sets, this allows your body to lengthen naturally, and it makes the experience much more enjoyable. 3-5 sets is an ideal target, with the occasional 5-8 sets when you sense breakthroughs are near.
Practice several days per week
This should go without saying - if you want to be good at something, you actually have to do that thing. And stretching is no different. With more frequent sessions you’ll notice longer lasting impact from each session BEYOND THE SESSION, as well as faster mind-muscle connection and accessing of max range within each session. Consistency matters.
So, are you long, and strong, and down to get the friction on?
If so, I'll direct you HERE.But if not, I see only two options:
You rise at dawn every morning for a year and listen to Sir Mix-a-Lot... or you join the Spring Tribe of The Weightlessness Process, and we sort you out with expert support, applied science, and life changing process. Choose wisely!