Is your goal to learn the splits?
Beyond just improving flexibility, this skill can be useful for athletes in a variety of sports – from gymnasts and cheerleaders to hockey goalies. However, learning to safely perform this movement takes a lot of practice and consistency. See below for recommended stretches and some evidence-based tips for improving your flexibility and achieving this goal.
Know your target muscles: You need adequate flexibility of your glutes and hamstrings in order for your front leg to be able to extend forward. Your hip flexors, adductors and quadriceps need to lengthen in order to achieve the position of your back limb extending away.
Hold stretches for proper duration: There is no one direct answer to the question of how long to hold a stretch. The American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendation is a stretch duration of 15-30 seconds, repeating the stretch 2-4 times.2
Commit to your flexibility program: Again, there is not a frequency of stretching that appears to provide the greatest benefit. For example, when it comes to stretching your hamstrings one study reported flexibility improves when you stretch 3-5 days per week. You can expect it to take anywhere from 3-6 weeks before you notice significant improvements.3 Interestingly, the study found that both a supine (lying down) and standing hamstrings stretch were equally effective. So choose your stretches based on what is the most comfortable for you.
Key Stretches for Hamstrings:
For the forward triangle stretch and half splits stretch (featured above) focus on keeping your spine as straight as possible. You can place yoga blocks under your hands if you are having difficulty reaching the floor. To progress the half splits stretch, try straightening your back leg. When you work on straightening your back leg you can use a yoga block or strap propped under the thigh of your front leg for more support if the stretch is too intense.
Performing hamstrings stretches in a supine position (pictured above) allows you to use the strap to help pull your leg toward you. Working toward a split in this position may be more tolerable than trying to sit in a splits on the floor.
Key Stretches for Hip Flexors and Quadriceps:
For this kneeling stretch try tucking your pelvis under you by flattening your lower back and tightening your abdominals before you lunge forwards to increase the stretch of your hip flexors (front pocket area).
You can progress the stretch by twisting through your spine and bending your back knee. This will overall increase the intensity of the stretch by adding in the quadriceps of your back leg. Bend your knee carefully with a flexed foot to avoid experiencing a hamstrings cramp.
You can further progress this stretch in front of a wall, working towards progressively bending your knee more until your heel is near your glute. Focus on keeping your hips upright.
Glutes, Hamstrings, Hip Flexors:
The pigeon pose stretch works on getting your back leg into the extended position. Since your front knee is bent it decreases the load on the hamstrings compared to a full splits.
Flexibility is a key component of several activities. When beginning a stretching program it is important to be attentive to what you are feeling in your muscles. You should expect a feeling of gentle pulling, tugging, or just general sensation during the stretch. You should not push yourself to an intensity or duration of stretch that is painful.
Some delayed onset muscle soreness would not be unusual after a stretching session. However discomfort should not persist for more than three days if you are stretching appropriately. If you have a history of injury or are recovering from an injury, consider seeing a physical therapist to safely prescribe and progress a flexibility program tailored to your individual needs.
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1. Cagno, Alessandra Di, et al. “Preexercise Static Stretching Effect on Leaping Performance in Elite Rhythmic Gymnasts.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 24, no. 8, Aug. 2010, pp. 1995–2000., doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e34811.
2. Page, Phil. “Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation.” The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, vol. 7, no. 1, Feb. 2012, pp. 109–119.
3. Decoster, Laura C et al. “Standing and Supine Hamstring Stretching Are Equally Effective.” Journal of athletic training vol. 39,4 (2004): 330-334.
4. Cheatham, Scott W et al. “The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: A systematic review.” International journal of sports physical therapy vol. 10,6 (2015): 827-38.