I wish I had a simple, straightforward answer to this question like: hold your split for exactly 45 seconds then take a 60 second break and hold it again. It would make this blog post nice and short, and everyone would go away knowing exactly what to do. Unfortunately I can’t give that advice because it would be wrong and even potentially damaging, depending on where your body is with flexibility training.
The only way to truly know how long to hold your splits, or any other stretch, is to learn to listen to your body and the feedback it gives you. The body has it’s language but we are often conditioned to ignore or override its voice with the conventional, and in my opinion terrible, adages: “mind over matter” and “no pain no gain”.
Let’s go over what happens in our muscles when we stretch:
-When we first enter a stretch, our nervous system senses that the muscle is lengthening and, at a certain point, says “that’s far enough”. It sends a signal that contracts the stretched muscle to prevent it from going past the safety limit your neurons have set. This is called the Stretch Reflex.
-Various methods can be employed to convince the nervous system that it’s safe to go a little deeper: you can contract the opposing muscle, wiggle a little, gently contract and release the stretched muscle, do some deep breathing and mentally (or out loud) tell that muscle that everything is going to be ok.
-Depending on your nervous system, your experience, your body, it is possible that at some point the neurons will feel reassured and allow the muscle to lengthen a bit more. This is that lovely feeling of “sinking” into a stretch, when you feel that split get a little closer to the floor. It is that “ahhhhh” moment we love.
-As you go deeper into the stretch, at some point the muscle will lengthen to the point that the neurons get alarmed again, and the Stretch Reflex will kick in again. We have now entered the Danger Zone.
I highly caution folks against pushing your body past this second Stretch Reflex, when you feel your muscles contract against the stretch a second time. This is where injuries are most likely to occur and, in my experience, when we start to lose control of our form and control. We are also training that Stretch Reflex to go away, thus creating conditions for hypermobility and decreased muscle function at our end range. Our muscles start to lose their springiness and reactivity.
My best practice advice: when you feel your muscles contract into their second round of Stretch Reflex, come out of the stretch. Take a short break, move, feel your muscles work, jiggle them around, and then try again for 2-3 repetitions.
You will find that over time the neurons are comfortable accommodating a larger and larger range of motion without fighting back, while still retaining their functionality. This gives us the optimal mix of strength and flexibility and control/body awareness that we need for healthy, yummy, beautiful movement.
So while I acknowledge that this isn’t the simplest answer to a common question, I maintain that it is the most honest and useful one that I can offer. And if all that comes out of this is that you get better at listening to your body and respecting what it has to say then I will feel my work here is done!
For some visuals, please check out this video below. You can learn more about what to do when you are stuck in your splits progress from my previous blog post and get splits workouts from our Video Club.