Tag: stretching

What is the Difference Between a Straddle Split and a Middle Split?

The straddle split and the middle split are similar, and there can be some confusion between the two. However the relationship with gravity makes these two splits feel very different, especially for newer benders. Knowing the difference is very important for ensuring proper form and developing the strength, flexibility, and control in your lower body.

The primary difference is in the position of the pelvic bones. Pay attention to the alignment of those bones and you will know whether you are in a straddle or a middle split.

The Straddle Split

In a straddle split, the pelvis is in “anatomical” position. This means it is aligned as if you were standing up, with the three bones in the front of the pelvis—the hip bones and the pubic bone (anterior superior iliac spine and pubis)—facing forwards.

The bones at the base of the pelvis are on the floor. These “sit bones” (ischium if you want to get formal about it) take the weight of your body so that you are not supporting yourself with your legs.

The legs move apart to the extent that they are able. If your straddle has the shape of a small slice of pizza or if your feet are so far apart that they are behind your hips, it’s still a straddle.

It is also still a straddle split if you are leaning forward. That means that if you start to lean forward and the only way that you can get your chest towards the floor is by allowing your sit bones to come up off the floor, you are losing your form. Wherever you move your torso, you want to have the strength and control to keep that pelvis in the same alignment. That separation between the pelvic position and the torso is part of the gift of training straddle splits.

The Middle Split

In a middle split the entire pelvis rotates 90 degrees forward.

Now those sit bones are not on the floor, they are facing back behind you. Your hip bones and pubic bone are now facing the floor. The body is usually aligned parallel to the floor, however you will see middle splits with a backbend that brings the body back to vertical. Either way, it’s still a middle split because of the pelvic position.

In this position the relationship with gravity means that your legs are now supporting your body weight unless you are flexible enough to get to a 180 degree split. This is why the middle split is so challenging for newer benders.

The inner thighs are receiving contradictory messages to “relax” and lengthen, and to hold you up. They may get confused and start to scream. This is why, for so many folks, middle splits are unpleasant and even emotionally draining. A careful ramp-up is necessary to avoid misery and potential injury.

Graded Training is Required

If middle splits are your goal, start by getting comfortable in your straddle splits. The work of learning how to control your hips in this position, anchor your legs while moving your torso, and develop the strength in your butt and inner thighs, will prepare your body to start training middle splits with more awareness and capacity for that stand-off with gravity.

For a visual on the difference between straddle and middle splits, please check out the video below. If you would like a graded set of workouts to get comfortable in your straddle and middle splits, our Video Club Membership includes a series of four workouts to get you there!

Jean-Claude Van Damme doing a box split between two trucks.

Pro Tip: There is a third type of split that looks similar called a Box Split. This type of split is common among martial artists and was made famous in the 80s by Jean-Claude Van Damme who famously used it to suspend himself between two walls or moving trucks. In the box split the sit bones face the floor, the hip bones face forward, and the inner thighs face the floor.

I do not do or teach this split, not because it isn’t awesome, but because it is inaccessible to a lot of people based on the structure of the pelvis. For many humans, particularly those whose pelvises are prepared for childbirth, the head of the femur is sits too deeply into the pelvic socket to achieve the box split and pushing into it can dislocate the hip. However, if you find a good coach and wish to train it safely, it is pretty bad ass!

 

 

Improve Middle/Straddle Splits and Hip Stability: How to Do a Highly Effective Clamshell Exercise

 

I’ve often said that if I were stuck on a desert island and I could only bring one exercise, the humble clamshell would be a strong contender. This exercise is gold for targeting one of the most important and under-utilized muscle groups in our lower body: the deep butt.

The deep butt are six little muscles that run horizontally under the gluteus maximus, connecting the head of the femur to the pelvis at various points and angles. These muscles (the obdurator internus and externus, the gemellus superior and inferior, the quadratus femoris, and the famous piriformis) are external rotators and are vital to stabilizing your pelvis for positions like middle splits and straddles, as well as for life.

But the gold in clamshells is very much in the details. It’s so easy to swish through a set of clams utilizing non-targeted muscle groups like the obliques, the hip flexors, opposite butt muscles, and even the spinal extensors. The gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, minimus, and medius) are working but not the primary targets here. The first time I figured out how to get all those other helpers to pipe down and really focus on the deep butt muscles I was shocked to find a tiny range of motion and shaking like I was hefting an olympic barbell. But it was just my thigh bone. So exciting!

How to Set Up for Success

Even Out Your Hip Bones: If you have a difference in the diameter of your waist and hips, which most people do, when you lie on your side your top hip will tip up towards your rib cage making your hips uneven. Use your waist muscles to lengthen that top hip out towards your heels until the top hip bone is directly above the bottom hip bone. This will make it harder for your obliques and back muscles to “help out”.

Slight Lean Forward: Very slightly rotate your pelvis forward as if you were considering rolling forward onto your belly. Lengthen your top knee out just past your bottom knee. Feel like that top leg is lengthening out of the hip socket. You are going to maintain this lengthened feeling and forward tilt throughout the exercise to minimize the participation of the gluteus minimus and medius and hip flexors.

Stack the Insteps of your Feet: Make sure that the feet are stacked one directly on top of the other with the insteps lined up and pressed together. That slight press down with the top foot is going to encourage the external rotators to be more enthusiastic.

Tips for Optimal Execution

Nothing Moves but the Knee: Try putting your top hand on your top hip. Don’t let that hip bone move at all. The only movement is the lifting and lowering of the thigh bone.

Bottom Leg Stays Relaxed: It is so tempting to push that bottom leg down to lift the top leg up, and some amount is inevitable. But really try to keep it as relaxed as possible.

Keep it Small: Most of us don’t have a huge range in our external rotation. If you are doing a giant movement where your knee points towards the ceiling every time you are likely bringing pelvic and spinal rotation into it and no longer isolating those deep butt muscles. Keep it small, keep it honest.

Feel the Burn: For most people this is not an isolation we do every day. Those deep butt muscles should be singing! You probably wont need more than 10-20 reps to get to shaky, crampy, maximum. Feel free to do multiple sets but when you get too tired to isolate, take a break.

For you visual learners check out the YouTube video below!

Pro Tip: The standard way to do this exercise is with the hips at about a 45 degree angle and the feet lined up with the hips but that isn’t the only way to do it. You can emphasize different muscles but doing the same set up with the knees tucked up towards the chest or in full extension with the feet back behind me like you were hanging upside down from a trapeze. These exercises are great for improving hip stability at every angle.

 

How Long Should I Sit in My Split? How Long Should I Hold a Stretch? Learn About the Stretch Reflex

 

 

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.

Happy Bendings!

-Kristina

 

Stuck on Learning a Difficult Move or Pose? Here are 3 Strategies to Achieve Your Goal

 

Whenever learning a new physical discipline you’ll have the experience of trying out a new aspirational move and thinking… this seems utterly impossible.

One way to approach this new challenge is to keep trying the beast move over and over again, hoping that eventually it gets easier. This may work! But it is also miserably frustrating and has a high potential for burnout or injury.

As an alternative attack, try modifying your exercises to make them easier so that you can manage them and control them. A strategic approach with the right combination of achievable exercises, gradually increasing in difficulty over time, can win you that monster move without the misery, just a little smarts and patience.

How do you make your difficult move easier? Here are three strategies, just add creativity!

To make it easier to understand I’m going to use the example of the standing front split. I wanted to pick a move that I’m not good at and don’t practice very often and you can watch the video  at the end to see what the struggle bus looks like!

1. Break it into pieces

Every pose, ever move is a combination of elements. What are those different elements and how can you practice them separately? Break your monster move down into 3-5 exercises that are challenging but doable and practice those.

Example: Standing front split could be broken down into standing on one leg with excellent balance, deep hamstring flexibility, and an opening of the standing leg hip (there are other ways to break it down this is just what worked for me).

Check out the video to see what exercises you could try out to work these components.

2. Change the Relationship with Gravity

Gravity, ever-present, can be either friend or foe. The most challenging moves work against gravity, so how can you change the position around to make gravity a little more helpful? This can allow you to work on form, alignment, strength, and depth with control in a position that feels more manageable and accessible.

Example: Part of what makes standing splits so hard is that gravity is pulling that leg down to the ground. Practicing the standing split while laying on your back enables you to check your hip position, build active flexibility, straighten out the standing leg, and stretch the hamstring with a floatier-feeling leg.

The video shows you what it looks like when you flip that standing split on its back.

3. Slow it Down

This is quite possibly the least fun part of this breakdown process, but it is extremely helpful in perfecting your transitions in and out of a position. Too often we focus on the end product, just long enough to snap a photo, but you don’t really have a pose until you can get in and out of it with grace and control.

Slowly moving in and out of the position, even if you are 10 miles away from your end goal position, builds strength, awareness, and control. It’s also good for flexing those patience and humility muscles, which are no one’s favorite muscles to train.

Example: Transition to standing split could be just lifting the leg up in front, holding it for a breath, and lowering it back down without buckling in the standing leg or losing your straight spine. Does it look good? No! Does it feel good? Heck no! Does it make you stronger and more balanced? Yes! Watch the video to see the humility.

Make Up Your Own!

What are your goals? What is your dream pose or move? Break it down, flip it up, slow it down, and—most importantly—give it time. Impatience invariably causes us to skip important steps in our training that will catch up to us eventually and we are in this for the long term, right?

Happy Bendings!
Kristina

 

What to do When Stretching Doesn’t Help

Sometimes Tight Muscles Need Strength Instead

 

Muscles are tight for a reason. They are not tight because they hate you and want you to fail, or because they want you to be in pain. Your body is your devoted partner in this life and everything it does, it does because it believes that it’s helping you.

So why do muscles get tight, since it is so clearly unpleasant and painful? Why do some muscles seem to be impervious to stretching? Even if they relax for a few blissful moments, not long after they are right back to feeling like steel cables.

Muscles get tight because they are nervous, fearful, or downright terrified. They believe that if they relax, something really bad will happen in your body or your life. They feel responsible for your integrity, guarding you against injury or death.

The thing is, the nervous system as it relates to our muscle reflexes is very old. Lizard brain old. It responds to any perceived stressor as a threat. Threaten that muscle often enough and its like a kid on a playground afraid of bullies, it’s always tense. It may not really trust you to make the best decisions, especially if you have done mean things to it in the past (over-training, injury, exhaustion, excessive stress, dehydration, accidents, you get the picture). So even though you are begging it, yelling at it, demanding that it relax, it’s not going to listen.

This is especially true when you are going into a deep passive stretch. Passive stretches are perceived by the body as scary positions, so if a muscle is already a little freaked out, stretching will just confirm its worst fears. You may be able to force it to relax for a little while by pushing it hard enough, but that tension and hyper-vigilance will come back with a vengeance once you let up.

So what’s to be done? How do we reassure these muscles that they are safe and loved and it’s ok to relax?

Strengthening.

We often think of strength and flexibility as being in opposition, but in fact they are utterly intertwined.

If a muscle is chronically scared, the best way to reassure it is to build its support system, and its capacity. Building its support system means strengthening the muscles around that muscle, the synergists (muscles that do similar things) and antagonists (muscles that are opposite). Building capacity means strengthening that tight muscle itself.

So often when I suggest this (especially to gym addicts), I hear people say, “but I’m already so strong.”

To which I reassuringly reply, “Yes, you are. And just because you are overall buff does not mean that you can’t have some muscles in your body that aren’t keeping up.”

Muscles build only and exactly the way that you use them. That means that as we train we default to certain muscles that are already strong and our body finds ways to compensate for muscles that are weaker. It all works out great for a while, then it starts to catch up to you because those sleepy muscles aren’t helping out enough.

In my years of working with bodies, when I have been investigating for the source of tightness, I have found some kind of weakness 100% of the time. I’m totally open to being proven wrong, but it hasn’t happened yet.

In terms of your daily practice, this means constantly searching for your weakest points. Usually we like to go right to where we are strong, because it feels good. But our bodies need balance, and balance comes when we dive into our discomfort and root around for the parts of our body that most need our attention.

Balancing ourselves out brings increased confidence and peace to our muscles—that feeling of cat-like grace, suppleness, strength and flexibility combined.

So next time you are feeling like you and your muscles are locked in mortal combat over a particular stretch, take a step back, thank your tight muscles for their loyal service to your well-being, and start investigating the cause of their stress. Who needs to be stronger and more capable so that they feel safe again? They will reward you with delicious flexibility.

Happy Bendings!

Kristina