When I first started training contortion with Serchmaa Byamba at Circus Center in 2004 I had already been dancing for over 20 years and I thought I was pretty flexible. I had all my splits, nice and flat and comfy on the floor. Then Serchmaa showed me what a square split was and all of a sudden I felt like I was three feet away from the floor, working so hard I broke a sweat. It was very humbling!
Of course, I complained, and Serchmaa promised me that even though it was harder and it felt like a step “backwards” it was very important for me to train my splits in square if I was serious about advancing in contortion. And, of course, she was right.
First of all, what is a square split and how do you know if you are doing one?
A square split means that both of your hip bones are facing forwards and your pelvis is as close as you can get it to neutral, meaning that your back isn’t arched. I say “as close as you can get” because most of us will have some back arch in splits, but we want to minimize it as much as possible.
The square split requires strength, provides a deeper stretch, and is an essential training tool for advanced flexibility or even just for those who want to have happy, healthy, strong, flexible hips and legs.
What are the benefits of a square split?
A square split is healthier for your hips and offers a more well-balanced and active stretch.
When we allow the pelvis to rotate in a split our body takes the path of least resistance and we end up over-stretching the muscles in the hips that tend to be more flexible, and skipping the ones that tend to be tighter. That is why we tiny dancer Kristina was able to get so much deeper and feel so much more relaxed in her open split!
This isn’t a problem if you only do it some of the time, but if you never stretch in square then the difference between the tight parts of the hips and the loose parts of the hips becomes greater and this can lead to instability and even injury.
Plus, the muscles that we build when we hold our hips in square are excellent for keeping us healthy and for the strength and control we will need if we get into more advanced movements like standing splits.
A square split prepares us for back bends.
A back bend is so much more than just a bending of the spine. It also involves the shoulders and the hips. When your hips are out of balance because you have been allowing them to rotate in your splits, they will want to rotate in your backbends too. Hip rotation in backbends can show up in a few different ways depending on your position.
Firstly, if your hips are locked in place, like in a kneeling backbend (camel pose) then the tightness in the hips will just restrict your flexibility and potentially put more stress on the lower back.
Second, if you are trying to bring your foot to your head while your hips rotate, your foot will not go to your head. It will wander off to the side, maybe hitting your ear if you’re lucky, most likely ending up somewhere off in space where you will have to fish around for it with your hand and haul it back into position, possibly torquing your knee or shoulder in the process. Not ideal!
Third, in a position like bridge (wheel pose) where both hips are stretching at the same time you will end up with what we like to call “frog legs”. No offense to frogs, it looks great on them. But, in a human backbend, frog legs put stress on the knees and feet, put pressure on the sacrum (low back), and can make balance and control difficult if you are working on transitioning from standing to bridge and back up again.
Yes, Serchmaa was right and even though you may be grumbling about it like I was, I promise that the extra work is worth it for your long term health and progress.
Pro Tip 1: It is vastly easier to square your splits and then slowly work on going deeper from that position than it is to go deep into your splits and try to push into square from there. Let gravity be your friend!
Pro Tip 2: Lunges and hamstring stretches are just like splits done one piece at a time. If you stretch your lunges and hamstring stretches in square it will help make your square splits happen much more easily.
For some visual aids please check out the video below, and if splits are on your bucket list we have a series of workouts and tutorials in our Video on Demand Membership.