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!
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!