"Learn to do the splits in 30 days!"
This Instagram ad I kept seeing over and over guaranteed me instant results and potential envy from all my friends.
Was I intrigued? Absolutely.
Fascinated? You bet. Showing me how to do the splits in 30 days is a bold promise.
But everything in this ad made me roll my eyes over.
Can everyone get into splits and is it possible to promise splits in 30 days?
I tried to check by testing my own flexibility and participating in a 30 day split challenge.
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Society views overall flexibility as a sign of a young and healthy body – a wet dream and gold standard we apparently should all be striving for.
With loud claims that “the splits keep you young” by media, it 's not surprising that training to do splits became a fixture in the bucket lists and new years resolutions of the many.
What is truly intriguing about the topic is that the reason behind our obsession with flexibility is shrouded in mystery. What's more, we don't know whether increased flexibility has any real-life health benefits (beyond all the likes on Instagram, of course).
Nonetheless, health websites keep promoting post-workout stretching for developing body suppleness. And many follow the ritual religiously.
I don't know how about you, but I grew up knowing that stretching is quintessential to prevent muscle soreness and injury, promote blood flow and boost performance.
Sadly, up-to-date research says that I've never been more wrong in my life.
So let's clear things up.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the pain that occurs and peaks a day or two after the intense exercise. You know, when you skip a month in the gym and then try to catch up with your training program in one session.
Researchers are still not sure about the actual reason behind the DOMS, but there are a handful of popular techniques to reduce DOMS effect and even prevent it. From drinking more water to taking vitamin supplements and massage, stretching takes the cake.
While the myth persists, research hasn’t shown that any of the mainstream methods hold true.
For example, this 2002 review on the effect of stretching for DOMS says that stretching before or after the exercise has small to no positive effect on the muscle soreness, despite the widespread belief.
Another popular myth says that stretching promotes the overall performance (e.g., can make you run faster). Sorry, but no.
The available research shows that stretching is not only inefficient in improving performance but might potentially decrease it in the first place.
The common argument that stretching warms up the body and keeps injury at bay has been lost long ago. This 2014 review with 26 610 participants in total showed stretching doesn't lower the risk of injury.
That said, there is some conflicting evidence that the elongated muscles we get from stretching are less prone to be strained. But as this study concludes, it all depends on the “the type of stretching chosen, and the make-up of the stretch routine.”
READ MORE: Still think stretching is the only way to increase flexibility? Let me convince you otherwise. Keep reading on the best ways to become more flexible.
So what does stretching actually do and why do we keep stretching in the first place?
“There are all sorts of people coming to my class,” says Yuliya Shevchenko, a trainer and a founder of a stretching studio Luna.
“Students, IT guys, moms, artists. Lots of them join with the sole aim of learning to do splits... and as strange as it may sound, stop coming once they reach their goal.”
Yuliya says that those who don’t chase the splits come to a stretching class to stay in shape and get some movement after a day of sitting at a desk.
“I think that people enjoy being challenged. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in our class. We combine stretching with body balances common in yoga, build strength with planks and inversions, practice all sorts of twists and binds. The feeling of easiness and pleasant trembling in your muscles after the class are good enough reasons to practice stretching.”
Thanks to science, we know for sure that stretching improves range of motion and increases flexibility.
For an ordinary person, a limber body means better functional movement: you can effortlessly pick up things from the ground, stretch out your arms to take stuff from a high shelf, stay balanced when standing on one leg in a crowded metro.
“Split is an all-around complex exercise that requires diligent preparation and hard work. Essentially, you develop the ability to listen to your body. The training and preparation to do splits are as important as the exercise itself.”
Yuliya assures that while working on the splits you not only improve the flexibility of hamstrings, thighs, and hips but also promote better blood circulation to the areas most affected by the sedentary lifestyle – a benefit which was backed up by studies and which shows promising results for the future of cardiovascular health.
However, unless you’re a dancer, gymnast, martial artist or similar, extreme flexibility to the point when you can get into splits makes no sense and has absolutely no benefits for the everyday activity.
Apparently, no matter how stiff you are, whether you’re a grandpa or a 40-something lady, everyone is able to perform splits.
Of course, with the right approach and plenty of time.
Some websites and online ads guide people into splits in 3 weeks or even 1 week, like this article, for example.
Yet I wondered whether such a short timeframe is realistic even for a healthy and fit person.
“New students keep asking me when they will learn to do the splits. This is the number one question,” Yuliya smiles.
"People are not robots. Just like with everything, the time it'll take to gain the desired flexibility is different for everyone. So many factors come into play: age, preparation, the frequency of stretching, the technique. "
“Once I had a female client who was determined to get in the front splits in 6 weeks,” Yuliya tells me.
“She started with 7.8 inches distance from the ground and had 2 classes a week, one of which was private. Just imagine, it took her only 6 classes to get into the front splits! We both were head over heels. Others work for years and still can’t touch the ground. It’s a matter of persistence and understanding of why you want to do splits in the first place.”
Like any physical activity, the holy grail of flexibility comes with dangers.
These mostly occur in the form of sprains and dislocations, and those with high natural flexibility are at the highest risk.
“Nearly as much as 25% of the population suffers from the hypermobility - a condition characterized by extremely flexible tendons and ligaments, which eventually leads to instability in joints.”
“This category of people should avoid the so-called phenomenon of ‘sitting in the joints,’ for example, straightening arms in the elbow area or knees to the maximum, and focus on developing stability by combining stretching with strength-building exercises that will help protect the joints from injuries,” Yuliya advises.
READ MORE: Looking for a block, strap, or a yoga wheel to improve your flexibility? This ultimate guide to yoga gear covers it all.
Just as inflexible people are faced with the stigma that they are not good enough for practicing yoga, those who do yoga are automatically expected to possess a limber and supple body that can easily fold into an origami shape.
And boy do the expectations rise when you mention you're a yoga teacher.
I’ve been doing yoga on and off for more than 5 years. Despite being pretty flexible and teaching yoga, I still can’t do the splits.
In my defense, I have never been working towards splits before.
Moreover, there are absolutely no reasons to assume that yoga in some way leads to splits. Flexibility is just among the many science-proven benefits of yoga and a pleasant ‘side effect’ rather than an ultimate goal.
I came across this 30 days to splits challenge chart below on Instagram and used it for the most days of my journey to splits.
All of the poses are commonly seen in yoga, so it looked like a good idea to incorporate the longer stretches into my yoga routine. The poses also work on a range of areas needed for the splits: hamstrings, hip flexors, inner thighs, lower back, etc.
The general rule of the given challenge was to do five basic stretches (1-5) on a daily basis while adding one more stretch starting from day 6. So on the first 5 days of the challenge, I would need to do stretches 1-5. On the 6th day, stretches 1-5 and 6. On the 7th day, 1-5 and 7 and so on.
I had to warm-up before every stretching session, and hold each pose from 30 seconds to one minute.
My splits was practically non-existent at the start of this 30 day split challenge: with 8.6'' on the right side and nearly 7.8'' on the left one.
Mind that this was my cold flexibility and I could usually force myself to sink a bit deeper after a yoga session. I felt super stiff, and literally clinging my jaw to hide the sensation of the complete discomfort.
I didn’t have the habit of stretching every day before the challenge, so it was hard at first to squeeze the stretching for splits into my schedule.
Twice during the week, I prepared to sleep and realized that I’d missed my stretching session. So I gathered all the force in the universe, got out of bed and diligently completed the stretching duty.
Stretching late in the evening turned out to be more comfortable than in the first half of the day because fascia is more 'stretchable' after all the walking and day activity.
By the way, every session I held the stretches for one minute.
One minute wasn't a long time for a pose that felt more or less comfortable for me (such as Low Lunge, for instance). While others, such as Single-Leg Forward Bend made me suffer, so I used two yoga blocks for better alignment.
I tried to be as mindful as possible and avoid pushing myself too deep into the poses - not totally slacking off, but steering from painful and severely unpleasant sensations.
Apart from stretching challenge, I worked out three times this week including a glutes-oriented workout, yoga, and Pilates sessions (both of which involved a bit of additional stretching).
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Same goes for flexibility.
I haven’t noticed much of a difference in my body, except for a slightly improved range of motion in my hips.
I didn’t feel good on some of the days, and it clearly reflected in the quality of my stretches.
The thoughts that maybe I’m not working hard enough crawled into my head. This was a clear sign of wrong thinking, which resulted in me spraining my right hip flexor, thankfully not serious.
It was a really minor overstretch, but a solid reminder that rushing your way into deep stretches doesn’t end up well. The muscle sprain didn’t impede my journey to splits, but I pressured myself less into the inner thighs stretches.
For a long time, I was also thinking about setting up a short morning routine just for the sake of limbering my body. So I added 15 minutes of morning yoga with some dynamic stretches and sun salutations to my daily stretching session.
As usual, I worked out nearly 4 times during that week, mostly focusing on yoga.
During the second week, there was little to no progress in my journey to splits.
The third week though was truly revolutionary. With an everyday morning routine and a stretching session as well as regular workouts (yoga, Pilates, leg and glutes exercises), I felt as limber as never before.
Getting into splits was so much easier when compared to day 1. I haven’t experienced any weird pain and felt that I could go even deeper after a few minutes. Clearly, my split was far off on the horizon, but it didn’t seem unattainable after all.
Inspired by the miraculous boost in the flexibility during my 3rd week, I pressured myself into split stretches harder than ever.
Alas, with no result.
It felt as if my body had reached its limit and even if there was some progress, it was close to null. I got a bit discouraged and skipped one day, but hopefully with no harm to my flexibility. Instead of stretching that day I had a long 90 minute Yin Yoga session which focused on hip and hamstrings opening.
During the last week, the weather turned colder than usual. There is a common belief that stretching in hot temperature helps you lengthen (that’s how hot yoga is supposed to work), though the fact wasn’t backed up by science in any way.
Without digging deep into research, from my experience, it’s much easier to stretch on warm sand or even sunshine-covered floor than on the ice-cold wooden surface when it’s approximately 15 degrees around you. My body just naturally got super stiff and seemed to work on keeping itself warm rather than flexing to get the splits.
I managed to decrease the distance to the ground - from 8.6'' to 5.1'' on the right side and from 7.8'' to 4.3'' on the left but wasn't able to learn to do the splits in 30 days.
Even after a whole month of consistent stretching, regular workouts, and morning routines that included muscle lengthening, there was no way I could do the splits.
Instead, my body did become more limber and flexible. My nagging upper back and shoulder pain almost disappeared – a miracle that I cannot attribute entirely to stretching but rather to an increase in daily movement and activity (or inexplicable whim of destiny).
Apart from that, some yoga poses turned out to be not as challenging as they used to be since my body grew to be more supple.
Though one of the most significant advantages of the challenge for me is that I started doing yoga every single day. It inevitably takes dedication and time, but the way the new habit makes me feel is indescribable.
Will I continue to stretch for splits? Maybe.
However, this will never be my final goal. One of the most flexible women on this planet and one of my idols Kino MacGregor who has been doing yoga for years still sometimes struggles with pancake splits so what can I expect from myself?
The chart I used as a guide proved to be a good start but seemed to be more oriented towards front splits rather than the middle; therefore it lacked some essential poses for opening the hips such as Frog or Lizard.
For those who would like to follow the same stretching routine after ending the challenge, I'd suggest identifying tight areas in their body and instead of following the strict order of poses in the chart, focus on stretches that work on your stiff muscles.
I really like the quote from Paul Ingraham, a health writer and an ingenious man behind the painscience.com:
Fitness and health are not equivalent. You can be fit for a particular athletic pursuit, but that doesn’t mean you are a healthier person.
Always define your priorities.
If it is staying flexible and healthy, do not trust the challenges that promise to get you into splits quickly. Instead, use them as a guide or a tool to form a habit and create consistency in your practice.
It's been about 9 months since my 30 day split challenge, and I felt like I needed to write a short update on how far I got in my flexibility training.
So the first thing is that I stopped stretching for splits right after the end of the challenge. I'm not a passionate supporter of static stretching in general. Not that it's boring, but doing the same thing over and over again every day doesn't really fit my definition of fun.
And you will have to stretch daily if you're planning to retain your increased range of motion. It's use it or lose it.
Instead, I focused on sticking to my morning yoga routine. Sometimes as short as 5 minutes to stretch it all after sleep. Sometimes 20 minutes with a few minutes of meditation included.
Yoga in the morning, in fact, is one of the most significant improvements I made in my life thanks to this 30-day stretching challenge.
If somebody asked me whether I would do the challenge again, I'd agree without second thoughts. Who knows what other healthy habits I would develop thanks to stretching?
My range of motion, in general, tends to ebb and flow. It's usually better after a good sweaty yoga flow or endurance workout. My cold flexibility in the morning, though, is the same it was before doing the challenge.
Anyway. I've attempted to sit in front split several times since the challenge. My hips were pretty close to the ground, but they never really touched the mat entirely.
Recently, while I was taking photos for this fun yoga flow for flexibility and mobility (check it out here), I wondered whether I'd get into splits. I haven't attempted the full expression of Hanumanasa pose for a few months already.
And lo and behold!
I slid into the pose like I could do it my whole life.
No pain, no discomfort. I finally learned to do full splits without even realizing when it happened (not after 30 days, though).
Does it make me proud of myself?
It sure does! Especially when I look at the photos from 9 months ago.
Does it make my life better?
No freaking way. My life was probably more joyful in those photos where I was hovering 8 inches off the ground but could enjoy a sandy beach and warm ocean every day.
I did yoga without being able to do splits for years. I continue doing it now.
The fact that I increased my flexibility doesn't mean I got healthier in any way or better at yoga.
Cultivating mindfulness in our daily lives, mastering breathwork, making healthy choices, and taking control of our emotions and decisions – now that's a real challenge.
So my message remains exactly the same as nine months ago.
Flexibility is not a fast track to healthier living. Yet, it can be a fast track to injury.
Before trying to become more flexible, ask yourself whether you need it in the first place. If you do, I encourage you to stay mindful and patient. The results will come eventually. Maybe after 30 days, or maybe after nine months.
What is your reason for stretching? Share your opinion in the comments!
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