Society tends to view 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 comes as no surprise that training to do splits became a fixture in the bucket lists and new years resolutions of the many.
But can everyone get into splits and how long does it usually take? I tried to check by testing my own flexibility and participating in a 30 day splits challenge.
Read further to find out why we stretch, is doing splits is good for you and how stretching for the whole month changed my body.
Table Of Contents
Why We Stretch & Benefits Of Stretching
What is truly intriguing about the topic is that the reason behind our obsession with flexibility and whether it has any actual health benefits for our bodies (beyond all the likes on Instagram, of course) is still shrouded in mystery.
Post-workout stretching for developing body suppleness is a ritual religiously promoted by health websites. And followed by many.
Numerous times I caught myself lengthening muscles after the exercise just because I grew up knowing that stretching is quintessential to prevent muscle soreness and injury, promote blood flow and boost performance.
Science says that I’ve never been more wrong in my life.
That is because:
- Stretching doesn’t prevent muscle soreness
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the pain that occurs and peaks a day or two after the intense exercise to which your body is not accustomed. We’re 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.
As the myth persists, over the years research hasn’t shown that any of the mainstream methods hold true.
For example, this 2002 review of 12 studies suggests that stretching before or after the exercise has small to no positive effect on the muscle soreness, despite the widespread belief.
- Stretching doesn’t improve performance
Another popular belief states 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 this regard but also might potentially decrease the performance in the first place.
- Stretching doesn’t lower the risk of injury
The common argument that stretching warms up the body and keeps injury at bay has been lost long ago. This 2014 review of the 25 trials involving 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.”
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 bonds. 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: so that you can effortlessly pick up things from the ground, stretch out your arms to take stuff from a high shelf, stay in balance when standing on one leg in a crowded bus, etc.
“Split is an all-around complex exercise that requires diligent preparation and hard work with the body and essentially the ability to listen to it. 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.
Can Anyone Do Splits & The Dangers Of Stretching
Apparently, no matter how stiff you are, whether you’re a grandpa or a 40-something woman, everyone is able to perform splits. Of course, with a correct approach and plenty of time.
Some websites 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.
“That’s the number one question,” Yuliya smiles.
“People are not robots. Just like with everything, the time it will take you to gain the desired flexibility is highly individual. 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.
The Results Of My 30-Day Splits Challenge
Just as inflexible people are sometimes faced with the stigma that they are not good enough for practicing yoga, those who actually do yoga for quite a while are automatically expected to possess a limber and supple body that can easily be folded into an origami shape.
I’ve been doing yoga on and off for several years now. Despite being pretty flexible, I still can’t do the splits.
In my defense, I have never been actually working towards this goal before. Moreover, there are absolutely no grounds 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-day 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.
View this post on Instagram
I'm going to teach you how to successfully get into the splits with your 30 day #journeytosplits challenge! YOU IN!? Tag a couple friends to join you! HOW TO PARTICIPATE! 1. Repost this image! Everyday from today til July 1st, I’m giving away a set of Stretch Bands to a random POPster who has posted the above graphic on their Instagram! Hashtag #JourneytoSplits and #Blogilates for your entry to be seen! 2. Stick to the 30 days. Do not skip a single day. Every day I want you to post a picture of the pose of the day. 3. Stretches 1-5 are your FOUNDATIONAL STRETCHES. You must do them everyday. The first 5 days, you are doing the first 5 stretches as a daily combo! Then beginning day 6, you will just add one move on. So on day 6, you will do 1-5 and 6. On day 30, you will do 1-5 and 30. Get it? 4. I want you to hold each stretch for around 30 sec to 1 min per side. Total, each day you should spend around 10 min. stretching. Yes, this is dedication! It is not easy. But it's POSSIBLE. Stick to it and you WILL get into the side splits! PRIZES! Every Friday, I will be announcing a weekly winner of a special gift from www.ShopBlogilates.com just for participating in the #JourneytoSplits! All the winners will be announced on @poppilatesofficial – so follow! Have fun, good luck! Our #JourneytoSplits begins on July 1st!
The general rule of the given challenge was to perform 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 the 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 had to gather all the force in the universe, get out of bed and diligently complete the 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.
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, a yoga, and Pilates sessions (both of which involved a bit of additional stretching).
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Same applies to 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 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. Thus 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.
There was little to no progress during the second week.
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 splits 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 into 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 get into splits – even after 30 days of consistent stretching complemented by regular workouts and morning routines that include muscle lengthening.
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 as 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 starter 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.
Nine Months Split Update
It’s been about 9 months since my splits 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.
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!