Do you guys think it’s possible for a bodybuilder with no gymnastic and flexibility background like myself to learn the splits in a week? Yes, I thought the same. So I went on a journey to learn from some of my friends, a Yoga instructor Jack Harnby, Gymnast Luke Stoney and Olympic Gymnast Nile Wilson and Great Britain Physiotherapist Jason Beaumont to see if it was even possible.
Leaning the splits -Starting Points
Before starting this crazy journey to learn the splits in 7 days, I had to set my benchmark to see what I was working with. So Jack from Loti Yoga measured me up in my middle splits and my left and right front splits.
I didn’t think it was looking very promising at this point. I know I had a long way to go and had a lot to work on.
Yoga Stretching to Learn the Splits
Going into the challenge I knew it was going to be hard. I was going to have to learn new ways to stretch and do them for 3 hours + per day. To get started Jack took me through some functional yoga style movements.
By functional yoga, I mean movement where are you stay active throughout the stretch. Take the hip flexor for example –
I learnt very quick how important using these techniques while stretching are not only staying strong in the end rage of motion but to stay safe and prevent injury. (I will go into more detail about this in the Physiotherapy section of this post)
Jack likes to add weight to a lot of his stretches, which quickly changed my attitude towards them. I blame Jack for some of the noises I was making in that gym. The main muscle groups I needed to target were – hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, adductors and glutes. Basically, everything that surrounds the hip.
One element I really enjoyed was adding mobility exercises as well as the static stretching. Mobility means the stretches are performed dynamically and not statically. Meaning I had to use and build strength in the range I created. These movements were my go-to for the first few days, along with the static and weight stretching. Which I was spending around 3+ hours a day doing them 😥.
Gymnastic Stretching to Learn the Splits
After a few days of pain, I thought I would step it up and head over to Nile Wilsons Gymnastics in Rotherham. Nile and Luke thought it would be a good bit of fun to inflict some pain on me and take me through some of the flexibility training they did as kids.
This is where I added Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation also known as PNF. This is an advanced stretching technique, which involves both contracting against somebody’s resistance in a stretched position, then relaxing and pushing further into the end range of that movement. Basically a mild form of torture, but it worked.
I had my safe word “Pineapples” ready though (this bit made me laugh, tweet me what your safe word would be). Both Luke and Nile put me through some pain. It was a massive eye-opener to what the younger gymnast go through on a daily basis to improve their mobility and learn the splits from such a young age. They are at a biomechanical advantage when it comes to mobility compared to the older and less nimble bodybuilding population.
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The Biomechanics in Learning The Splits
As a Physiotherapist myself, I love learning and finding out more about what is going on at a biomechanical level. So myself and Jason from Regen Physio went through some treatments and talked through the changes that would have to happen for someone like myself to learn the splits in a week. Saying that being part of the less nimble bodybuilding population isn’t an excuse, there is some science behind this.
So trying to keep this as simple as possible if you imagine each muscle fibre is like a rope with loads of smaller bits inside it. These are called your Myofibrils and they are made up Sarcomere. The Sarcomere is the bit which is really making this challenge hard.
When we are younger (before puberty) our muscles are a lot more pliable, this is down to the Sarcomere. As we get older and stop growing our muscles don’t need this ability to stretch and lengthen as much as we did before. So following the old saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” we lose it. This isn’t to say that learning the splits is impossible, I mean look at Jean-Claude Van Dam. When you are older it’s just a lot harder.
As adults, muscle aren’t as pliable and won’t be able to stretch. We have to cause micro-tears in the muscle tissue, which will then heal slightly longer and repeat. This can cause weaknesses within the muscle and is the reason static stretching isn’t meant to be done before weight training. The muscle is already slightly damaged from the stretching and you don’t want to add excessive load on top of that as well.
Jason then explained to me that this is why it’s important to focus on functional strength, like in the functional yoga. Start by programming a stretching phase to improve muscle length. Then, following this up with a strengthening phase to build up the neuromuscular control within the new range, would be best practice to prevent injury. But…quite unrealistic for me to do in a week.
So a factor that had a massive affect on me when I was learning the splits, was an old hamstring tear injury I had (video here). As I was really getting into my stretching session I would start to feel this sharp pain deep in my right hamstring where the tear happened. This is because of the poor alignment of muscle fibres due to the tear.
This poor alignment is what most people will refer to as a “knot” The treatment that Jason did was a variety of techniques from tool-assisted soft tissue work, massage, PNF and acupuncture (which are all not very pleasant). This treatment isn’t a fix however, if it wasn’t paired with the right strengthening and mobility it wouldn’t keep progressing. Luckily, I was currently doing a challenge that had all the mobility exercises covered.
This REALLY helped I could feel the improvement in my training to learn the splits and I only had a few more days left till the remeasure.
Learning the splits -The Results
Back where we started, Jack and myself headed to see how much improvement I had made over the last 7 days. Believe me when I said I put in the hours, spending 3-4 hours sat with weights on my legs! I knew there would be a good improvement but I didn’t really know how much.
I was amazed at this. When you look at what 5-7 inches is on a tape measure, that is a ridiculous amount to improve in a week.
Looking back a lot of the time I spent stretching, was working individual muscle groups. If I was to try this challenge again I would focus more on using the actual splits as a stretch as well. But let’s be honest I don’t see myself trying this any time soon.
One thing I definitely saw an improvement in, was my mobility is squatting, straight leg deadlifting and other hip hinge based movements. Also a weird clicking I was getting at the back of my knee had gone, which I was really happy about. Just these improvements alone show how important it is to stretch, even if you don’t want to do the splits.
If you don’t have a background in gymnastic or a mobility-based sport, this is going to be hard! I did learn a lot about our bodies and how it adapts to the different stimulus we put it through. What I learnt is that to build functional strength and mobility together is difficult.
If I was willing to let my muscles tear and potentially cause some serious damage I think I could’ve got down into the splits. But what use is that range if you don’t have any neuromuscular control or strength in it?
Gymnast are crazy and the mobile drills and uses of PNF from such a young age show why they are all so mobile.
When learning the splits, using different styles of programs are superior. Use weight stretching and PNF for a period of time and then follow it with functional stretch and end-range strength movements and you will one day get the splits…just maybe not in 7 days…
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