Understanding Splits & How To Stretch properly
For many ballet students being able to perform the splits is a key goal, but this pursuit can be misleading. This article is all about helping you to improve your splits whilst showing you that although flexibility is useful it does not necessarily guarantee correct technique and quality of movement.
I will say this right now. Please do not envy flexibility!
We all see dancers who can kick their grands battements to touch their heads and jump flick jetés (also called grands pas de chats) with oversplits. But as many of you have heard me say in class, we are not gymnasts. In ballet, we present a deeply stylised version of reality which involves three key aspects; poise, control and elegance.
What this means is that it is not about how high your leg can go, but more about how you get it there! Or should I say, place it there?
fig. 1, deep lounge to elongate the front of hip and thigh
I do have a few clients who can achieve the splits comfortably, and with this rare group, I work with them specifically to actively engage their muscles instead of simply collapsing into the pose. There is no benefit in this and over time, it may even damage the joints as they might become overstretched without support.
However, for most of you, there are two key aspects to concentrate on. Firstly, stretching properly. And secondly, helping you work within the limits of your current levels of flexibility to achieve the lines and forms of classical ballet.
How do we do stretch properly?
First of all, we need to acknowledge that the full splits might not be achievable for all of us. However, training for the splits is a very valuable preparation for leg extensions, i.e. dèveloppés, grands battements, grands jetés (big jumps). The trick is not to be obsessed with the end result.
By working on your splits in a cautious and mindful way, you will achieve an increased level of mobility that will enable your technique to greatly improve. Preparatory exercises are far more beneficial than badly done splits. For example, a deep lunge as preparation for the back leg (fig. 1), and a seated forward bend as preparation for the front leg (fig. 2)
seated forward bend to elongate the hamstrings
Lying with your legs up the wall (place a cushion under your pelvis if you cannot keep your knees straight) also improves hamstring flexibility for the front splits (fig. 3). From there open your legs sideways to stretch your inner thigh muscles for the side splits (fig. 4).
fig. 3, hamstring and lower back release
fig. 4, inner thigh stretch
There are different stretching techniques. But here are a few important principles:
• Always stretch when you are warmed up, best after class
• Stretch only until you meet the pain, do not push further or work through the pain
• Breath! with the exhale gently deepen the stretch, with the inhale release a little. Do Not Bounce!
• Be mindful when coming out of a stretch, this is a moment where many injuries happen
• It is not a fight but rather a negotiation between you and your body
Remember, your soft tissue behaves like a teenager; you cannot make them do things against their will and the harder you try the more resistance you create. You have to be gentle and patient. Be persuasive, only go as far as your muscles are willing to cooperate and make them believe that what you want was their idea in the first place. The moment you push too far too quickly, the muscles will react (called the stretch-reflex) and you will achieve the opposite of what you have intended.
Unfortunately, there are only very few places available in the Understanding Splits Workshops where we will explore this subject in much greater depth. However, I hope that this article helps you to understand how you can work towards splits safely and benefit from increasing your flexibility.