How to do the splits
The ability to do the splits is always an impressive feat, but we don’t hear enough about its physical benefits. Did you know, for instance, that it’s used by dancers and other performers to stop their agility waning over time? On top of that, it’s also great fun. The reason I love doing the splits isn’t just because I’m a dancer, however. They’re also a great way to boost flexibility in general, and as a result improve your range of motion and help to prevent you getting injured.
In terms of how to do the splits, though, there are a few tried and tested ways to prepare your body and improve your ability for this move. By regularly engaging the relevant muscles, you can train yourself to get into the proper position needed. If this has long been one of your goals, or if you’re looking to improve your technique, keep reading to find out my top tips on how to do the splits.
Doing the splits: the basics
Even if you’ve never managed the splits, you almost certainly know what they are: a physical position where both legs are aligned and extended in opposite directions. However, you may not know that there are two main types of splits: the front, and the side — sometimes called middle — split. Depending on the type you choose, you’ll be engaging different parts of your body. Both variations activate a range of muscles around your quads, hamstrings and hips, but just because you can do one doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be able to do the other.
Front splits vs. side splits
There are two main types of splits — the front and the side. The former position is held by extending one leg in front of and the opposing leg behind your torso. For this move, most of the range of motion comes from your front hip joint. Sometimes called middle, centre or straddle splits, the side splits involves extending your legs to both left and right side of your torso.
Way back when I learned how to do the splits, I started with the front — and I’ll explain why.
For the front split, you stretch muscles at the front and back legs, including the medial and lateral hamstrings, plus the glute, adductors and others in the buttock region. All in all, you’re looking at about twelve or so stretches in order to maximise flexibility in the front leg alone. Despite all this, a lot of people find front splits easier than side splits — more on that soon.
There are also lots of stretches you can do to help you activate the right muscles for doing the front splits, such as lunges for your hamstrings.
The side split requires fewer muscles than the front split, with just four adductor muscles, one hip flexor and your medial hamstrings.
However, a lot of these are located in areas that are not as frequently stretched — such as your inner thigh and groin muscles. Therefore, although it requires fewer actual muscles to get into position, the ones involved are likely to be less supple than those used for the front splits, meaning many people actually find it harder to do than the front split.
There are a couple of safety rules to keep in mind when training your body to do the splits. The first is to avoid doing over-splits. This is where someone forces one or both legs into doing a split that is wider than 180 degrees (which is why it’s called an oversplit). The second is to refrain from bouncing when you’re in a stretching position.
Following these rules stops you from injuring yourself, as the behaviours above can cause your muscles to resist moving any further as they try to protect your joints (this is called bracing). When you push your muscles too hard too fast before they’re ready, you can hurt yourself, so listen to any feelings of intense discomfort. As always, your stretches should not be causing you pain.
Best stretches to do the splits
For these stretches, make sure you give yourself enough space and a soft, comfortable surface to perform them on so that you don’t hurt your knees.
1. Seated hamstring stretch
Start by kneeling down.
Bring your left knee up, keeping it bent at 90 degrees and with your foot to the floor.
Breathe in deeply and put pressure on your glutes, then push your hips forward.
Keep your hands by your sides or on your bent knee.
Return to the starting position and repeat with your other leg.
2. Kneeling hip flexor stretch
Start by kneeling down on both knees, with your bum on the heels of your feet and the balls of your feet pressed against the mat.
Place your palms firmly on the mat in front of you, and slightly bend your elbows to avoid them locking.
Bring your right knee forward through the gap between your arms, placing your right foot flat on the mat in front of you.
Lift off your hands from the mat and straighten up your torso.
To intensify the stretch, extend your left leg behind you so that your left knee, shin, and upper left foot are pressed into the mat.
Lean forward gently, and hold for 30 seconds.
Release by leaning back and returning to the original kneeling or sitting position. Repeat on the other side.
3. Piriformis stretch
Begin by sitting down.
Bring your left leg forward, bending the knee about 90 degrees so that your shin is parallel to your waist on the ground. This should align your left knee with your hip.
Put your hands on the floor in front of your shin for support.
Extend your right leg backwards — it should be straight behind you.
Breathe in deeply, lowering your chest so that the stretch is deepened. You should feel this in the back of your hip where the piriformis is located.
Repeat for the other side.
4. Butterfly stretch
Start by sitting down.
Bring the soles of your feet together in front of you.
Keep your back straight and your upper body upright.
Holding your feet with your hands, use your elbows to gently press your knees downward — this should stretch your inner thighs where the adductors are.
5. Kneeling adductor stretch
Standing up, spread your feet slightly wider apart than the length between your shoulders.
Move down towards the floor, onto your right knee, while extending the left leg out to the side fully.
Put your hands on the floor for support if you need.
Come back to the starting position — this should bring your centre of gravity lower to the ground. At this point, you will notice that the inside of your thigh is stretching.
Repeat on the other side.
Can everyone physically do the splits?
Some people no doubt find it more difficult than others to do the splits — and that applies to gymnasts and dancers too. This is often down to the structure of a person’s pelvis or having stiff hip flexors. Stiff hamstrings may pull the pelvis out of its ordinary position and therefore make you less flexible, while having inflexible hip flexors limits the range of splits you can do. On top of that, if you have tight inner thighs, that may lead to you hurting your groin. However, you can loosen up these muscles using butterfly stretches.
A good way to see if you have the amount of flexibility required for the splits is to do the side split test, which includes the following steps:
Side split test
Stand beside a table or chair and put your leg on it.
Ensure both hips are aligned with your elevated leg.
Repeat with the other leg.
If you can do this, congrats! The muscles in each of your legs are long enough to do a side split, and your hip joints have enough range of motion to perform a full side split. However, don’t push it too hard or fast. While a feeling of tightness is normal, if this goes beyond discomfort to pain, you are increasing your chances of injury.
Is it hard to learn to do the splits?
Even if you’re not sure whether you can do the splits or not, it’s still worth trying — though, as touched upon previously, it won’t happen overnight.
To get your body prepared to do so, be sure to keep your muscles supple and strong with some stretching. Remember that pushing your muscles too hard and too fast can result in injury, which will only disrupt your training for doing this move. And even if you avoid hurting yourself, people often lose motivation when they set goals that are too high, too quickly.
The key is to practise consistently, and in a matter of weeks, you may surprise yourself with your ability to do the splits.
Which splits are easier?
As discussed earlier, while the side split needs fewer muscles in total to be stretched, a lot of people find the front splits easier since the muscles engaged in the former are less frequently activated from day-to-day living and regular exercise. I’d recommend starting with the front splits first — you might notice that your general flexibility is improved by focusing on these muscles before moving on to the side splits.
If you want to discover other stretches and exercises that will lead to greater overall flexibility, take a look at my ultimate stretching guide. Otherwise, if you’re interested in other ways to build a stronger and happier you, check out my online workout studio. You can choose from a range of different programmes, from 30-day challenges to online personal training — see if you feel any of these could work for you. Thanks for reading!