Flexibility is Overrated: What you Really Need to Get the Front Split as an Adult Ballet Dancer
The front split is probably one of the most desired milestones for adult ballet dancers.
And there are probably just as many opinions and stretching recommendations for it as there are ballet websites on the Internet.
So here is to one more!
Basically, I want to add to add to the richness of split knowledge from the perspective of someone who:
started ballet at age 37, and not very flexible
was not born flexible, nor flexible as a child - and I never did any siginificant, deep stretching until my late thirties
needed several YEARS to get the front split
tried a huge amount of approaches on the way
has the training/coaching background to put it all together
So if this speaks to you - let’s tackle this beast!
First of all - this article is not a step-by-step outline for how to achieve the front split. If you want that - drop me a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org - if there is enough interest, I am happy to put together something beautiful (along the lines of “The Flexibility Guide for the Anti-Flexible” ;-)).
But, what this article WILL give you: A fresh perspective on how to reframe your split/stretch training - which, I am pretty sure, will let you see quicker AND safer progress in achieving your front split.
The Front Split is NOT About Flexibility
So let’s dive right in and and fire away the biggest misconception about the front split: That it’s the hallmark of flexibility. That it’s a relaxed, sinking into the floor.
I know I am asking a lot: But forget that view. Thinking of the splits as elongating your tissues and relaxing everything is not only NOT supported by scientific evidence - it also sets you up for injuries and weakness.
Which brings us to what a front split REALLY is: A. Strength. Exercise!
And it’s not just the split: Science and expert movement practitioners all over the world have been telling us for a long time that flexibility without strength is a surefire way to all kind of problems, like injuries and lack of movement control.
That’s why you often find the term ‘flexibilty’ replaced by the term ‘mobility’ nowadays:
MOBILITY = FLEXIBILITY + STRENGTH
Or you could put it like this: Getting your splits means training your leg/hip muscles to become stronger at the extreme range of motion your hip joint.
A Split is Only Worth as Much as a Movement! - And How Your Brain Thinks About a Deep Stretch
And that makes sense. Because think about it: Why are you trying to get your splits? Not just because it’s cool (although it is). Mainly it’s because you want to do a grand jeté, for example. Or an arabesque. So you want to be able to use your maximally flexed/extended hip joints, in an actual movement! And in order to do a proper movement, you have to have the strength for it, over the whole range of the movement!
Your brain comes into play here, too. Here is how to think about the splits from a neural perspective: Your brain is making sure that your body’s joints, muscles, fascia etc. do not go into ranges that they cannot handle, where they would be too weak to get anything done and possibly suffer injuries. So if you want to convince your caring brain to allow you into a split, you have to show that you can control your body down there safely!
How to Apply the Strength Paradigm to Your Split Training
So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage when training to get down into a front split? Or even when you have it, to improve the quality of your split?
Ideally, you should always be able to control your position with your own strength, no matter how high or low you are on your way to your split.
I also like to think of going into a front split as actively, and in a controlled manner, pulling the legs apart, particularly reaching with the back leg.
The position of your pelvis should be an active one, too: You actually engage the muscles around your hip joint such that the pelvis doesn’t “collapse” into the stretch. Maybe it helps if you think of ‘getting taller’ in your front split.
Wait….But What About Breathing and Relaxing?
And how does this strength- type of split view go together with the common advice of relaxing and breathing?
It goes well. Because “actively controlling” doesn’t mean “tensing”. So the breathing and relaxing, or “inviting the stretch” as some of you suggested under a related post on Instagram, make sure that you do not overly tense and co-activate all kinds of muscles that actually go against your stretch.
Takeaway: Split = Strength
Alright. So if there is one thing I want you to take away from this blog article it’s this: A FRONT SPLIT IS A STRENGTH EXERCISE. (Any kind of stretch is, actually.) Don’t fall for the “just relax into it”. It’s better to have a slower process, to not overdo your stretch, and have control over your position - than to push the stretch as far as you can and be at the mercy of your long but weak tissues. With this in mind, you will stretch safer and be able to use your new range of motion when actually dancing. And this is what we are here for, right?
Have a great stretch everybody - and remember to be STRONG!
I have tried all kind of approaches to get the front split over the years, and they all contributed more or less. I actually found that doing the barre stretch properly, i.e. as a strength exercise!, and consistently, has helped me improve the strength and quality of my stretch. I am curious: How did you get your front split, or how are you attempting it? Tell me in the comments below!