Stretch Yourself: Difficulties With Doing a Side Split
This is the second installment of my column on training that appeared in May 1999 issue of TaeKwonDo Times.
To read the previous installment click here.
In the first article of the Stretch Yourself column you have learned how to determine if you have the potential to do a side split, even before you start your stretching program. You have also learned that for many adults, who can perform the side split test, side or straddle splits are still very difficult. At a certain point, well before sliding into a full split, they feel that there is a “stop,” accompanied by pain in the outside hip or upper thigh region that prevents them from sitting in a full side split. In this article you will learn what causes it and what to do about it.
The problem does not seem to be related to the adductors (inner thigh muscles), as they do not feel much tension there. As they continue stretching, their flexibility does improve, but at a very slow rate.
This perceived barrier is a very common problem for people who start stretching as adults. The pain and limitation of the movement sideways in the side (straddle) split is caused by spreading (abducting) the thighs without tilting the pelvis forward. This tilt unwinds capsular ligaments of the hip, among them the pubofemoral ligament that in a normal, non-flexed position would resist excessive abduction and would also, during straight abduction, push up the neck of the femur (thigh bone) into the cartilage collar (labrum acetabulare) at the upper edge of the hip socket. For persons in whom the angle between the neck and shaft of the femur is less than 135°, abduction without tilting the pelvis jams the greater trochanter (a bony process on the top of the femur) against the hipbone.
The forward tilt of the pelvis (hip flexion) realigns the hip joint so its ligaments relax, the neck of the femur does not jam the cartilage at the upper edge of the socket, and the greater trochanter fits into a space behind the hip socket. This is the alignment of your hips in the proper horse-riding stance and this is why alignment of your hips, thighs, lower legs, and feet in a side split should be the same.
Left—Starting position for a side split with feet pointing forward.
Center—Side split with feet pointing forward. Legs are spread sideways and pelvis is tilted forward.
Right—Side split with feet pointing up. The hips are straight thanks to the rotation of the thighs.
Note that in doing a side split with toes pointing forward you not only spread the legs sideways, but also tilt the pelvis forward. In a side split with the feet pointing up, you keep your pelvis straight but rotate the thighs outward. The alignment of the hips and thighs in both types of the side splits is the same.
Another way of finding the correct alignment is to use the horse-riding stance as the initial position for your isometric stretches leading to the side split. Just make sure that your stance is perfect, with your thighs parallel to the floor at any width, toes pointing forward, and chest up.
Left—front view of a “five-step” horse stance
Center—side view of a “five-step” horse stance
Right—front view of a “seven-step” horse stance
To assume a five-step stance stand on attention (feet side-by-side) and then turn out your heels (one-step) , then turn out your toes (two-step), then your heels again (three-step), then turn out the toes again (four-step), and then turn out the heels (five-step).
To sum it all up, you cannot do the side split without either rotating your thighs outward or tilting the pelvis forward. The outward rotation or the forward tilt (hip flexion) unwinds capsular ligaments of the hip, among them the pubofemoral ligament, which resists excessive abduction. Spreading the legs without these additional movements twists and tightens the ligaments of the hip and pushes up the neck of the femur into the cartilage collar at the upper edge of the hip socket. For persons who have coxa vara (less than 135° angle between the neck and shaft of the femur), abducting the thigh without tilting the pelvis jams the greater trochanter against the hipbone above the acetabulum (hip joint cavity).
This jamming of either the neck of the femur into the cartilage or of greater trochanters against hip bones is the cause of pain and of a limit to the sideways movement in both the side split and the raising side kick.
If the outside of your hips hurts when you do high side kicks you need to learn how to tilt your pelvis while you kick. The same forward tilt of the pelvis that helps to do a side split will let you raise your leg higher to the side because the reason for the pain and limitation in the sideways movement in both side kicks and in the side split is the same. In the next issue you will learn how to test if your joints and muscles of your thighs and hips will permit you to do a front split.
To read the next installment of this column click here.
This article is based on the book Stretching Scientifically.
This article is copyrighted © [March 1999] by Stadion Publishing Company, Inc. and posted with their permission. Original articles of Thomas Kurz’s column on stretching and training are at https://www.stadion.com/articles-on-training-for-sports-and-martial-arts/