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Jim Pickles

Thoughts on forward splits; also fascia vs muscle limitations

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Thoughts on forward splits.

We often see people trying to stretch for forward splits like this (Fig. 1):

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Obviously they are making things difficult for themselves because there is very little bend in the hip flexor of the back leg, and the stretch is almost entirely being directed to the hamstring of the forward leg. We all know that there are a lot of stretches to extend the hip flexors of the back leg so the torso can be held reasonably upright (Fig. 2):

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One hip flexor stretch is shown below, where the rectus femoris is pre-tensioned from its insertion by putting the lower leg up against the wall, and then the hips are allowed to sink forward (Fig. 3). Many people find this excruciating around the front of the hip, to the extent that they do not allow themselves to get a proper stretch from it.

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However I’ve been experimenting with rectus femoris stretches where the muscle is pretensioned from the origin, at the hip. In a forward split (which gives a maximal extension around the hip joint) I then lift the back foot off the floor. I’ve been resisting doing this for many years because if the hamstrings have previously been getting a strong stretch, there is a danger that they may cramp. However, as I have become more flexible and splits have become nearer to my normal range, this doesn’t happen so much.

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Then when the foot is within range of the hand, you can pull it closer with the arm (Fig. 5). If you are doing a partner stretch, then you can ask the stretchee to resist the stretch slightly (by pushing the foot gently into your hand) which reduces that chance that the antagonistic muscles, the hamstrings, will cramp.

What I have found interesting, is that after this, the flat split (Fig. 2) becomes much easier, even though the rectus femoris in this position was clearly not at its full extension, and therefore should not been limiting the stretch. This is shown because it is possible to voluntarily lift the foot off the floor (Fig. 4). Also the previously-painful hip flexor stretch against the wall (Fig. 3) becomes painless when the hips are dropped forward. I suggest (in me at least) that there are a lot of fascial adhesions at the front of the hip which affect more than the rectus femoris. These adhesions can be freed by pre-tensioning the rectus femoris at its origin, and then stretching it from its insertion (Fig. 5).

I also think there are a lot of individual variations: the leg against wall stretch (Fig. 3) is not at all painful for one of my students, and I have the impression from this and other stretches that she is less limited by fascia and connective tissue, and more by muscle, than I and many of my other students are.

Finally, I have found a better way of doing oversplits. Oversplits help bring flat splits into your normal range of movement and let you use less warm up. Usually it is done with the forward heel on a support. I find that because my knees tend to hyperextend, this is not good for my knees, and propping the back of the knee or leg with a support is painful. I have found  that if the whole forward leg is supported on a board, it becomes a good stretch (Fig. 6). The challenge here is to make sure the front of the thigh of the back leg is in contact with the mat, and that the hips are level and also fully pressed into the mat: I may use weights to do this in future. I often see people doing oversplits with the forward leg raised much higher, but with the hips very tilted – I do not think this is useful as a stretch.

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As for whether particular stretches are more limited by muscle or by fascia, this is a fascinating question that I am investigating. It is clearly difficult to decide, and a lot is guesswork and going by impression. I also have the impression that (for me at least) partner stretches are not useful where the primary limitation is muscle, but are very useful where the primary limitation is fascia. Seeing we don’t clearly know which is which, there is obviously a lot of guesswork, but it is part of adjusting the stretching strategy to the individual. I’d be glad if anyone has any views on this.

Cheers,

Jim.

And for some reason the figure below keeps appearing here, even though I delete it. Maybe our esteemed Webmaster can do it?????

Edited by Nathan
Deleted the extra image.
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Hi Jim,

Thanks for sharing.

Your front splits are much better than mine, but I have approached the rectus femoris from both sides and it has seemed to work well for me.

First, I use a prop at the front to allow me to keep my torso upright and bend the front leg, similar to the usual ST lunge HF. Keeping the torso upright, once I drop the hips sufficiently I reach back and grab the back leg as I bend it. I then re-sink the hips. The bent front leg helps keep the pelvis in a good position making it easier to maintain squared hips while not requiring excessive hamstring flexibility, which I'm sure you know. The box/bar/etc. at the front also provides a good visual cue to judge squareness, which can be difficult with nothing to compare.

Second, I face away from my prop (a fixed bar in my case) and begin with a 90-degree or greater bend at the knee to pre-tension the RF. This is basically the couch stretch that you reference in your image #3, but by using a bar I can lean back through what would be the wall in your image. Once set up, I move into the stretch (hips forward/down) and when satisfied I (1) extend the front leg toward straight, (2) push the hips forward as I lean back over the rear foot to emphasize the upper regions of psoas, or do a combination of (1) and (2).

Once my HF began loosening up more, I started doing some similar movements with the front leg straight, but I've found the combination of the above to work excellently for the RF.

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Nathan - many thanks for your response. I never found the first stretch you described did much for me, though I must admit I didnt do much CR in that position because I stopped doing it before I came across Kit's method. Also I suspect that the discomfort in the front of the hip stopped me from doing it much.

Your second one sounds great and I’ll try it – I do something a bit similar as part of my backbend warmup and will try it for forward splits too.

I like going into splits from above, with torso vertical and hips level, so that the full body weight forces the legs apart. Obviously in this position you need some sort of safety factor if not down to the floor, and I used to relax onto a pile of books (adjusted to be exactly the right height). Now with my students I use blocks or fractional blocks, topped by what I call a "squashy block" which is a half-thickness block, made of 4 cut pieces of softish mat glued together, which provides just the right combination of support and resilience to support them while letting them sink and get a stretch.

This pic below shows a class in progress. All are using as many props as necessary so that they can relax with full confidence in the final position. Obviously you have to work to keep the hips square and level, and to stop too much of the bend going into the front hamstring. I found it good to precede it with a long pre-tensioningand stretch of the hip flexor by standing in a high lunge (often with the front foot raised on a support) while clenching the gluts and other buttock muscles of the leg that is going back as hard as possible, to push the front of the hip forward, arms raised overhead and leaning away from that side (to direct more stretch into the psoas), held for 3 minutes. I tell them it will give them a firm butt which they seem to like for some reason. In me, it is this that turned the forward splits from something that was occasional to something that is now easy and routine (and I hardly need to warm up for it now).

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The one nearest the camera now has beautiful flat splits which she does easily and routinely too.

Cheers, Jim.

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46 minutes ago, Jim Pickles said:

I never found the first stretch you described did much for me, though I must admit I didnt do much CR in that position because I stopped doing it before I came across Kit's method. Also I suspect that the discomfort in the front of the hip stopped me from doing it much.

I actually don't do much CR work in this position either. My body does rather well here with longer, relaxed holds. I suspect my setup makes it more comfortable to stay here too. The fixed bar provides good support and also allows me to push back and leverage off of it to explore tight spots up into the psoas. I think it certainly works best in combination with the second stretch, though, since that one seems to more directly loosen up the RF, which seems to be the first layer of the onion, so to speak.

50 minutes ago, Jim Pickles said:

I like going into splits from above, with torso vertical and hips level, so that the full body weight forces the legs apart.

I enjoy this entry as well. I usually use a couple of yoga blocks, but sometimes I just grab my baby whale and slide it along the floor since it's usually nearby!

51 minutes ago, Jim Pickles said:

I found it good to precede it with a long pre-tensioningand stretch of the hip flexor by standing in a high lunge (often with the front foot raised on a support) while clenching the gluts and other buttock muscles of the leg that is going back as hard as possible, to push the front of the hip forward, arms raised overhead and leaning away from that side (to direct more stretch into the psoas), held for 3 minutes. I tell them it will give them a firm butt which they seem to like for some reason. In me, it is this that turned the forward splits from something that was occasional to something that is now easy and routine (and I hardly need to warm up for it now).

It sounds like you are basically having them do an isometric contraction to strengthen the muscles in a lengthened position. This is a key feature of @Emmet Louis's system, and it makes sense that it would have the effects it did for you. Building strength in the end position is often the missing key to making flexibility "usable"/"functional" or however you might want to express it :)

Thank you for sharing the picture - looks like a great class!

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3 hours ago, Jim Pickles said:

I found it good to precede it with a long pre-tensioning and stretch of the hip flexor by standing in a high lunge (often with the front foot raised on a support) while clenching the gluts and other buttock muscles of the leg that is going back as hard as possible, to push the front of the hip forward, arms raised overhead and leaning away from that side (to direct more stretch into the psoas), held for 3 minutes.

Hi Jim,

I tried this stretch/contraction combination (with a much more conservative lunge), and found it to be an effective way to increase the intensity of the HF stretch and improve glute activation. However, it mildly aggravated my left knee (edit: back knee). Not for any long period of time, but I did feel some discomfort, specifically beneath the patella. It suggests to me that I might approach this or stretch or similar stretches a bit more conservatively (I only contracted for about 10-15 seconds this time), but if you or any of your classes' members have experienced something similar, I'm keen to hear your insights.

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1 hour ago, Nathan said:

This is a key feature of @Emmet Louis's system

In fact, he has a video on YouTube about pretty much this very thing, although progressed to lower and lower positioning: long lunge (isometric holds).

1 hour ago, Naldaramjo said:

However, it mildly aggravated my left knee.

You did not specify which side you tried it on, so we don't know if that is the front or back knee. I know you asked Jim and I'm sure he will have some great input, but I would suggest considering several things: (1) make sure there are no alignment issues such as foot turned out or rocking to one side, (2) spread the toes and grip the ground with the foot to create a solid, stable base, and/or (3) use supports to stabilize yourself if you have trouble remaining balanced. Also, remember that long isometric holds are intense work and need to be worked up to over time (or from easier to harder positions).

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I had a student this happened too as well. I never worked out why. We adjusted the position of that leg a bit, to redirect the forces, and it was OK, though we never really worked out why. I'd be glad to know if you find a solution. (and in response to Nathan, whose response has just come up, in my student it was the back knee.)

 

 

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27 minutes ago, Nathan said:

You did not specify which side you tried it on, so we don't know if that is the front or back knee. I know you asked Jim and I'm sure he will have some great input, but I would suggest considering several things: (1) make sure there are no alignment issues such as foot turned out or rocking to one side, (2) spread the toes and grip the ground with the foot to create a solid, stable base, and/or (3) use supports to stabilize yourself if you have trouble remaining balanced. Also, remember that long isometric holds are intense work and need to be worked up to over time (or from easier to harder positions).

Oh, right. That's a bit important, eh? Haha...I'll edit the post to reflect this. My left knee was the back knee. As for points (1) - (3), much appreciated. Good reminders. I've find that my hips have quite a few "default" positions that are not quite in proper alignment, especially when I contract their primary muscles. 

29 minutes ago, Jim Pickles said:

I had a student this happened too as well. I never worked out why. We adjusted the position of that leg a bit, to redirect the forces, and it was OK, though we never really worked out why. I'd be glad to know if you find a solution. (and in response to Nathan, whose response has just come up, in my student it was the back knee.)

I'll give it a go for a while and see what happens. I've had tight gracilis muscles for quite some time, so they could be related. Slow and steady...

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1 hour ago, Naldaramjo said:

Oh, right. That's a bit important, eh? Haha...I'll edit the post to reflect this. My left knee was the back knee. As for points (1) - (3), much appreciated. Good reminders. I've find that my hips have quite a few "default" positions that are not quite in proper alignment, especially when I contract their primary muscles. 

Ah, thank you for clarifying. (2) was assuming it was the front knee. Since it was the back, (2) is not so relevant, but the points regarding instability are more relevant. I would definitely try it with something to hold onto so that you can focus on the contractions without concentrating on balance so much. As your knee adapts to the stress, the supports can be phased out.

Regarding our default/habitual positions, I suppose it is worth mentioning that certain patterns of tightness might result in "proper" alignment actually placing excess stress on some tissues. Experimenting to find the position that works for your body in its current state is always a good idea.

Gracilis fascial adhesions can affect comfort in the knee and are rather common, too. Kit has a video about the gracilis release I suggest checking out if you haven't already. Supposedly you can't do it on yourself, but I've had reasonable success with repeated attempts (and a high pain tolerance) :ph34r:

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8 hours ago, Nathan said:

Regarding our default/habitual positions, I suppose it is worth mentioning that certain patterns of tightness might result in "proper" alignment actually placing excess stress on some tissues. Experimenting to find the position that works for your body in its current state is always a good idea.

I can relate to this with respect to keeping a non-slouched posture. I feel like my posture is improving, but I've noticed that a "turtle neck" posture is just as easy for me to feel "normal" in, and often a nice straight spine is exhausting. More grist for the mill...

8 hours ago, Nathan said:

Gracilis fascial adhesions can affect comfort in the knee and are rather common, too. Kit has a video about the gracilis release I suggest checking out if you haven't already. Supposedly you can't do it on yourself, but I've had reasonable success with repeated attempts (and a high pain tolerance) :ph34r:

I remember that video. I'm not sure if I've tried doing it myself, but as my gracilis muscles have been relaxing on their own over time, I'm not too enthusiastic about inflicting such torture on myself...⚖️

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@Nalradamajo - one of the signs of this adhesion is a pull on the lower inside of the knee when attempting a pancake. It releases over time if you keep stretching; otherwise the massage Kit shows can do it rapidly.

 

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3 hours ago, Jim Pickles said:

@Nalradamajo - one of the signs of this adhesion is a pull on the lower inside of the knee when attempting a pancake. It releases over time if you keep stretching; otherwise the massage Kit shows can do it rapidly.

 

When it comes to the pancake, I think I have a more general hamstring restriction - I feel the sensation near the pelvic insertion points. I'll keep this in mind as my work progresses though, thanks!

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@Nathan - I tried the long lunge isometric hold as in the Emmet Louis video you linked to - not quite as low as the lowest she reached, and held for 2 mins (aiming to work up to 3) with the buttocks of the back leg clenched as hard as possible to open up the front of the hip on that side. Also tilting the hips up at the front, and reaching up and away with the arm on the back-leg side. Wow! Thats a strong stretch! I think it will be my go-to preparation for the hip flexor.

I realise that something similar is in Stretching and Flexibility (p. 79) though without the buttocks of the back leg clenched as hard as possible, which to me is the key to making progress in this area.

No DOMS after though.

Many thanks for posting it.

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On 8/25/2019 at 8:03 AM, Jim Pickles said:

@Nathan - I tried the long lunge isometric hold as in the Emmet Louis video you linked to - not quite as low as the lowest she reached, and held for 2 mins (aiming to work up to 3) with the buttocks of the back leg clenched as hard as possible to open up the front of the hip on that side. Also tilting the hips up at the front, and reaching up and away with the arm on the back-leg side. Wow! Thats a strong stretch! I think it will be my go-to preparation for the hip flexor.

I realise that something similar is in Stretching and Flexibility (p. 79) though without the buttocks of the back leg clenched as hard as possible, which to me is the key to making progress in this area.

No DOMS after though.

Many thanks for posting it.

Glad you enjoyed it! The long lunge family is one of the jewels in the crown of the stuff I teach.

Some things that are nice to try in it:

Doing reps in an expand contract thinking. So you try to expand the legs everything in  the feet moving apart direction hold for a period of time then switch to contract trying to bring the legs together and pull hips deeper etc. These can be short reps or longer holds.

Holding a light weight over head, kettlebellls are great for this, in the contra hand to the leg that is going into extentsion. This can be a a game changer in this. Try them out as you get the chance.

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