Achieving the Splits Safely

Just a quick (I hope) post today. It’s been a while since the last one, and let’s just say that it’s because I’ve been busy. Doing stuff. And I’m still catching up on work, so today is a cop out blog post where I answer a reader question (which I one that many of you might be wondering about anyway).

The question: When does flexibility become “unsafe”? Are we dancers, with our ligament pathologies intricacies, doomed to be sore and in pain for as long as we remain flexible? How do we know when  (or if) we’ve reached the perfect balance of strength and flexibility?

That’s the gist of the email I received from a lovely reader I’ll call FABIO, for the sake of anonymity.

Hi Monika,

Your post Ligament Pathologies in Dancers- Things You Need to Know” was phenomenal. I’m combing through post after post of yours because of your insights. I was recently diagnosed as hypermobile. I’m a former dancer and have done yoga for years. Several of your posts have had me going “Omg! It’s me! That’s exactly what I do and that’s what happens to me!” While I’m currently working with a physical therapist to strengthen my hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes, she’s suggested I avoid all stretching.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to regain all 3 splits. Is it possible for someone with all these wonderful ligament pathologies to safely do the splits? Do you have any suggestions regarding strengthening versus stretching? I have tried asking the physical therapist but the answer I generally get out of her is, “it’s complicated.” I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts since I can relate to so much of what you’ve posted.

I always try to take the time to respond when I get awesome emails like this, because when I started writing this blog (which started as a personal brain-dump) I wasn’t anticipating that I’d have real live readers one day. So, yeah, I think it’s pretty cool that there are people out there who think I’m smart and want my opinion. It gives me a warm fuzzy (and my name does mean “advisor”, so I should try to live up to it I guess).

Anyway, here’s (the edited to have no typos version of) how I responded:

Fabio, your question is one that I’m still trying to figure out. What is the most optimal ratio of strength to flexibility for dancers to maintain technical virtuosity while preventing injuries and maintaining a long, healthy career? I wish I had a more satisfying answer but quite honestly it’s a question I consider every single day. Everyday I’m working to come a bit closer to some semblance of an understanding.

Your PT is right- It’s complicated, and every BODY is different. In general, stability, neutrality, and alignment are more important for injury prevention and pain management, but dance (and even yoga) has some extreme aesthetic and athletic demands that take you well beyond your own neutral. And trying to dance in perfect neutral all the time is just. Not. Dance.

My suggestion- experiment safely. Build awareness and get to know your limits. That said, if anyone reading this happens to make any progress in figuring this strength vs. flexibility thing out for themselves, please keep me posted. I’d love to hear about your experiences in body-detectivism.

But I’ll give you an anecdotal example: I have a contemporary/ballet, university-level dance client who dances 5-6 days per week. She can do the splits in all 3 directions, and is probably as flexible as her genetics will allow (with some underlying ligament pathologies, to boot). In the 2 years she has been training regularly with me she has maintained her flexibility, improved her technique, and is stronger than the average chick. She can deadlift close to her own bodyweight for 5ish reps, can do full depth push-ups correctly, can squat proficiently, and has an excellent understanding of how her body moves.

In this time she has had only one minor knee injury, which didn’t stop her from dancing, but required one or two physio appointments. When she originally came to me, she had all sorts of complaints about her lower back and hamstrings. I’d say that’s not too shabby.

But again, that’s HER. Not you. Not anyone else.

Another example is bodybuilders, some of whom despite their huuuuge muscles can still do the splits. Do they also need to jump around and do athletic things? Not as much as dancers do… but I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to strength vs. flexibility, and I hate (strong word!) when fear of losing flexibility is the main reason for not developing strength.

Then there are factors like genetics, injury history, foot wear, habits outside the dance class, lifestyle, diet, etc that can contribute to your optimal level of flexibility and strength.

So… Yes. It’s complicated. It depends on a lot of factors. And to keep this post short (and because I have to get back to  doing “real work”) I’ll end it here.

And for those of you who want something more actionable and sciency to read right now, check out Miguel Aragoncillo’s post about developing flexibility for dance  (keeping in mind that Miguel is a hypermobile bastard , and he is pretty dang strong too).