I’m a lifelong wannabe-splits person. I danced for 15 years growing up, and the bane of my existence during that time was the inability to get all the way down into the splits (you might know this as “doing a split,” but within the dancing/gymnastics/mobility community, the correct terminology is “the splits”). Technically, I could on the left side, never the right, and I never even pretended to try for the middle. I watched other girls plop down into left, right, and even middle splits my whole life, including Amy (not her real name), a girl from my childhood ballet classes who could glide effortlessly down into a split and always find monogrammed purses at Limited Too with the first initial of her name on them. Meanwhile I grunted and squeezed my way down into something merely resembling not quite a split, and somehow Limited Too was always out of purses monogrammed with my initial. I’m clearly not yet over it all.
Every good hero’s journey is motivated by a nemesis, and so on day one of my splits quest, I thought of Amy and saw red.
Day one: The plan
I decided to see what progress I could make in one week, so I searched “do the splits in one week” online. I was greeted by a whole host of options on YouTube, and chose this one, “How to get your splits in ONE DAY (SIMPLE, FAST, EASY) for BEGINNERS” from Gabriella Whited, because it had nearly seven million views. The video promised splits in a mere day, so I figured, Hey, if it takes me even three times as long, I’ll be splitting in no time!
“Some of you will be able to get your splits in a day, some of you won’t,” Gabi tells us at the beginning of her video. I worked to ignore the fact that “some of you will get this and some of you won’t” is true about anything anywhere at any time throughout the universe. “If you don’t, dude, you will get it in a week with this stretching routine.” Gabi’s video is from 2018, but it feels worth noting that content promising the splits in a matter of days has become increasingly common online; there are many, many TikToks offering one minute of instruction to reach the splits in as little as two days.
To get a sense of my starting point, I slid down into what I believed would be near-splits, only to find that they were not near at all; I was a good seven to eight inches from the ground on both sides. OK, fine; you do have to start somewhere. Plus Gabi promised a week, max. I didn’t feel worried. I felt equipped. I felt the gaze of young Amy, sneering at me from her middle splits. I felt ready to win.
Day two: The on-ramp to pain
I’ve always associated stretching with relaxation and peace. Apparently I’ve been wrong in this, because, as I learned on day two, stretching can actually suck pretty big eggs. Gabi’s method involved a series of 10 static stretches—hamstring extensions, lunges to lengthen the hip flexors, etc.—that you hold between 45 seconds and two minutes each, ending in holding your best attempt at each of the actual splits for up to two minutes. She recommends doing this series twice a day in order to get the splits in a week’s time, max. I figured I’d follow this program every day until I could hold the splits for at least 30 seconds on each leg, a goal that felt reasonable, based on Gabi’s own promise in the video. The whole circuit took me about 30 minutes.
While holding one of my leg extensions—a stretch that involved laying on my back and pulling one leg up toward my face, keeping it locked out and straight—my leg trembled. My hips didn’t love the sensation of repeatedly rocking forward into a lunge, either. I had the distinct premonition that I might be sore the next day. Also, unsurprisingly, I had made zero progress on my splits over the course of 24 hours. Perhaps even more unsurprisingly, trying to hold the splits for any meaningful amount of time, much less two full minutes, was painful.
Day three: Pain; no gain
I thought I would try speaking to physical therapist Emily Gardner of the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute in Houston, to check whether getting one’s splits in a week was reasonable. When I asked her about this, she started laughing at me.
Garder said it takes months for most adults to achieve the splits. “When we talk about long-term tissue change and flexibility, you usually see that over the course of six months to a year, depending on the frequency of stretching and range of motion a person has,” Gardner said.
I explained to Gardner about the years of dancing and my extant exercise schedule—yoga once a week, running a few times a week, general bodyweight exercises—and she didn’t change her assessment. Still, I remained resolute in my quest toward the splits; even if I wouldn’t go from no split to the splits, I wanted to see how much progress I could make.
Even Yiannis Christoulas, the YouTube sports scientist who has his own video guide on “how to do the Split fast,” told me that “fast” really means something like “one to eight months.”
Gabi now occupied the position of a demi-god to me. Gabi said twice a day. Gabi said hold the leg extension for two minutes. Gabi said use two cushions under your splits at first and then work down to no cushions. I followed Gabi’s instructions to a T. While I accept on some level you don’t go from zero to split in a few days, by day three, I hadn’t even seen any progress. Why???????
Day four: F this, or: A rest day
In pain yet again, and also pissed off, I skipped this day. Call it a rest day! In his own how-to splits video, Christoulas said rest days are good for making progress, adding that they’re an effective way to get past an occasional plateau. Given that I experienced zero progress thus far, I’d say “plateau” is a fair way to refer to my efforts up to this point. I took the rest day.
Day five: A smidgen of progress?
On day five, I got back on the horse and attempted to do a split on top of it. I did Gabi’s special stretching routine twice through, which, after my day of recovery, felt pretty nice. Turns out it’s not a terrible thing to stretch your hamstrings and hip flexors in the middle of the marathon sitting session that is “quarantining at home for a whole year due to a pandemic.”
“The biggest issue is that people are sitting too much,” Michel Fredericson, a sports medicine physician at Stanford Health Care, told me. “And when you sit all day, you get a lot of tightness in your hamstrings and hip flexors. Most people who are sitting a lot are going to need to do some regular stretching of those areas, just to maintain normal length of that tissue.” Fredericson continued that “regular stretching” could be as simple as holding a stretch for 30 seconds and repeating it three times, daily.
“Normal tissue length” isn’t as sexy as “doing the splits,” but 30 minutes of stretching definitely made it easier to get through my day of sitting at a computer, scrolling Twitter and typing posts such as this one.
Still, we are on a quest. At the end of the day, I squeaked my way down into my version of the splits and found I still was not in the splits. I was about an inch or so closer to the ground on my left side, but the most notable progress was that it felt less painful to get down into the splits. The slight pulling sensation I’d felt in my hamstrings wasn’t there anymore. My hip flexors still felt very tight, but I could pretty much straighten my front leg if I didn’t concern myself with squaring my hips.
Day six: New approach
As the proverb goes: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” By day six, AKA six full foolings in, I decided to cut Gabi, former light of my life, out of my journey. I just wasn’t seeing the progress I hoped for.
As Gardner explained, that may have been because I was doing it all wrong. A lot of physical therapists these days advocate for dynamic stretching over static stretching, or stretching with movement instead of holding still in a stretch for a long period of time (precisely what Gabi had me do). “For the average Joe, I would direct them toward something like a yoga class once a week,” Gardner said, adding that most vinyasa flow yoga classes are a good example of dynamic stretching: moving through stretches quickly, and activating muscles while you’re in them.
Running out of time and patience, instead of following Gabi’s method on day six, I did a 45-minute yoga class that—by some stroke of fate—involved sliding down into the splits not once, but twice. I can’t completely discredit Gabi’s efforts—she and I had been through so much together over the week—but I got the closest to doing actual splits on this day than I had all week, and it wasn’t nearly as painful as my previous attempts. There was no leg shaking, no feeling like my hamstrings were going to snap, no burning sensation in my hip flexors. It felt nice—maybe even like a smidgen of the nirvana I imagine Amy must have felt each time she slid straight down into her splits in ballet class.
It could have been totally due to the fact of my having warmed up first. As Fredericson said, static stretching isn’t bad—if anything, it has an unfairly bad rap—but there’s a time and place for it. Before doing something like the splits or any other kind of athletic activity, it’s better to warm up with dynamic stretching like butt kicks, high knees, or jumping jacks that both stretch and get blood pumping in the muscles and connective tissue. Based on my limited experience, I tend to agree.
Day seven: Results
On my last day, in an effort to recreate the good zone from day six, I put back on my exact same outfit, did another yoga class, and at the end, tried to slide down into my splits. Keeping in mind my starting point—about seven or eight inches from the ground on both sides—I made considerable progress on the left side. Without squaring my hips, I was nearly there, hovering only two or three inches from the ground. The right side was a whole different story. I could mostly straighten my right leg, but my left hip flexor is so tight (possibly from an old high school running injury) that there’s probably no hope of ever going down into my right splits. I remained about five inches from the ground.
In other words, I failed abjectly to be as good and smug as Amy doing her graceful, effortless splits. But when I asked both Gardner and Fredericson whether there’s any health or wellness benefits to this level of flexibility, both of them told me there is literally no need for any normal adult to be able to slide down into a split. Gardner went so far as to call the entire quest to get the splits “kind of a waste of time.”
“The splits is an extreme range of motion,” she said. “To get the benefits of flexibility and overall wellness, you don’t have to get the splits.”
Fredericson agreed: “There isn’t any benefit [to doing the splits],” he said. “The only reason it would be important is if you’re a dancer or a gymnast. I practice and teach martial arts and I can get pretty close, but this is something I’ve been doing my entire life.”
Fredericson even said that focusing too much on flexibility and stretching too much can lead to functionality problems and injury. He highlighted the difference between flexibility and mobility, flexibility being self-explanatory, and mobility being the ability to perform functional, daily activities, like going into a squat, jumping, or turning around.
“Mobility is equally important,” he said. “Mobility describes how well the body is able to move as a whole system, rather than just at one joint. Somebody who has good mobility may not be able to do the splits, but if you asked them to do a squat or deadlift, they can do that. Functionally, they’re fine.”
Once again, being “functionally fine” is nowhere near as alluring as being able to waltz into a party and slide into a perfect split, as I dreamt I might someday do (would this alarm rather than impress my fellow partygoers? I have not really considered it). But it does hold a certain appeal. I like being able to drop down into a squat, I complete my little jogs with ease, and I can do a deadlift if the need arises. No telling if my childhood splits nemesis can do these things, but in the reality that exists only in my head I wishfully imagine that she can’t.
On day eight, my first splits-free day, I didn’t do any stretching. My little hamstrings and hip flexors welcomed the reprieve. Knowing what I know now about the general uselessness of being able to do the splits—party tricks aside—I can say with confidence that I will not continue trying to achieve this particular lifelong goal. Amy and the others can keep their splits. This is not because I am “giving up,” nor am I “mad” or “jealous”; it’s because I have learned it’s actually superior, it sounds like, to be “functionally fine” and have “normal tissue length.” Besides, I got pretty close on my left side, so I’m sure I could do it, if I really felt like it.
Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.