The Side Split

Russian commandos pride themselves on their ability to perform a 'dead split'. But, not because anyone plans on kicking the enemy in the head.

Imagine: you've ski-marched over the frozen tundra, with a hundred pounds of gear, on the wooden regulation skis known as 'coffins'. You have eaten nothing but lingonberries, dug up from under the snow. You've brushed your teeth with evergreen branches, if you are lucky enough to be that far South. Believe me, the last thing you would do is a high kick!

Anyone in his right mind sticks to the Indiana Jones school of fighting and shoots the bastards.

Even if he is out of ammo, a commando does not resort to spinning back kicks to the head. No, he'll use the dirty fighting skills of 'applied karate', of combat sambo, or the esoteric and deadly moves of Russian Martial Art. This way you get to send the bad guys to Valhalla—without wasting the energy equivalent of a Tae Bo workout, in the process.

So why bother with the side split?

Because, unless you have mastered it at the tender age of a cheerleader, the side split is one of the best exercises in mind control and pain tolerance.

Yes, the 'dead split', as the toes forward side split is called in Russia, is as painful as it looks! On one hand, pain, fear, and anxiety reduce flexibility by increasing the sensitivity of the stretch reflex. On the other hand, it is possible to will a stretch reflex not to fire! In other words, the split can be achieved, but you must go beyond good, evil, and the pain of twenty rep squats or childbirth!

Start by eating a bottle of aspirin... Just kidding. Don't be sensitive, OK? Stand on a couple of glossies and place your hands or fists on the floor in front of you. Bend forward and place your hands on the floor in front of you. I suggest that you point your fingers toward you or use your fists, but it is not a must. It also happens to be the only choice you will have in the splitting matter. Enjoy it while it lasts. You are on Soviet territory now and I am the commandant of the camp!

With your weigh on your arms, look up, open your ribcage, and push the walls apart. Keep your toes pointed more or less forward.

Push the walls apart and—it is very important! — push your hips forward.

Push the walls apart and—it is very important! — push your hips forward.

Slowly transfer your weight to your legs and assume as upright a position as you can muster. Keep your lower back arched. It is a must. The pelvis usually gets in the way of your femurs when you try to spread them apart. Tilt your pelvis forward by making your lower spine go concave—and it gets out of the way!

Keep your lower back arched and chest open. It is a must.

Keep your lower back arched and chest open. It is a must.

Pinch the floor with your feet with one to two thirds of your maximal strength (the stretching mode of choice is Forced Relaxation). Build up the tension gradually, over a couple of seconds. It is easy to get injured when you rapidly flex a stretched muscle, Comrade!

Hold steady, unwavering tension for twenty seconds, perhaps even longer, and do not forget to breathe. Although holding the contraction for such a long time is not always necessary to relax the muscle effectively, it helps to build strength.

Suddenly release the tension with a sigh of relief and allow yourself to sink a little deeper into the split. It seems impossible when your body feels like it is being torn in half, but it can be done. Relaxation is mind over matter. If you do not mind the pain, it will not matter.

Gently lift yourself up with one hand in the front and one behind you. Push the walls apart and—it is very important!—push your hips forward. Before we start hurting, you must understand that you will never, ever do a side split without positioning your pelvis in one line with your feet!

Drive your hips forward at every opportunity, try to get them in line with your feet. Push your hips forward with the help of your arms. There are three hand positions to choose from. You can push-pull with one hand in the front and one behind you; you can grip the floor in front of you with your hands and pull yourself forward; or, once you are flexible enough, you may push from behind your back.

Leaving the glutes a few inches behind the heels is a fatal mistake, which keeps many very flexible people from going down all the way in a split. They either end up falling on their butts, or sitting down on the floor with their legs spread wide, but never wide enough. This subtlety is something the devious insiders of the stretching racket would rather not reveal. The fewer people can do the splits, the more accomplished the stretch pros look.

It is your lucky day. First, I have given away the farm, and now I shall unclassify my method of mastering the proper hip alignment in the quickest possible way!

The secret to kill for is: to push your hips forward with the help of your arms.

There are three hand positions to choose from. You can push-pull with one hand in the front and one behind you...

The secret to kill for is:

to push your hips forward with the help of your arms.

The secret to kill for is:

to push your hips forward with the help of your arms.

...you can grip the floor in front of you with your hands and pull yourself forward...

...or, once you are flexible enough, you may push from behind your back.

If you have diligently waited until you can do a perfect road kill split before attempting the Russian split, you will feel that the muscles in the front of your thighs resist the stretch more than your inner thighs. It is normal. It is time to shift your concentration from your groin to these front muscles: sartorius, psoas, etc. Consciously contract all of the above, the muscles underneath and in the front of your hip joints, once you have driven your hips forward.

Hold that tension! If your muscles start quivering and give out by themselves at some point during the stretch (Clasp Knife), do not freak and take it as a favor. As before, alternate the contractions with relaxations and the wall pressing action.

Drive your hips forward at every opportunity, and try to get them in line with your feet. If you do it right, you should be able to sit in a full split without leaning on your hands—and your legs will form a straight line when viewed from above.

Keep at it, until you can no longer increase your stretch or you have reached your pain threshold. Carefully get out of the stretched position. Do not twist your knees and do not panic! Try to use the strength of your groin muscles to get up.

There is no way around pain if you want quick results. John Faas cannot help straining his vocal cords and soaking his T-shirt with sweat when I am putting him through the moves. Twenty-year old John is a rare exception from the generation of slackers feeling sorry for themselves. A second degree taekwondo black belt, he has been preparing for service in the SEALs since he was twelve (John is finishing his frogman training in San Diego as we speak). John is as tough as they come and still he cannot help hollering like an exorcist victim. "Are your balls on the floor yet, trooper?"—"Yes, sir!"

Although, as the U. S. Navy SEAL saying goes, "pain is just weakness leaving your body", you must differentiate between the pain of injury or overstretch and the pain of high muscular tension. The technique I am describing does not stretch your muscles but tricks them into relaxing and picks up the slack. Therefore you should feel the extreme contraction of a heavy exercise with weights, rather than the forced pull of overzealous stretching. Ease into splitting the Russian way, to learn the difference.

If pain is not a friend of yours (shame on you!), you can minimize it by emphasizing strength gains in the stretched position, over flexibility. Take your time and build up great strength at your comfortable flexibility limit, before moving deeper into the stretch. It might take you a year to work your way down into a full split, but at least you will not suffer... as much.

Split every two to three days, or as often as four times a week if you choose the 'pain light' approach. Do not do any more sets and contractions than it takes to reach your daily limit. Two to four sets work best for most people. Hold the last contraction of the last set steadily for at least thirty seconds, more if you have the fortitude.

Once you have worked your way down to the floor and want to try the suspended split a la Jean Claude Van Damme, use phone book sized plastic boxes instead of chairs. Physiologically there is no difference, but the former are less likely to put you out of commission for good.

If you hit the wall, do not ever try to excuse your lameness with your age or 'the way you are built'. Studies show that anyone with normal hip and back ROM can learn to do side splits if they learn proper alignment! Only the folks with fused vertebrae, degenerative hip joint disease, and other equally nasty problems truly cannot. The rest just do not want it bad enough. They are content to remain poorly assembled collections of body parts, devoid of any athletic ability.

How bad do YOU want it? To change your shape at will—like an advanced model quicksilver Terminator?

Most of the above stretches are demonstrated on the companion video, Relax into Stretch.

Relax into Stretch delivers instant flexibility!

Conventional stretching attempts to literally elongate your tissues, which is dangerous and ineffective.

Relax into Stre t ch simply teaches your muscles to relax into a stretch. If you compare traditional training to a messy hardware reorganization, then Relax into S t re t c h is an efficient software upgrade.

While stretching tissues may take years, changes in the nervous system are immediate! Your muscles will start noticeably elongating from your first Relax into Stre t c h practice—and within months you will have achieved a level of flexibility uncommon in our species.

Bungee cords make it easier for beginners

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