Full disclosure: I can do splits both ways. That is, I can do the splits with one leg in front of me and one leg behind and I can do the version where both of my legs are spread eagle to my right and left. When people see me do splits for the first time, this is usually how our conversation goes:
“Wow. You’re so flexible. Were you born that way?”
“This? No no. The secret is to cut off your balls- you’ve got to really want it.”
“Just kidding. I have all three of my balls. I wasn’t born more flexible than the average person. I’ve just kept it my flexibility longer than most.”
I grew up doing martial arts since I was seven years old and I started this journey with Tae Kwon Do. When I was a teenager teaching Tae Kwon Do to younger kids, I noticed something. I would ask the kids that were seven years old and below to do the splits for me and they could do it with ease. When I asked the kids that were about 10 to do the splits, they struggled. From that, I learned that as we get older, even from a very young age as seven to eight or nine to ten, we start to lose more and more of our flexibility. For most adults I’ve worked with, it’s an effort for them to touch their toes or have their head touch their knees. When I ask how often they stretch, the answer is usually “never.” To stretch is just a preservation of flexibility or a way to reclaim one’s flexibility.
How to stretch?
No bouncing. We don’t need to put extra pressure on your tendons, ligaments and muscle fibers. Instead, the key to stretching is long holds.
Try to hold any stretch for at least 10 seconds. Those 10 seconds will feel like forever, but as you build up more of your flexibility, you’ll be able to stretch deeper and hold those stretches for much longer. That pain will go away, but you need to go through it first before it leaves your body. What happens is we are stretching your muscle fibers during this time. The key though is you have to be consistent because if you don't stretch for long periods of time, then your muscles go back to being inflexible.
Another tip: exhale on the actual stretch. When you exhale, you can compress your chest a little bit more. This allows you to get deeper and lower in your stretches. Also, by exhaling, you can channel some of that pain out of your body through your breath. For example, when you bench press, you exhale on the actual push because that gives a bit more push and compression for physical exertion.
When to stretch?
Here are some of my great daily stretches
Single-leg hamstring stretch
Double-leg hamstring stretch:
Vertical hamstring stretch
In the end, you should never feel pain when you stretch. If you do, that means you’re pushing too much and are at risk of injury. Rather, you should feel a stretching feeling. That is the sweet spot you’re looking for. Once you get there, your goal is to hold it for 10 seconds. Gradually, you will surpass that threshold and move onto the next. Remember, just like strength or weight loss, flexibility is also a slow gain.