In a sense, this is a follow up to my initial post about How to Get the Front Splits. That one is more focused on how to get to a flat front split on the floor. But if you’re an aerialist that has got that (or is close to it), you may have noticed that it doesn’t translate into a flat split in the air.
This is because active flexibility and passive flexibility are two different things. Of course they are related – you can’t really have more active flexibility than passive. But they don’t follow from each other automatically.
Testing Active Splits in Air
First, we need to know how bad the problem is. What’s the difference between your passive split angle and the active split angle? The bigger the difference, the higher the risk for injury, and the worse they’ll look. For passive splits, just check them on the floor. For active ones, there’s several way to check:
- For an aerialist, the ideal test would be on an apparatus, most likely while you’re in class or where you have access to one. Make sure to warm up and stretch appropriately beforehand. Then do a trick that involves splits where you can’t use hands or the apparatus to help you too much. For example, on hoop you could do splits under the bar or a push out split.
- If you want to check it closer to home without access to an apparatus, one way is to use a pull up bar (very similar to hoop splits under the bar) or gymnastic rings (similar, but no bar in the way), as long you have enough space around it.
- An easier way to check it at home without any equipment is in headstand or other inversions. But for that to be safe, your body needs to be quite stable in the inversion. It’ll feel a bit different than hanging splits, but the result shouldn’t be too far off.
- If you’re not confident in inversions and don’t have any equipment available, the best test is probably standing splits.
Try it with both open and closed hips to see the difference. In studios, there’ll often be mirrors where you can check your form, but taking a picture or video is more reliable (plus it’ll be easier to see progress over time). Set up your phone to take a photo or have someone take it for you. How close to a flat split are you? Can you tell from feeling, or did you need a picture? It can feel like you’re pushing your legs pretty far apart, and then they still somehow turn out to be at a 120° angle. The body awareness will improve with time. Perform these tests every few weeks to see if there’s any improvement.
Training Active Splits
Essentially, training for active splits is leg strength training. You need strong quads and hip flexors of the front leg to pull it forward, and glutes and the hamstring on the back leg to pull it back. But more specifically, you need to be able to activate that strength at large range of motion.
One way to check and train that is to place your foot on a high surface, for example a table or shelf, and try to lift it. You may find that at a certain height, you can’t move and hold it anymore. That’s the end of your active range of motion, and that’s what we’re trying to increase.
Start off with some dynamic exercises. Typically this would be standing leg lifts. I suggest doing about 10 – 20 in each direction, front, back and to the side (if that number seems high, work up to it over time). Avoid using momentum, because that won’t really help you progress much. Slowly raise you foot as high as you can, then slowly lower it almost to the floor, pause for a second and repeat. For variety, you can also do leg lifts in downward dog, moving the leg from bent towards the chest to high up in the air. To train middle splits, you can lie on your back. Open and close your legs just as slowly 10 – 30 times.
Finally, do a long hold (10 – 30 seconds, more if you can manage somehow) in Utthita Hasta Padhagustasana without hands, or in simpler terms, raise one leg straight in front of you as high as you can, toes pointed. Try to keep your body upright and even instead of slouching to one side or tensing up the shoulders. Do an even longer hold in standing splits (30 – 60 seconds). I usually do half with closed hips and half with open.
I’ve seen people recommend adding ankle weights to these exercises. The idea is that if you get used to them with extra weight, it’ll feel even easier once you’re on the apparatus and unencumbered. I haven’t tried that myself, as I currently still find them challenging enough as it is. If that changes, I’ll report back.