July 14, 2013


Regaining side splits and the 90-day blog challenge

Let me go on public record here and say I am very grateful to Dave Wardman for the 90 day blog challenge. Having to write something every day has made me dig in and has forced me to think about (and articulate) things which have been percolating but have not yet reached full flower. What a mix of metaphors!

But it is a practical matter to which I want to turn today. As a result of relearning and perfecting the Cossack squats (in combination with the speed skater squats) I wrote about yesterday my side splits are finally coming back. Later I will take an image of the aerobic steps and block mechanism that I use for side splits. And without a photograph it won’t mean much to readers, but it will mean a lot to Dave when I tell him that I was down on the step with a single support the week before last.

A bit of history here: without going into any more details then just this bold statement, 10 years ago I was in intensive care for 10 days suffering from a mystery virus that was never identified. When I came out of hospital I weighed 63 Kg down from a bodyweight of about 85 kg and I spent the next six months sleeping 16 to 18 hours a day, and being looked after by Olivia. I never found out what the virus was, but the point is when I went into the heavy weights room on January 3 (or whichever day the gym opened) I wanted to train again, after this six months, effectively, of sleep.

When I came out of hospital I had lost all of my flexibility completely, too. In fact my body had returned to exactly the same pattern of inflexibility it had when I was an athlete at the age of 27 and when I first started stretching. When I got out of hospital I could not reach my fingers past my knees in a forward bend with straight legs, and a photo taken at that time showed a KL that looked about 90 years of age (if I can find it I will post). And when I walked into the gym that day six months later, I was as weak as a kitten. I got under the empty Olympic bar (which weighs 20 kg) and I did four full back squats—and that put me flat on my back for a week. Nonetheless, during the following period of 12 months, I regained my body weight (in fact it went up to just under 90, so I was a bit tubby) and I recorded my best ever front squat and best ever back squat (and I was an Olympic lifter at one point in my thirties, tho’ not a good one).

The point of mentioning all this is simply to note that during the last 10 years most of my flexibility pre-hospital has come back except side splits and I have no understanding of why. When I went to stretch my legs apart there was to be the sensation of complete “stuckness” in gracilis and the inner hamstring and, unlike stretching any other part of the body, it simply felt as though nothing could actually affect this. My perception over the years was that putting any effort into trying to improve this would just result in injury (and I did pull the fascia in that area a couple of times testing this perception).

But since relearning the Cossack squat and the skater squat all this has changed: for the last two or three months I have been practising side splits regularly and have regained about 75% of my abduction flexibility in this brief period of time. It might be that the Cossack squat’s mobility effect on the inner hamstring and gracilis is the main reason but I cannot say with any certainty. What I can say is that stretching the legs apart these days just feels like any other stretch and that was explicitly not my experience during the previous 10 years. The only thing I have changed is to add regular Cossack squats to my routine. I use a light kettlebell (somewhere between 6–16 kg) held out in front as a counterbalance and to add some resistance, for those that are interested.

And I note that Dave’s Physical Alchemy blog the other day referenced Thomas Kurz’s excellent book Stretching scientifically. I mention this because I’m working on another  way of targeting fascia safely: I am doing a number of repetitive movements using a gym bench to lower myself into side splits momentarily and then squeezing with the legs and arms lifting myself out and then repeating—sometimes 10 or 15 repetitions. I cannot report yet that this is having a major effect or that the effect I feel can be traced back to this practice specifically, but the sense in the body is that it is helping. And one of Kurz’s techniques is un-weighted movements through a desired range of movement first thing in the morning to reset the neural system, so something in both the repetition and in the dynamic movement aspect is playing a part.

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