For December, I’ll be addressing straddle splits (or middle splits) and a straddle pancake (a straddle split with a forward fold). Many people have asked how to improve their straddles and their straddle pancakes. Others have asked: if they have one why don’t they have the other? You see, you can have a really big straddle split and not have a straddle pancake and you can also have a not so big straddle split and still be able to pancake. They require some of the same muscles, but the pancake requires so many more muscles to be flexible, not just the inner thighs. For the 180 degree straddle plus pancake, that requires even more flexibility within these muscles.
The straddle stretches your inner thigh muscles (adductor muscles), illiopsoas (a set hip flexors), your inner and outer hamstrings–not quite the same as in a pike stretch–and one of your external hip rotators: quadratus femoris.
Muscles that you will want to be contracting to help hold your straddle position (and to take advantage of reciprocal inhibition) are your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles. Also contracting are your external hip rotators and your quads.
Reciprocal inhibition: the contracting of muscles on one side of a joint to relax the muscles on the other side of the joint.
In a seated straddle, most of the adults I work with tend to roll their legs out (shown in this photo to the right), meaning their inner thighs are facing towards the ceiling and their knees and toes are facing the wall behind them. As you can see I am demonstrating more of a rounded-under pelvis and spine and my legs are externally rotated so that my toes and knees are no longer face up at the ceiling, but slightly behind me. If this is where you are at, work on sitting up straight and on your sitz bones, with bent knees if needed (so you will make an M shape with your legs). Always keeping the toes and knees facing the ceiling. If you can sit tall and on your sitz bones, but your legs roll back a bit, you will need to contract your internal rotators to roll your legs into a neutral position, bringing your knees and toes facing up towards the ceiling. If you think about rotating your legs from your hip socket, this will activate those muscles.
Taking a look at the photo to the right, it demonstrates a tall posture with the weight on the sitz bones and the feet and knees in neutral position. In this position, you want to be contracting the quads, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles and external hip rotators to activate reciprocal inhibition and have the hamstrings and the inner thigh muscles relax. You want to be actively trying to get your legs super-straight and your legs as wide as possible. It should feel like work. It may even feel like work in your back muscles to keep that tall posture. Keep the abs strong to support your tall spine and breathe for several breaths in this contracted state and then relax the muscles a bit and see if you can find a bit more passive flexibility. Then repeat.
You want to be actively trying to get your legs super-straight and your legs as wide as possible. It should feel like work.
The Straddle Pancake
In a straddle pancake the muscles that are being stretched are all the same as in the straddle, but you are also stretching some back muscles: erector spinae, lats, as well as all of your hamstrings, calf muscles, some of the external hip rotators and your gluteus maximus.
The muscles that you want to contact are your quads, illiopsoas, TFL, gluteus medius (a little) and your abs (a little). Actively hinging at the hips naturally contracts the illiospsoas by bringing your spine, where this muscle originates, closer to the top of your femur where it inserts (or in the case of a straddle, the floor between your femurs). Also by contracting the TFL and the quads, this helps the pelvis to anteriorly tilt and keep us hinging at the hips and not in our low back (which is how low back strains can happen), drawing our chest closer to the floor in front of us.
You also want to contract gluteus medius (deeper butt muscle) a bit to help counter act the effects of the gluteus maximus being stretched-which happened when we fold forward. When the glute max is being stretched, it naturally rounds the pelvis under (a posterior tilt) and externally rotates the legs. By contracting the glute medius and your TFL you can counteract this turn out of the legs and draw your legs back to neutral and help bring the fold back to your hips and not your low back. In general, whenever you are folding forward, seated, standing, in a pike, straddle or split stance, engage your abs and contract your quads and keep them contracting throughout the whole stretch. (This article has some great info and good photos of the tilting of the pelvis with the muscles contracting and relaxing.)
Sometimes I am asked if as you hinge forward for the pancake do you need to keep your knees and feet facing up. As far as keeping yourself safe anatomically, no. Your legs can certainly roll in towards the floor some as your pelvis tilts forward. There are some activities that may require you to be in a pancake and still have your knees and feet facing up, this requires a lot more flexibility in your internal rotators and strength in your external rotators. As you can see when not thinking about rotating my legs at my hip socket so they face the ceiling, my feet roll in.
Next month I will talk about how to find a bit more tilt in your pelvis to find a deeper forward hinge in your pike and straddle stretches.
Please leave in the comments any questions you may have. I love answering them and hearing from you all.