You know that woman who really gets “ass to grass” when she squats? Or how about the person you’ve seen in yoga class who’s so bendy she should have a pose renamed in her honor? I’m not one of those women.
I am the exact opposite of flexible.
I can’t touch my toes, breaking parallel when I squat requires some real hip TLC, and more than one CrossFit coach has told me my lack of mobility and flexibility is keeping me from getting better, faster.
So, in the name of athleticism and improved mobility, I challenged myself (or rather, surrendered my tight hamstrings and hip flexors) to a 30-day split challenge. In the past, I’d tried a 30-day squat challenge, so I knew that if I really wanted to make a long-lasting difference, consistency was key.
The month began with a lot of questions: Could a monthlong foray with my yoga mat, some stretches, and 10 to 15 minutes a day help reverse the effects of my sit-all-day work routine? Would this actually work, even for my yoga-antithetical self?
Thirty days later, my hips have stopped snap-crackle-popping every time I sit down. My knees have stopped cracking like bubble wrap during squat-focused workouts, and my lower back feels less “rubbery” in the middle of my work day. My posture has changed too, at least according to my friend from the gym who suspiciously eyed me up and down and told me, “You look taller today, GK”.
As for whether or not I can ease into a split as gracefully as the bendy stars you see on Instagram, keep reading to find out.
I strength train, run, and do CrossFit regularly. I also try to take a yoga class at least twice a month, so I have a pretty good idea of what my body can and can’t do.
But when I reached out to my go-to fitness expert, physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault, he made it clear that there’s right way and a wrong way to go about a challenge like this.
“This is a great idea, but you need to make certain not to do too much, too soon,” he says. “Think about your muscles like rubber bands, which are naturally elastic in nature. If you stretch them too far before they’re ready, they can snap, or get injured.”
My No. 1 rule moving forward
Don’t force it. The last thing I wanted was to injure myself.
Wickham also warns, “The way you’re going to nail the split and gain flexibility and mobility is practice.” He compared it to my back squat: “Just like it took you 18 months to increase your back squat 30 pounds, this change won’t come overnight. Or even a week. It’ll probably take a couple of months of regular stretching to get yourself there. But 30 days is enough to see some progress,” he says.
Sure, he may have been trying to help temper my expectations. But as a former college athlete and current CrossFit competitor, I took it as a challenge.
“I will get a split,” I told myself as I Googled online plans that would help me conquer my goals and awaken my bendy self.
The fact that The Blogilates 30 Days & 30 Stretches to Splits Project has a community-based approach (through #JourneytoSplits and #Blogilates on Instagram) was definitely a positive for someone like me with a history of team sports and CrossFit, which is known for its “Fit Fam” vibe.
But before I printed the schedule, I called yoga instructor and mobility coach Alexandra Sheppard, CF-L1, 200hr Yoga Cert, to get her opinions.
“To be able to do a split, you have to have flexible hamstrings, hip flexors, and some other small muscles in the legs,” she says.
Each day during the challenge you have to do stretches numbered 1 through 5 (out of 30), your foundational stretches. Then at day 6, you’ll do 1 through 5 and 6, and on day 18, you will do 1 through 5 and 18, and so on and so forth, holding each stretch for one minute and stretching for a total of 10 minutes a day. Sheppard confirms that the variety of stretches in this 30-day challenge was a real positive because each stretch would help target all those small muscles.
Once I settled on the plan, I printed it out and set daily reminders for 2 p.m. I work from home and I figured a midday stretch session would be a nice break from my work. I was ready to embark on my journey to a swole and flexy future.
Week one: I realized just how inflexible I am
Time: 10 minutes per day
You know the saying: You never know how brave you are until you’re faced with adversity. Well, I didn’t know how inflexible I was until I was faced with some moves that require flexibility. Oof.
The first day, my alarm bleeped with the same tune I use to wake up in the morning. This alarmed (pun intended) me so much, that I jumped up from my chair and rammed my kneecaps into my desk. I immediately switched my ring reminder for the rest of the month to one that’s much calmer (a Bon Iver song, if you must know).
Then, I lit my favorite candle, sheathed off my jeans and pulled on a pair of wear-everywhere leggings, migrated to the giant carpet (which is so plush, it’s essentially a giant yoga matt) on the other side of my bedroom/office/mobility den, and called on my inner yogi.
For the next 10 minutes, I bent, folded, pulled, and lunged my body into positions my body was definitely not used to. I held each position for one minute, as instructed — which felt, truly, like the longest minute of my life. By the end of those 10 minutes, my hips felt a little looser, but those minutes were not easy.
The rest of the first week was pretty similar: Every day at 2 p.m., I interspersed my routine of computer work and caffeine crashes with split stretching.
Wickham says that for the first week in particular, I should pay attention to how my body was feeling during the stretch.
“If you ever feel a pinching sensation or discomfort, come out of the stretch and try going back into it again slowly,” he recommends. “Sometimes that helps it feel better. If it still hurts, try changing the angle a bit. And if you ever feel a sharp or tingling pain, stop.”
That first week I had to do a lot of readjusting. But by the end of the week, my body felt more comfortable getting into and holding each pose for 60 seconds.
Week two: I took it one stretch at a time
Time: 15 minutes (5-minute warmup + 10-minute challenge) per day
The first week, I did my best not to push too hard while I was stretching. But given how sore I was, I worried something was up. Keeping my promise to myself not to get injured, I called up Sheppard to check in.
“You’re probably overstretching,” she says when I explain that my hips felt achy and my hamstrings were at an I-just-deadlifted level of sore. “You’re pushing your body to the limits of what it’s used to doing when you’re stretching.”
Stretch tip: Just like when you strength train, you’re creating tiny tears in the muscle fibers when you stretch deeply, which is why you’re sore, says Sheppard. Warm up with simple stretches like reaching for your toes before tackling more complicated ones.
She said because I didn’t feel any sharp pain, it was likely no big deal, but that if I was worried (and I was!), I should spend an extra few minutes warming up with even simpler stretches before I got into some of the more intricate ones from the calendar.
So, I added a 5-minute warmup to my routine, upping it to 15 minutes. And it helped.
I was less sore from the stretching itself during that second week, and I was starting to see some incremental improvements in how deep I could get in my lunges and folds.
Week three: I missed a day and felt it
Time: 15 minutes (5-minute warmup +10-minute challenge) per day
The Split Challenge says, “Stick to the 30 days. Do not skip a single day. Promise? That’s how you’ll get into the splits.” Well on day 23, I goofed.
Between deadlines, snoozed 2 p.m. notifications, and a trip to pick up my sister who was visiting from the airport, my 15 minutes of stretching went to the bottom of my to-do list, and then I skipped it completely.
And honestly, on day 24, I understood why the creator, Cassey Ho, was so insistent on consistency: Those stretches felt so much harder after a day off — especially the lunge.
I spent close to 18 minutes stretching that day, which helped shake off some the tightness from not stretching the day before. I returned to my “scheduled programming” for the rest of the week.
Week four: I stretched longer and felt strong
Time: 25 minutes: 15 minutes (5-minute warm-up + 10-minute challenge) in the afternoon per day, plus 10 minutes after CrossFit
Scrolling through the #JourneytoSplits tag made it clear that other challengers were way closer to getting splits than I was! So, with only a week left in my challenge, and still pretty far off from my end goal of getting into a split, I got a bit impatient. I decided to add a second bout of stretching to my routine, postworkout.
“Stretching after a workout will help you open up your muscles just a little bit deeper, because they’re super warm from the activity you just did,” Sheppard says.
With three days left in the challenge, I hit a back squat PR during CrossFit. This success was likely not a coincidence. Tight hips = weaker booty. One found that when athletes with tight hips squatted, a chain reaction occurred and they had decreased muscle activation in both the hip flexors and extensors (think: the booty).
Maybe opening my hips for those extra few minutes a day had helped me increase the activation of the muscles in my booty, which led to me squatting more weight. I’ll thank my recently loosened hips for my magically stronger rear. *Prayer hands* thank you, Blogilates.
I’m not one to say things have merit when they don’t. But after sticking to the plan for a couple of weeks, I noticed a legit difference! And an all over one.
Walking around my apartment, I sounded less like the broken wind chime at a haunted house. My hips felt less agitated and more open during both my workday as I sat and during CrossFit, where I squatted regularly.
While I might not circle back to the top of the calendar and redo the split challenge, there’s a lot I’ve learned about dedicating a little time to stretching every day and the art of patience.
But the biggest thing I learned was how much a dedicated mobility practice affects, well, everything! My posture, my performance during CrossFit (like I said, back squat PR!), my level of aches and pains, and even how difficult it is to bend over and pick up something, like a hairbrush, off the ground.
Of course, it’s only been 30 days, so no, I didn’t end up nailing that split and my flexibility is still far from earning the label “good.” But I can’t help but wonder how much my flexibility will continue to improve if I add in the stretches from the challenge to my postworkout routine.
Should you do it?
Whether or not you should do a 30-day split challenge depends on your goals. “Being able to do a split is a very specific goal,” says Sheppard. “I know people who can’t do a split but who have good enough mobility and flexibility to move well, and live injury-free.”
But having flexible hamstrings and mobile hip joints does more than determine how bendy you are. As Sheppard rightfully brings up: The benefits you get from being flexible can help improve form, range of motion, performance, and prevent risk of injuries related to your back.
I’ve spent two and a half decades tightening these hips, of course it would take longer than 30 days to loosen them up! But all isn’t lost, even if I didn’t completely do the splits — my flexibility is still better than it was, I’ve seen actual improvements in my fitness performance, and I feel like a much more well-rounded athlete than I did 30 days ago. Oh, and did I mention I can finally touch my toes?
Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York-based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.