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Don't Force the Splits

Aug 28, 2017
The video is painful to watch: a teenage cheerleader being forced into the splits by her teammates and coach as she cries and yells for them to stop. But could the coach just have been trying to help a student push through a difficult moment to achieve a goal? After all, in sports, isn't it a question of "no pain, no gain?"

"This is not the way to achieve your athletic goals," says Stephen Aoki, MD, a pediatric sports medicine orthopedist with University of Utah Health. "Pain is the body's way of telling you it isn't tolerating a particular motion or activity and you should modify your training in an appropriate manner."

As the team physician for University of Utah gymnastics, Aoki has seen his fair share of athletes who can do the splits, but they didn't achieve this goal quickly - or with the use of force. Instead they worked at conditioning and stretching the body over time until they were able to perform the motion. "You have to obtain the ability to do the splits over time, slowly pushing the limits of your body," says Aoki. "It's not something you can attain in a single day at cheer camp."

In fact, most training programs for the splits do not recommend starting with that position at all. Instead they suggest starting with lunges, standing stretches, and leg stretches on your back to loosen up the muscles and tendons. They also suggest using exercise blocks to support yourself when first attempting the splits. Oh, and they recommend to stop if you feel pain. "It's like running a marathon," says Aoki. "You don't do it in a single day. You train and work up to a longer distance. The body doesn't tolerate drastic changes all at once."

Beyond the momentary pain caused by forcing the body to do activity it isn't ready for, athletes can hurt themselves attempting to put their bodies into supraphysiologic positions - like the splits. Muscles, hamstrings, and joints are all involved, and could be at risk for injury. "An athlete can tear the soft tissues or injure joints, making it difficult to recuperate and continue training," says Aoki.

Every athlete wants to be the best they can be, and coaches and teammates are a big part in helping them achieve their goals. However, that help should also include protecting each other from injuries. "The bottom line is if an athlete is telling you they need to stop, we need to listen," says Aoki. "It's important to know when enough is enough."