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Don't Force the Splits

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 at 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 head orthopaedic 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," Aoki says. "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. Athletes are recommended to start with lunges, standing stretches, and leg stretches on your back to loosen up the muscles and tendons. Athletes can also use exercise blocks to support themselves when first attempting the splits. Listen to your body and stop if you feel pain.

"It's like running a marathon," Aoki says. "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 to do, 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," Aoki says.

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."