Middle Splits are great. They will make literally any acrobatic movement graceful and beautiful, they can make most Calisthenics drills significantly easier and they will provide mechanical advantage and stability to your one arm handstands.
Nothing worth having comes easy. Middle Splits are hard work. A well developed Middle Split can take many years of training as you have to combine flexibility, specific strength, body awareness and coordination.
The biggest problem with the Middle Split is that starting to train for it is the hardest part. At first it is impossible to know where and how to engage and which part of your body is even supposed to be stretched. This is where the Middle Split Swimmer and especially all of its progressions come in handy.
The Middle Split Swimmer is a flexibility drill used in Gymnastics to develop flexibility, coordination and very specific strength. Start in a sitting position with your legs together, upper body straight and arms overhead. Dynamically open your legs as wide as you can and lean towards the front into a pancake. Now from here slide your hands, upper body and hips forward until you arrive in a Middle Split. In an ideal world your hips are of course still on the floor at this point. From here close your legs to end up on your stomach.
Reverse the move by actively opening the legs into a deep straddle, slide the feet past the middle split into a pancake position and come back up to a sitting position. Do not use the hands to push yourself off the floor. Instead pull your hands letting the lead the movement.
As you can imagine the above described move requires not only lots of passive flexibility but also active flexibility and tremendous amounts of hip strength. The best part about all of this is that the drill is somewhat dynamic allowing us to work in and out of tight parts of the middle split and pancake. Slowly over time we can use this drill and its progressions to drastically improve flexibility and body awareness.
No matter your current level the swimmer will help you improve and must have a consistent position in your training routine.
You are nowhere close to making it down in the pancake. The swimmer will help you develop the coordination needed to flip your hips into an anterior pelvic tilt to start stretching your hips and hamstrings and not just the rounding of your back. The constant opening and closing of the legs and the repetitive flipping of the hips will help you ease into deeper stretches over time.
You are able to work your way into the pancake and you start incorporating middle split holds with elevated elbows into your training routine. Working on the swimmer will help you truly understand the difference between the pancake and the middle split. This knowledge is key in order to hit positions properly and to correctly execute technical cueing. Additionally, the swimmer will help you apply extra pressure to your hips and require them to actively work through this pressure.
You are able to do a pancake. You are able to do a middle split. We are now here to execute a swimmer with grace. You will be forced to actively open the legs into your deepest straddle, to use your hip muscles to actively rotate the legs inside of the hips to move into the middle split and you will need big amounts of core and back strength to slow the descent into the middle split down. If you are looking for a final challenge, work the reverse movement. Opening the legs into the middle split whilst laying on the stomach is highly technical and requires big amounts of strength and flexibility.
There are 3 big and important components to the Middle Split Swimmer. Mastering each of them will not only allow you to one day execute a swimmer but also take your practice to the next level.
Lowering to the Pancake
This is the first thing that really matters. When you are lowering down to the Pancake you have to engage your back and pull into the anterior pelvic tilt hard in order to slow down the descent. Forget to engage and you will simply collapse onto your chest. Do not internally rotate your legs during the first part of the swimmer. You would be able to slow the descent down like this but you would also be robbing yourself from 1 of the key components of the swimmer training.
Getting the hips up
In the second part of the swimmer we have to get the hips up and align the tailbone with the back. This is not easy. It requires practice, dedication and focus. Place your elbows as close as possible to your hips and flip your hips into a strong posterior pelvic tilt. In 1 semi dynamic movement push your knees into the floor, use your forearms and roll your hips up to align them with the back. The wider you manage to open the legs in the pancake and the more middle split flexibility you are working with the easier this moment will become. Eventually you will be able to simply slide towards the front without having to pull yourself up on top of your forearms.
Sitting back up
Personally, I always thought this was the hardest part. I would blame it on my big upper body, excusing myself by saying I am too heavy. Pretty much all coaches were able to look right through this rather lame excuse. The idea is to bring the upper body back to an upright position without having to use the arms on the floor for help. The trick here is to internally rotate the legs and to push the big toes into the floor. Use the applied pressure to arch your back and pull your hands up. Try to keep your arms connected, your ears and your hands close to each other. Opening the arms towards the side will change the length of the lever and will make things easier.
As mentioned above the final swimmer progression is a huge move that requires years of training but working towards it is one of the most efficient ways to work on your middle split.
The main way to decrease difficulty and to adjust drills towards your current level is by elevating your hips with yoga blocks, a small bench or pillows.
Step 1 – Mobilize
Start by developing basic hip mobility and coordination. Use this time to understand the difference between the anterior and posterior pelvic tilt and make sure your knees are locked.
Step 2 – Pancake Reps
Work into a deeper pancake stretch but make sure your back is at least straight or even better slightly arched. We want to work on your hamstring flexibility here and not the rounding of our back. Start incorporating sets where you open the legs as wide as possible far past your regular pancake stretch. Keep your legs externally rotated here. Do not use your big toes yet to get back up.
Step 3 – Prep For Swimmer
Things are getting serious. We are gearing up to transition into the middle split. The goal now is to get the forearms down to the floor. Remember to bring the elbows close to your hips. If your elbows are too far away from your center you will not be able to move on to the next progression.
Step 4 – Swimmer to Elbows
Finally. It is time to add the middle split as a final progression. At this point everything has to work together in perfect harmony and you should only try to move on to this progression when you are truly ready.
Use these progressions as tools to enhance your training. Be smart and responsible about them. If you choose a progression that is too difficult you will not be able to execute it properly and it will not bring the expected results and might even get you injured. Do not shy away from using more yoga blocks or an easier progression than you might have hoped for or expected in order to keep the quality of movement high. The goal is not to go as hard as possible but to stay as clean as possible to make healthy and consistent gains.
You can use middle split swimmer progressions every time when you train for your middle splits. When you are just getting started I would recommend working on your hamstrings, pancake and middle split flexibility in 1 combined session 2-3 times per week. Make sure to warm up well. Break a sweat. The warmer you are the easier it will be to stretch. Whilst it is important to incorporate active drills into your flexibility training, stay mindful of your body and respect your rest times. Active flexibility drills will get you sore and your body will need time to recover.
After quite some time you can increase the weekly amount of flexibility sessions. Work your way up to 5 or even 6 sessions per week.
Keep in mind that your body and your training routine is a constant work in progress. What works today might not work next week and what works in the summer often does not work by the time winter comes along. Listen to your body and adjust your weekly workout count accordingly.
Swimmers truly are the ultimate Middle Split exercise no matter your level. Everybody can take something from this drill and enhance their practice tremendously by using the progressions provided. Warm up well and get to work!