Oversplits: What You Need to Know

We all have that one friend who is uber flexible and as dancers we are all always working on flexibility. But sometimes our stretching practices can end up being more harmful than helpful in the long run. One stretch that has dancers obsessed due to its WOW factor is oversplits. But, what do you need to know about oversplits? MTD looked to the experts to find out more.

Questions we are answering about oversplits:

  • Are oversplits something all dancers can do?
  • It is a static stretch, so what does that mean?
  • So, what are the risks?
  • Can I do them?
  • What are the alternatives?

Let's answer those five questions.

Stretching and flexibility is a major component of a dancer’s routine and practice. As such, certain stretches are highly valued for their WOW-factor that they provide for dancers. One such stretch is the oversplit.

Oversplits are a type of split that go further than 180 degrees and bring the legs and feet above the hips. While most dancers can achieve this type of split through consistent practice, learning these splits should be approached gradually and with caution as they do pose potential physical risks. 

Here at More Than Dancers, we looked to the experts within this field to find out more, and in this article, we will cover whether oversplits are truly a stretch any dancer can achieve and how they can go about doing so. Plus, we will cover the risks of and the potential alternatives to oversplits.

Understanding Oversplits

As mentioned, oversplits are a type of stretch that go beyond the 180 degrees required for full normal splits. Because of this, this type of split can be fairly difficult to achieve since it requires practitioners to already have a solid foundational ability to perform regular splits to the fullest extent. 

Oversplits also require additional equipment in order to be practiced, since simply stretching on the floor does not allow for the legs to go beyond the 180-degree requirement. This extra equipment generally comes in the form of blocks or bolsters that are traditionally used in yoga practices but are also frequently utilized by dancers. 

Some dancers who regularly include oversplits into their routine will even use heightened surfaces, such as chairs or low tables, to get their front leg even higher. However, using a heightened surface to achieve the split should not be attempted by those dancers who have not gradually worked up to that extreme of the stretch, as it has the potential to cause serious strain or injury.

Are oversplits something all dancers can do?

When it comes to oversplits, it can be particularly tempting for dancers to attempt the stretch when they observe their peers completing it. The reality with oversplits, though, is that they are not only an incredibly difficult stretch to achieve but they must also be learned in a gradual and precise fashion so as to avoid unwanted injury. 

Think of it this way: would you ask a five-year-old to do 32-fouettes en pointe? No, you wouldn’t, because that type of movement requires a large amount of training and is not something that is immediately expected from a young dancer. The same goes for oversplits and all kinds of stretching – certain movements require time and a strong foundation before they can be achieved.  

According to Shift Movement Science, correct execution of oversplits requires dancers to meet a number of qualifying factors, including having enough muscle, stability of the joints, the correct mentality, and a strong understanding of their own body. 

They also remind teachers that the majority of students are still growing, which means that their growth plates are still open. While for some younger students open growth plates can result in heightened flexibility, it can also cause them to be more susceptible to injuries that will affect the overall maturation of their bodies and limbs.  

It is a static stretch, so what does that mean?

Marika Molnar, the director of NYCB physical therapy program and founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy, stated that static stretching is anytime you are holding a position for over 30 seconds. In extreme positions, such as oversplits, this becomes extremely dangerous as it loosens the ligaments around the hips and knees. When those ligaments are loosened, they do not have the elasticity to go back into their protective position. Thus, your muscles and ligaments can not react quick enough to movements; leading to injury. This is also a danger of over-stretching.

Oversplits are Static Stretches

Part of understanding the mechanics and feasibility of oversplits is understanding what category of stretching they fall into. Oversplits are considered static stretches, which focus on stretching a muscle group to its furthest possible extent and then holding this position for a set period of time. 

According to an article published on Pointe Magazine, dancers should avoid holding stretches in extreme positions, such as oversplits, for longer than 30 seconds. This is because holding an extreme stretch for an extended amount of time loosens the ligaments around the hips and knees, heightening the risk of injury. 

Static stretching in general is often met with mixed reviews and criticisms. There is some belief that static stretching can actually weaken the muscles and overall power an athlete’s body is capable of. However, a recent 2019 study found that the negative effects of static stretching on athlete’s overall power and strength were minimal, but that coaches were advised to keep these stretches at a short duration.

So, what are the risks?

Like all aspects of dance, there is a risk and the potential of injury involved. Molnar states that in oversplits, the femur is pushing on the hip at such an angle that the cartilage within the hip can tear. This can lead to surgery and potentially a career-ending injury. Shift Movement Science stated, that after research it was determined that oversplits can cause micro-subluxation in the hip as well which means instability within the joint.

The Risks Involved with Oversplits

All aspects of dance involve some degree of risk and potential for injury. Oversplits in particular pose a strong risk, as dancers need to be at a high degree of flexibility and bodily awareness in order to complete the stretch successfully and safely.

Even with just regular floor splits, there are risks involved that are similar to those posed by oversplits. The primary area of concern for splits of any kind is the potential damage that can be caused to ligaments, joints, hamstrings, and muscles if the person stretching pushes their body too far, according to University of Utah Health Care.

This is known as overstretching, and often occurs when a person’s muscles are pushed far beyond their normal range of motion. The issue becomes that each individual dancer is going to have a different baseline range of motion and inherent flexibility. Hence, dancers need to be keenly aware of their own capabilities and understand the difference between normal pain associated with stretching versus pain associated with overstretching.

Safe stretching should not be actually painful. What is often described as pain during stretching is actually a sense of discomfort and tension. Pain, comparatively, is characterized by a sharp or stabbing sensation and is indicative of overstretching.

Potential for Hip Issues

Overstretching during oversplits is particularly risky when it comes to the potential for hip issues and injuries. When overstretching occurs and is held for too long a period of time, the ligaments of the hips are loosened which leads to hip instability.

Hip instability puts dancers and athletes at a much greater risk of hip injury or hip dislocation that will potentially require intensive medical care. Furthermore, there are genetic factors that can contribute to hips being inherently unstable, putting those with genetic hip instability at greater risk when overstretching occurs.  

According to Aurora Health Care:

“An accident or injury can cause hip instability or hip dislocation. But in some cases, people are born with structural problems in the hip joint – called hip dysplasia – that can cause the hip joint to dislocate. If this is the case for you, doctors might identify dysplasia at birth, or it might not be noticeable until you’re older.”

Therefore, it is majorly important for dancers to be aware of the inherent and genetic range of motion and stability of their hips. Those with hip issues need to be especially careful when stretching, and potentially should avoid oversplits altogether.

Minimizing Risks of Overstretching 

Patience is the number one key in minimizing risks posed by overstretching. The reality is that it takes considerable amounts of time and consistency in order to train the body to overcome its inherent range of motion. 

The International Association for Dance Medicine and Science states:

“If increasing flexibility is a goal, it should occur over time (at least six weeks) and should occur following class, rehearsal or performance when the muscles are already warm and more likely to make permanent changes to increase flexibility.”

Additionally, Healthline provides guidelines for how to prevent overstretching from occurring. These guidelines include: 

  • Maintain proper hydration
  • Use proper form when stretching
  • Use proper gear or footwear when needed (such as props used for practicing oversplits)
  • Avoid exercising when overtired or in pain

Should Dancers do Oversplits at All? 

Oversplits are a tricky subject and often a point of differing opinions. While most instructors and researchers would agree that we would prefer not to see oversplits happening at all, many dancers will continue to practice and perform them. 

This type of stretching is not outright impossible or dangerous, but the reality is that oversplits are often the focal point of dancers’ fascination and admiration, which can lead them to pushing themselves too far without first establishing the proper foundation of skill, flexibility, and form needed to properly complete oversplits. 

To put it frankly, dancers can in theory do oversplits, but the time and commitment it takes to learning oversplits may not ultimately be an efficient use of their time if that is their primary focus. Additionally, dancers should be able to do full floor splits without any discomfort or tension before moving on to training for oversplits.

For those still planning to train their oversplits, it is important to note that this type of stretching should be performed after dance practice or rehearsal rather than before. This is because the body is more likely to experience permanent changes to its flexibility if static stretching is performed while the body is warmed

Can I do them?

After learning all about oversplits, your real question is still: can I do them? While most instructors and researchers would agree that we would prefer not to see oversplits happening, many dancers will continue to do them. If you do choose to attempt oversplits, assure your muscles are properly warmed up. Also, check with an instructor who knows you well if they think you are physically prepared to stretch in such an extreme way. After stretching your oversplits, allow time for the muscles and joints to recover. In other terms, don’t go and dance right away as this is when injuries occur.

Alternative Stretches to Oversplits

Dynamic stretching is really the future of stretching. Giving movements that promote mobility while not compromising the body is the ultimate goal. 

The most effective stretching routines should ultimately include both dynamic and static stretches, as both have their own sets of advantages and limitations. While oversplits may be a seductive goal, in truth the biggest increases in overall flexibility and skill will come from a daily reiteration of basic movements and stretches that slowly expand the body’s overall range of motion and increase the body’s comfort within certain positions. 

We suggest you check out the Ballet Blog produced by physical therapist, Lisa Howell. She provides many amazing videos on how to work on stretching properly. 

Another option would be visiting with a physical therapist who can give you exercises that work with your body specifically. Additionally, a physical therapist will be best equipped to help you determine your inherent range of motion and plan a training routine that is gradual enough to meet your body’s needs.

Final Thoughts

Dancers typically have a competitive spirit on top of their athleticism, which can lead them to compare themselves to other dancers. As such, when a dancer observes one of their peers doing a move considered to be extreme and highly skillful, such as oversplits, they may feel compelled to try such a move themselves.

It is important to always keep this competitiveness in check, as every person’s body has individual strengths and limitations, and lasting change does not happen overnight. For those who wish to learn oversplits, the crucial first steps towards this goal are to establish and understand the body’s starting range of motion and to accept that training must be gradual with an emphasis on first solidifying one’s ability to do regular splits.

If you are experiencing pain during a stretch it may be time to dial it back and listen to what your body is telling you. By always prioritizing staying in tune with your body, you will find yourself able to accomplish much more.

Dec 2, 2020

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