Anatomical Variations Vs Splits Part 3 Femoral Joint Rotation

Your anatomy isn’t what’s stopping your flexibility progress, but it will shape your journey—part 3 Femoral Joint Rotation.
Ashleigh Flanagan
September 18, 2021

Welcome back. Last blog in this series looked at the impact of acetabulum depth on our training and how that should influence flexibility training. If you missed it, read the blog here.

To refresh on what is really limiting your progress, Read common reasons for plateaus in flexibility.

Before we start

I want to make it clear that while your anatomical structure may make training splits more challenging, your bones are NEVER what ultimately limits your range. Bones never touch. They are connected but spaced by the soft tissues of joints. As well as this physical separation, our nervous system ensures an active resting tone that minimally limits joint range. There is no accurate, viable way to know how far into a particular range you will get. From my experience, working with hundreds of people who have been concerned that they have reached an anatomical limit, everyone can improve their flexibility. This doesn’t mean that everyone can achieve an externally rotated 180 deg middle split, but it does mean that no one can tell you it’s not possible, other than yourself.

Part 3 - Femoral Joint Rotation

The rotational range we have available at our hip joint, as dictated by our bony structure, is primarily influenced by the relative location of the femoral shaft and the neck of the femur (femoral anteversion/retroversion) and the orientation of the hip socket on the transverse plane (Acetabular anteversion/retroversion).

If an individual has femoral anteversion, their hip will be relatively internally rotated in their neutral position. As a result, they may tend towards being ‘pigeon-toed’. For their leg to be aligned toes forward, they will be externally rotated at the hip. Their bony structure may not physically allow for a full 180 degree turn out. In contrast, if an individual has femoral retroversion, their hip will be relatively internally rotated in their neutral position. As a result, they may stand and walk with their feet turned out.

Similarly, the alignment of the acetabulum (hip socket) will also affect hip rotation. If the acetabulum is relatively forward-facing, there will be more internal rotation than external rotation available. However, if the acetabulum is orientated more laterally, the reverse is true.

The wrapping of the major ligaments around the hip joint (iliofemoral and ischiofemoral)  structurally limits the rotation available in the hip when we are flexing or extending. A ligamentous lock, or closed packed position, occurs when the hip is extended, abducted and internally rotated, or flexed, adducted and externally rotated. To avoid a ligamentous locked position, individuals tend to relatively externally rotate and adduct to increase extension (e.g. back leg of a split) and externally rotate and abduct to increase flexion (e.g. pike or front leg of a split).

Femoral Joint Rotation and splits

In general, if standing turned out and externally rotating is comfortable, middle splits in any orientation will be less challenging than for those who prefer internal rotation. In contrast, these individuals will usually find pike easier.

What this all means

By now, if you have been following along, you will have realised so many structural anatomical factors influence splits. We have only looked at the hip joint and have covered;

-Hip inclination

-Acetabular depth &

-Femoral rotation

We haven’t yet considered the shape and orientation of our pelvis, the extension we have available in our lower back, the rotation and shape of the bones in our legs, and the structure of our knees, ankles and feet. All of these will influence the range we have available and the alignment of our splits.

Normal variations exist in a spectrum, and we can’t really consider any anatomical factor in isolation. How they interact will result in the potential range structurally available. For example, we discussed how a more closed hip inclination could limit abduction, but what if that was coupled with a flatter, more laterally orientated acetabulum (which tend to increase abduction potential)? 

Tips for splits training

Our hips are all different, so our splits will all be different too. Just because exercises work for others, it does mean they will be right for you. If your alignment is different, it doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong or that your achievement is less.

1. Be specific- Due to the complex anatomical structure of the hip joint, there isn’t much carryover between splits.  If you want to improve front splits, train front splits. Depending on an individuals anatomy, even the differences between pancake, middle splits with knees up and middle splits with knees down can be dramatic.

2. Work on what you find most challenging- There is greater potential for progress when we focus on our weaknesses rather than our strengths. For example, even though the perception is that supported stretching (passive stretching) is easier and less valuable than active stretching, if you find it more challenging to spend time tolerating the sensation of a stretch, then you should be doing more of this.

3. Focus on your own journey- What we think is ‘right’ when it comes to splits is generally aesthetic and often isn’t even possible for everyone. Listen to your body and do what feels right for you. If the training isn’t working for you, change it. We can’t all train the same way and expect the same results. Celebrate your progress and try not to compare that with others.

Remember, all progress is good progress, however long it takes. You will always get further if you persevere than if you stop.

Want more support in your flexibility journey? Book an assessment with a physio now

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