Most people these days are dealing with limited mobility in at least one area of the body. Hips, back, ankles, shoulders–you name it, and we’ve had thousands of clients come to us for help with overcoming those restrictions.
But what if you have the opposite problem, and you’re naturally too flexible? You might have questions like:
- Should you even bother working on the squat if you can already do an ass-to-grass squat without even warming up?
- Is it safe, or even recommended, for you to do any kind of stretching?
- How can you keep your joints safe when exercising?
People with hypermobility usually lead normal, healthy lives. With the exception of a small subset of the population with a collagen disorder, hypermobility rarely impacts health and well-being. In this article, we’ll give you all the tools you need to understand hypermobility and feel safe training. Plus, we’ll give you some exercises to work on.
Let’s get into it.
What is Hypermobility?
Everyone is born with a certain amount of joint laxity and neuromuscular characteristics. Genetics largely determines your natural bendiness, along with the type and amount of physical training that you’ve done throughout your life, particularly as a child and teenager.
First, it’ll help us to define terms a bit more.
When people talk about being “too flexible” there are a couple of different ways to think about this. Joint laxity refers to having more “give” in your ligaments, the part of the anatomy that attaches bone to bone. In general, women have more laxity than men (which can lead to more specific injuries such as ACL tears), though of course, there will be very many individual exceptions to this rule.
You’ll see this manifest itself in contortion performers that can do incredible things like folding in half backward or appearing to dislocate their shoulders.
Inside the ligaments are mechanoreceptors, specialized nerve endings that help sense where the body is located in space. When the ligaments are more lax than normal, it affects where the brain thinks the joints and limbs are located and it enables a person to move into ranges of motion that appear more extreme.
If you have flexible ligaments, you may have been called “double jointed” in the past.
Next, there is how the muscles themselves react to being lengthened. Just as we all know people that seem naturally stiff as a board, there are those of us that progress much faster in stretching type exercise.
It’s pretty complicated, but in general, it’s related to how sensitive our “stretch reflexes” are (the alpha and gamma motor neuron system). Some people have more sensitivity to stretch as their neuromuscular systems react by tightening up to resist the stretch.
Both joint laxity and an inherently decreased stretch reflex response contribute to how flexible we are in relation to everyone else.
For people with hypermobility, things don’t always feel stable, meaning that people can feel like their joints may come out their sockets in particular positions due to lack of stability/security. For instance, you may not have a sense of security when hanging from a bar, as it feels like your arms might slip out of place and like you don’t have the strength to keep your arm in its socket.
How Do You Know if You Have Hypermobility?
Of course, just being a little more naturally flexible than the average person doesn’t necessarily mean you’re hypermobile. And there is a spectrum of hypermobility.
In clinical practice, one tool used is the Beighton test, which tests degrees of movement in several joints. We won’t go through the whole test here, of course, but to give you an example, try these few tests on your fingers:
- Can you pull your little finger back more than 90-degrees on the right side? How about the left side?
- Can you pull your thumb back to touch your forearm on the right side? Now try the left side.
We test 9 joints in total, and a score of over 4 is considered hypermobility.
You don’t necessarily need to go through a test like this, though, to know if you’re hypermobile. That feeling of instability in certain positions may be subjective, but it’s still important.
When Hypermobility is a More Serious Concern
Sometimes, hypermobility can present more serious issues, primarily when it is the result of issues with collagen.
Collagen is one of the important proteins that make up our soft tissues, and it is responsible for the stiffness of our tissues. Since collagen is a component of many tissues in the body, not only ligaments, a collagen disorder is much more than just stretchy ligaments. All tissues that contain collagen will be affected.
Two forms of hypermobility associated with collagen disorders are benign joint hypermobility syndrome (BJHS) and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).
Individuals with BJHS are bendy but symptomatic, which means their hypermobility comes with things like joint pain, and they are prone to shoulder and knee dislocations, or bruising easily. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is an inherited disorder characterized by skin that looks loose, skin fragility, and extreme joint laxity. There are several different types of EDS.
These conditions are rare, but if you think you have a form of EDS, speak to a medical professional for guidance about your exercise program.
Training Around Hypermobility: What You Need to Know, and How to Do it Safely
If you’re like most people with hypermobility, you’re able to get into positions that require a fair amount of flexibility, without any pain.
But just because you have a lot of flexibility doesn’t mean you have a lot of strength or control at those ranges of motion. And that’s often the biggest problem for people with hypermobility, and is responsible for those feelings of instability in certain positions. If you want to be able to use your mobility to its fullest potential, you need to be strong throughout the flexibility you have.
Let’s say you can squat all the way down to the ground without any effort. What happens when you lift up out of your squat by just an inch or two?
If you suddenly feel your muscles working a lot, that demonstrates that you’re bypassing any muscular effort necessary to get into a deep squat, and you’re resting at the bottom of the squat using your hypermobile ligaments.
You might feel great when you are standing and great when you are in the bottom of the squat, but if you were to stop anywhere in between those two points, your legs would feel like they couldn’t support you, indicating that you lack stability.
Continuing to rely on your passive flexibility won’t help you get any stronger. Gaining strength throughout the entire range of motion will lead to more control and stability.
Your exercise program, then, will be less about gaining mobility (because you already have that), and instead focused on becoming strong throughout all of the different positions available to you. You can do this a variety of ways, but let’s look at this using bodyweight exercise specifically.
A Deeper Look at the Squat
To gain control over your squat, you need to be able to move slowly, with control, throughout the descent and the ascent.
When you move slowly during the descent, you are working your muscles eccentrically. The ability to resist the force of gravity downwards will make you feel more stable and secure during the squatting motion (not to mention, it will make your muscles feel like they are working harder than you would expect).
Another way to get strong is to stop at various points on your way down into the squat and hold the position for a couple of seconds.
Using these types of contractions, called isometric contractions, builds strength and mobility in the held positions. They provide not only a sense of control, but a sense of strength and resilience at various joint angles.
As your confidence builds and you develop strength throughout the range of motion, you can begin to explore different positions within the squat. Challenging the joints at different angles creates overall strength and resilience and allows you to feel like you own the position.
You can apply this general formula to just about any bodyweight exercise.
If, for instance, you have hypermobile shoulders, rather than hanging passively on a bar, you can practice pulling the shoulders into their sockets while hanging from a bar (a movement we call “pulling prep”). This will strengthen that position and help you build control within that range of motion.
What About Stretching?
You may be wondering whether stretching is okay if you already have a lot of natural mobility, and the answer is yes, you can stretch, but stretching should not be your priority. Your priority should be improving your strength and control, especially in the areas that are particularly loose.
And that’s an important distinction because it’s very common for people to be hypermobile in certain areas, but very stiff in others.
For instance, take a look at the picture to the right (or just above if you’re on mobile). At first glance, it might just look like Rachel is extremely flexible. But if you look more closely, you’ll see that her lumbar spine (low back) is hypermobile, while her thoracic spine (upper back) is barely bending at all.
This common imbalance is important to address, as it can lead to issues over time.
So, in Rachel’s case, she’d want to focus on strengthening her lumbar spine and trunk muscles, while working on targeted stretches for her thoracic spine.
You may have something similar going on in other areas of your body. When doing stretches, be sure to focus on the areas that really need stretching, while avoiding overstretching the areas that already have more movement than they need. Make adjustments as needed.
Exercises to Work on Hypermobility
In addition to making adjustments to how you approach your training, there are some exercises you can work on to improve your control in your hypermobile joints. Try these out:
Let’s take a look at what you should be focusing on with each exercise.
If you have hyperextended elbows (where they extend past 180-degrees), the main thing you want to focus on is co-contraction of the muscles around the elbow. Find a neutral position for the elbow with your hand on the ground, then contract both the biceps and triceps, and hold for 30 seconds or so.
Once you’re comfortable with that, you can play with moving your body around while focusing on keeping the elbow in that same neutral position. Over time, you’ll learn to control your elbow positioning better.
Working on a similar principle to the elbows, if you have hyperextended shoulders, you need to work on controlling the shoulders in a neutral position.
For this, you’ll have your hands behind you, pressing into the ground with your hips lifted up into a tabletop position. Find that neutral position for your shoulders and contract the muscles around it to maintain that neutral position for about 30 seconds. Then, work on moving your body around while maintaining that position for the shoulders.
If you have a tendency to over-rotate your shoulders externally, this should help you gain control over that motion.
You’ll lie on your side with your forearm on the ground and your shoulder rotated outward. Find that neutral position for the shoulder, then lift your hips so that your shoulder is bearing weight in that position. Then, you can play with maintaining that shoulder position as you move your body around.
For this one, you’ll have your feet elevated (on a stool, bench, or whatever you have available), with your hands on the ground and your hips in the air. Press into the ground as you find the point in your range of motion that you need to work on controlling.
Hold that position for about 30 seconds, then play around with moving your hips around your shoulders while maintaining that controlled position in the shoulders.
Hug one knee to your chest, supporting your weight on the opposite leg. Flex and extend the knee a few times until you find that position just before hyperextension.
Hold that position for about 30 seconds, then work on maintaining that position in the supporting knee as you swing your leg around and in different positions. You can move as slowly as you need to in order to maintain your balance.
Be sure to repeat on the opposite side.
Strength + Flexibility = A Winning Combination
Having natural flexibility can be great for many different activities if you have the strength to go along with it.
Hypermobility isn’t a condition to fear, and as long as you don’t have any medical concerns related to your mobility, you can train just like anyone else by focusing on positioning, strength, and control.
Our free Strength & Mobility Kickstart can help you achieve these things by helping you build strength and control to complement your mobility.
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