By now it should make sense that hypermobile folk should pay attention to different things during a workout. Since your body won’t be giving you the same feedback as other people’s do, it pays to spend more time on being aware of what’s different. Here are some things that have helped me along the way.
1. Educate yourself
“Between the muscle cells there are spaces. When a muscle contracts, the spaces are closed down, the muscle shortens and movement occurs. With hypermobility, however, contraction of the muscle may not result in immediate movement because the tendons are not solid steel cables and some microscopic elongation occurs with movement. The muscle, therefore, may need to work harder in order to produce the same movement.” (Orthopedics for Kids)
Since proprioception (the sense of where your body parts are relative to each other) is an issue, a good starting point would be to learn about what muscles you should be working or feeling. Normal cues such as ‘getting to the bottom’ or ‘lock out and push to the end range’ won’t apply to you, so you will have to find your own approach to stretching or working out.
A good start would be through a teacher – whether it’s finding someone who has experience with hypermobile athletes or becoming your own.
If you tend to be more sociable, then start using your downtime at the gym to observe or – better yet – ask other people about what muscles and ranges of motion they are feeling during a certain exercise. Since your body won’t be giving you the appropriate internal signals during movement, you will have to take some external cues in order to activate your muscles and protect your joints. Try mimicking other people’s forms, paying close attention to overall alignment and where each body part is positioned, and remembering what that feels like so that it becomes second nature and you won’t have to spend too much mental energy during your workout (although you will always have to be mentally focused and aware!)
For me, it was the ‘be your own teacher’ route. I actually didn’t even realise I had a problem with hypermobility until the Functional Anatomy Seminar I took last year, which was my first step towards understanding the concept of maintaining muscle tension throughout the body, or ‘irradiation’ is the term that Dr. Andreo Spina likes to use with his Functional Range Conditioning(FRC) system. Things started to click into place – why I didn’t feel any muscle soreness even after a hard training session, why I could easily drop into a full squat but struggled to get to parallel once there was weight on my back. I thought I had good mobility, but it turns out that I only had flexibility largely through my loose joints and greatly lacked stability through the surrounding muscles. Dr. John Saratsiotis was actually using me during the seminar to demonstrate the difference between active and passive mobility – passively, my hip could be externally rotated to more than 90 degrees, but once I was on the ground in the 90/90 seated position, my hip couldn’t even externally rotate to just 90 degrees!
This was when I began to look more into the mechanics of each exercise in the gym, from big lifts such as the squat and deadlift even down to accessory ones such as bicep curls or dumbbell presses. Integrating the idea of irradiation during my workouts has really helped me to engage my muscles rather than ‘falling’ from point A of the movement to point B.
To make a long point short, you will have to find your own best way to learn to use your body. Even though I learned through a lot of reading and experimenting, it doesn’t mean that you will have to use the same method as long as you stay curious and keep learning.
2. Slow down
You don’t have the luxury of banging through the reps or zoning out and trying to get your workout over with as quick as possible. What I’ve found is that if I try to rush a movement or if my mind starts to drift when I get tired at the end, I tend to lose tension and the movement collapses, especially if it’s something requiring speed and power like Olympic lifting.
Take your time and focus on maintaining full-body tension throughout a movement. As I’ve mentioned before, the gap between my passive and active mobility is pretty big. I’ve used the difference between my bodyweight squat depth and a barbell squat depth as an example. Another example is that during a skin the cat, I can passively fall into the end position and not feel any tightness in my shoulders or chest, but I have trouble controlling the roll and tend to stop halfway to the end position (the third position in the picture below).
This is to do with weak core stability, but is also because your body lacks the stability from the ligaments at the end position. Your central nervous system (CNS) senses that lack of stability, and in order to compensate it will stop your movement at the point where your muscles (especially the core!) aren’t strong enough to provide stability for your spine and joints.
“The CNS is like the software for your body, and it determines how your hardware (the muscles, bones and joints) performs. The CNS gets to decide what muscles fire, how strong and fast they are, how far they will elongate, what motor patterns and postures you adopt, and whether you will experience pain – in short, everything that matters. […] Although the physical tissues themselves are important, the CNS still plays a large role in deciding how the tissues are allowed to extend. If it feels that the muscle has gone too far, the CNS limits flexibility by causing the muscle to contract. Why is the CNS threatened by a large range of motion? Becausethe CNS knows that extending a muscle too far can cause damage to ligaments, tendons, nerves, or even a joint dislocation.” – Todd Hargrove
What I’ve found to help is to slow down so that you can focus bracing your core throughout the movement and also allow your CNS to register that you have the strength and stability to follow through.
The following are the main sticking points in certain exercises that I find to be a struggle. They are also when you want to make sure not to rush, that your alignment is right and your core is actively engaged:
- The bottom of a squat (making sure you’re sitting into the hips with a neutral spine)
- The bottom of a pull up (checking to see that your elbows aren’t hyperextended)
- Setting up for a push up (again checking the elbows)
- The bottom of a push up/dip (creating tension through your chest muscles instead of ‘hanging’ on your shoulder joints)
- Stiff leg deadlifts (not locking the knees out as this puts the pressure on the sciatic nerve)
- Bicep curls (again, making sure you don’t extend your elbows fully as this puts pressure on the joints)
Lastly, what I’ve found most helpful is adding in some isometric holds with the exercises you struggle with the most. Isometric squat holds in particular really helped me to understand what it felt like to activate my glutes and core at the bottom of a squat. I usually did this on a non-squat day in between exercises. I would set the pins up where my bottom position was, then start from under with an empty barbell and drive up into the pins, holding that position for 20-30 seconds.
You can also do this with other exercises, such as driving the barbell up into the pins with a deadlift, holding at the bottom of your dips/push ups, or doing a bent-arm hang at the top of your pull up.
3. Strengthen your core
If you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you’ll have figured out that trunk stability is even more important for those with hypermobility. Your core will have to be strong in order to make up for the lack of stability from your ligaments. Work a lot on deep core stability (exercises such as Pallof press or dead bug variations really help) as well as your anterior core (rollouts, leg lifts, hollow holds, etc).
Better yet, work on your core stability at the weakest point in an exercise. Do Palloff presses at the bottom of your squat, or a hollow hold while hanging at the bottom of a pull up position. Improving your core strength in this instance will require a little more thought than busting out 100 sit ups and bicycle crunches, but it will go a long way towards improving your performance.
4. Don’t neglect stretching
While looking this topic up online, I came across a lot of advice (granted, from those who didn’t have much experience themselves with hypermobility) to stop stretching entirely. I actually experimented with this and didn’t do any form of stretching or mobility for a month. Not only did I not improve with my workouts, I also realised that it is possible to have stiff and tight muscles but be flexible at the same time. Being able to get to the end range of a movement doesn’t mean that you are fully lengthening the targeted muscle as your body is instead relying on the looser ligaments to get there. Therefore I would say stay away from passive stretching and instead learn to do active mobility work.
“It’s always easier to move your body where you’re already mobile and have less resistance than a place that is stiff and unyielding. Therefore, if a person with lax ligaments attempts to stretch her/his actual muscles, their clever body will sneakily rearrange itself into familiar and easy hypermobility land (the aforementioned path of least resistance), thereby bypassing the intended muscular stretch and loading the ligaments instead. Unless we learn how to override this tendency of the body with intelligent alignment, our stretches will result in joints whose hypermobility is reinforced and muscles that weren’t stretched at all, every time we stretch.”- Jenni Rawlings
Again, I have to credit Dr. Andreo Spina and his Functional Range Conditioning system for helping me to learn what active stretching means. Before I attended the FRC course last September, I had no idea that my muscles were actually pretty tight. See, I have no problem dropping straight down into a full split, but I’ve discovered that if I align all my joints correctly and maintain tension throughout my muscles, my hip feels pretty tight in a pigeon pose and I’m hovering almost a hand’s length off of the ground.
Check out some tutorials from the man himself in the following videos.
5. Stick with it!
Lastly but always most importantly, don’t give up!
It can be frustrating, so be patient.
The things you have to work on will feel slow and tedious. It will feel like you have to struggle more to achieve the same results as other people. Learn to accept this and work with what you have. You might fatigue quicker because your muscles have to work more, so this is when your mental strength will have to kick in.
Be mindful not only while exercising, but also throughout your day – pay attention to whether you are locking your knees out while standing or hinging on your hips while walking and jogging.
I can’t say that it feels any easier so far, but it does eventually start to feel more like second nature to align your body correctly and use more of your muscles rather than your joints as long as you keep learning about how your body moves and works.