Everyone these days is on and on about mobility. As they should be: having full range of motion and healthy soft tissues is an important component of performance and most people are missing critical ranges of motion that contribute to loss of performance and long term dysfunction.
But increasing range of motion is only part of the picture.
On the other end of the spectrum we have hypermobility. Literally, too much range of motion.
Often referred to as being doubled jointed, these athletes have EXTRA range of motion that the rest of us just don’t (although they have the same amount of joints as everyone else).
Instead what they have is ligamentous laxity that allows hypermobile athletes to get their bodies easily into positions that others cannot. A person may be hypermobile as a result of genetics or through training choices (my long term yogis and yoginis out there). Regardless of the cause it’s an issue that may cause serious problems down the line and should be addressed in a systematic way in order to prevent problems and allow this athletes to fully express their potential.
Often times when coaches get athletes who are hypermobile we get fired up because most of the athletes we deal with especially in the adult population tend to be challenged by lack of mobility and cannot get into proper positions. When we stumble upon an athlete who has intrinsic mobility it seems like this piece of the puzzle is off the table.
This is the conundrum. Easily achieving a visual approximation of a particular movement pattern is not necessarily a carte blanche for coaches to load up with the most complex or challenging movement patterns possible.
In fact just the opposite is true.
This becomes exceedingly obvious when we add speed, complexity, in addition to load to the system.
These athletes are usually pretty easy to spot. They can squat ass to grass, can usually get into some crazy split like position regardless of training history or practice, an usually have some to good to be true overhead positions.
Most of the time these athletes get lost in large groups because from afar they can achieve some semblance of the baseline positions we are looking for.
However, because they are often relying on physiological joint end range rather than neurological control of the position the price is usually paid later but at a higher price.
Often either direct joint damage is done over long periods or muscular imbalances appear. Even if an athlete never sees an injury from lack of stability they still may never see their true potential expressed.
One place where we can easily see this is with athletes learning the olympic lifts. Most of the time coaches get so excited when we get these athletes because they can actually achieve the position we are looking for when many of our clients lack the mobility to approach the lifts well.
In unloaded, basic positions these lifters often look good but when you add speed and agility into the mix they often have a hard time controlling it.
Furthermore, in a moderately organized training environment or sport like olympic lifting if the athlete cannot maintain control over their frame and is using joint end range in favor of purposeful deceleration we can safely draw the conclusion that this same problem will likely show up and potentially be exacerbated in more dynamic sport environments.
So, how can you tell if you or your athletes are hypermobile? One easy way is through the Beighton Scale. Take the quiz below and see how you score.
Here are some other indicators of hypermobility that you may see in a coaching environment:
- Bottoming out in the squat with NO tension and often a loss of position in the reversal of direction. The bundle of sticks phenomenon. Nothing sexy about that.
- Inside out elbows in end range extension.
- Knees cave (valgus) in squatting, jumping, and landing.
- Loss of lumbopelvic integration when trying to transfer force from the lower body through the trunk.
Ok, so I’m Gumby. What do I do?
Well being hypermobile isn’t sports damnation and if an athlete can learn to wield this power intelligently it can be a benefit.
It’s all about creating and controlling stability and position.
Even though the athlete in this video is certainly not a worst case scenario we can see the disconnect between the trunk and the pelvis. In hypermobile athletes especially, this kind of disconnect worsens rapidly with speed and load and is the gateway to wasted energy and injury.
The counterpart of mobility is stability.
There are a few options when we need to increase positional stability.
Motor control or skill is being able to put your body where you want it, when you want it there, how you want it there. This is perhaps the most important aspect here. Many times athletes lacking inherent stability due to hypermobility also have a difficult time feeling and controlling complexity, speed, and deceleration.
It can be extremely helpful to have athletes use less complex patterns and show control of these patterns prior to moving to more complex tasks. If right your saying to yourself, “Self, that’s how it should be regardless of the athlete.”
Good for you, you’re right.
The difference with hypermobile athletes is that when they perform high speed movements without control they are potentially doing direct damage to their joints NOW.
Here is an example progression moving from least complex to most complex using no load:
Air Squat > Squat Drop > Kneeling Squat Jump
Throughout this progression the athlete should be able to:
- Consistently maintain an integrated trunk (neutral pelvis and spine position)
- Control weight distribution in the foot
- Keep the knees over the toes (while keeping the foot flat)
- Achieve basic squat depth (crease of the hip below the knee) while keeping the structure integrated described above
These basic criteria should be met regardless of speed, load, or complexity. Sticking to the process will assure that you can move to the next stage of development and be successful in the long term.
Being able to control the nuances of movement will train proprioceptive awareness as well as be a good indicator of when to progress forward in the future. DO NOT accept inconsistent results. Being able to replicate control is essential in knowing that the pattern is locking in prior to moving on.
Go Full Bodybuilder
Hypertrophy is something I have had great success with in the past with bendy athletes in the past. Adding hypertrophy, especially good old fashioned time under tension work is amazing for these folks. Adding muscle mass will help to create a physical end range buffer. Tendons get bigger and stronger and help to stabilize the joint where lax ligaments are failing to do so. Fascia also gets thicker in the stressed areas as an adaptation to maintaining position under load stress.
This also gets athletes used to feeling tension in their muscles. Something that will come in handy when we do focused motor control work later.
Doing curls (both bicep and hamstring), lateral and front raises, skull crushers, rows, tricep extensions and the like in 3-5 sets of 8-12 will help grow muscle tissue and create stability in smaller muscle groups where hypermobile athletes often lack it. Also, you’ll look better in a t-shirt.
Learn to Get Tight
Isometric exercises help athletes create a proprioceptive link between different positions. Hypermobile athletes in particular have a lot of trouble knowing how to create and maintain muscular tension, both dynamic and static.
Using isometrics can help these athletes develop a sense of positional tension without adding too much to the plate neurologically. Of course the actual needs to be practiced with the explicit purpose of carrying over the qualities learned from the isometric exercises. This is where having a good coach is very handy.
The demands of stability get higher the faster we go and the more load we use. Otherwise we’re operating what’s akin to driving 100 mph with 2 lug nuts. It’s only a matter of time before the wheel flies off.
That’s why vehicles that go faster and carry more weight have modifications to the frame and the suspension. The chassis has to match the engine. The same concept applies for humans.
Athletes who are hypermobile are not doomed to a life of wobbly softness and joint pain. In fact if these folks can learn to control their movement and create stability they can be formidable and powerful athletes. Taking the time to address this will not only help to prevent pain, but it will help more fully express innate potential and contribute to overall athletic longevity.