Stretching has become synonymous with yoga and meditation, Goop candles, and social feeds reminding us to stay limber. As a by-product of the self-care movement, stretching goes far beyond trends, though! Stretching keeps muscle tissue pliable and nutrient-oxygen rich, decreases your risk of injuries, helps to reduce tension, and much more! Stretching can feel like a chore; Beyond feeling physically unpleasant, it can even be painful. For about 20 percent of the population, stretching happens easily, requiring little effort. Looking closely at these “flexible types”, stretching is not the issue, joint laxity is. For these people, stretching is not the best approach. Alignment and structural integrity can be achieved by stretching. On its own, it can amplify hypermobility issues. Let’s examine why.
Since hypermobility prohibits effective muscle recruitment to stabilize joints, people with this condition seldom experience muscle soreness even after workouts that would leave most of us hobbling for days.
Hypermobility describes an extreme or larger-than-normal range whereby the limb moves away from the same joint axis-a result of insufficient stabilization. Those with hyperextension issues generally seem to have an easier time stretching but also find it challenging to feel exercises. Since hypermobility prohibits effective muscle recruitment to stabilize joints, people with this condition seldom experience muscle soreness even after workouts that would leave most of us hobbling for days. Pain symptoms related to hypermobility typically include pain in the hips, knees, elbows, fingers, wrists, or neck. Hypermobility is a predisposed, legitimate weakness of the connective tissue around the joint, leading to an increase in strains and sprains. In the worst case, it can result in dislocation.
Hypermobility is influenced by one or all of the following:
- Bone structure: the shape and depth of the joint sockets,
- Muscle structure: muscle tone or strength
- Proprioception: sensing how far you are stretching
- Family History: hypermobility is often inherited.
Stretching reduces injury and enhances sports performance. The American Council of Sports Medicine recommends static stretching after a warm-up to increase the range of motion (ROM) in the synovial joints. Studies show that training with a full ROM produces greater increases in muscle size. Increasing ROM is also key to avoiding muscle imbalance and it is a vital piece in addressing biomechanical inefficiencies and reducing injuries.
Research in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (2012) defines stretching ‘[as]… generally focus[ing] on increasing the length of a musculotendinous unit, in essence increasing the distance between a muscle’s origin and insertion ’. Stretching a muscle at its origin/insertion is challenging and it involves focused awareness! Most of us without hypermobility lack awareness of poor form when we stretch or work out. Knowing when to stop and recognizing which muscles should be working to stabilize the joint will enhance performance outcomes. Hypermobile individuals benefit from becoming more aware of their movement, focusing their attention, and building stability and strength that support their ROM. There are a two ways to do this:
- Focus on exercises that promote alignment and proximal, centered movement requiring stabilization. As a result, muscles have to work better at maintaining and supporting the bones.
- Choose closed-chain exercises and Pilates equipment to challenge proprioception (a tricky thing!), spatial and sensory awareness when reaching greater-than-maximum or larger-than-normal ranges without feeding into the hypermobility loop.
It is vital to know when you are overstretching or have hypermobility in some or all of your movement patterns. Clients with hypermobility in the knees often have very tight hips. Some clients lock their elbows when bearing weight upon their shoulders, when in a plank or when using resistance. Others tuck their pelvis, lock elbows, and knees-even in standing! Unchecked, these misaligned joints can lead to chronic pain and injury. In the best case, hypermobility will hinder physical strength and fitness gains.
There is a benefit to strengthening the ligaments and muscles around the joint. For hypermobility, however, stability is not achieved with stretching alone or with movements that do not emphasize stability and control. Control and awareness are at the heart of Classical Pilates. A program that addresses hypermobility and improves muscle and joint function will also support the building blocks of overall strength and flexibility.