These days, you hear a lot about mobility in relation to recovery. Foam rolling, resistance band work and even self-massage with a lacrosse ball are all common components of many exercisers’ mobility routines. But there is such thing as being too mobile — and while it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it can affect your workout in some crucial ways.
“First, it is important to establish what mobility is,” notes Under Armour Training Team member Kari Woodall, owner of BLAZE. “Mobility refers to a range of motion of a joint. It is influenced by the relationship between your bony articulations (joint structures) and the soft tissue (muscle, fascia, tendons, ligaments), as well as your central nervous system.” On the flipside, flexibility refers only to the soft tissue. Each joint has an “optimal” range of motion, Woodall explains, and if you can exceed the ideal range of motion for a particular joint, it’s hypermobile.
A qualified trainer or physical therapist can help you figure out if you’re hypermobile, but it’s easy to test on your own, too. “The most common hypermobile indicator is the Beighton Score, which uses a simple nine-point testing system,” explains Tim Hartwig, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Los Angeles.
Generally, a score of four or higher indicates hypermobility. If you can’t quite tell whether your elbows or knees bend backwards, try drawing a visual line between three joints, Hartwig suggests. “For example, stand with your arm extended straight in front of you with your hand placed on a wall or object. Draw a straight 180-degree visual line between the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. If the elbow exceeds a 180-degree straight line, then it can be determined that the elbow is hypermobile.” You can also do this with your knee, standing with your leg extended in front of you and your foot flat against the wall.
It’s also worth noting that while there are definitely hypermobile men out there, it’s much more common in women. “Research suggests approximately 3x more women are hypermobile than men,” says Darin Hulslander, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, who runs This Is Performance, an online performance and nutrition program based in Chicago. “One explanation for this is that females undergo a lot of bone and muscular changes that create the joint laxity,” he says. Women are especially likely to be hypermobile in the upper body, according to a study in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
So what does this all actually mean for your workouts? “Being hypermobile is an added obstacle to safe physical activity, but is by no means something that can keep one from being active,” says Under Armour Training Team member Shana Verstegen, fitness director at Supreme Health and Fitness in Wisconsin. “In fact, many elite athletes are hypermobile, but through physical therapy and strength training do not have any difference in injury rate than other elite athletes.” The extra work these athletes put in is well worth it, since those with hypermobility tend to lack proprioception or awareness of where their body and joints are in space, according to Verstegen. “This can lead to injury in and out of the gym.”
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Most people don’t have major complications from hypermobility, but Joint Hypermobility Syndrome refers to when hypermobile joints cause chronic pain. This syndrome is relatively rare and is not the same thing as simply having hypermobile joints.
First and foremost, Verstegen believes that committing to physical therapy is the most helpful strategy for those who are hypermobile, because a physical therapist can best identify a person’s needs and teach them how to exercise safely for maximum joint strength and stability.
There are a few things you can incorporate on your own, though:
AVOID END RANGES
“People with hypermobility should avoid getting to the end range of an exercise,” Verstegen says. For example, maintaining a micro bend in the elbows at the top of a pushup rather than fully extending the elbows. This helps prevent joints from reaching that overextended position that makes you more vulnerable to injury.
“When ligaments and tendons aren’t working properly, the surrounding muscles work doubletime to protect them,” Huislander explains. “In the training world we call this ‘protective tension,’ which is why a hypermobile person may feel tight.” That feeling of tightness may encourage you to stretch, but it can actually make things worse by overstressing the hypermobile joints causing the tension, he says. “Opt out of the stretching and opt in to a foam roller instead.”
UNDERSTAND THAT EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED
“If you have hypermobile joints, think of your body as one connected unit,” Woodall suggests. Avoid putting emphasis on joints you know are hypermobile and instead focus on strengthening your body as a whole. “For example, if you lack core strength, you may find your ability to reach overhead is limited. Lack of core strength may lead to poor posture, which would affect your shoulder mobility. It’s a complicated web! Think of the domino effect: If you can focus on strengthening your weak areas, it may help reduce stress on the joint/s.”
DON’T TRAIN TO FATIGUE
“The more fatigued the muscles get, the less they are able to stabilize at a particular joint,” Verstegen says. Instead of going all out and pushing past your limits, the focus should be on quality over quantity, she advises.
“In order to effectively train, we must seek to improve stability in the joints,” Huislander points out. “One of the most effective ways of doing this is through isometrics. This helps to both reprogram and rewire how our brain views our joints during exercise and helps create stability in the joints under tension.” An isometric exercise is one where you hold a particular movement for a specific amount of time. For example, holding halfway down in a push-up position for 10–15 seconds 1–3 times instead of performing a set of 10 regular pushups. “Doing this will make a big difference in how your body handles being hypermobile by creating strength and stability where it needs it most — near the joints.”