Hey bendy people! Managing hypermobility for circus (part two)

“You mean push-ups don’t have to feel horrible?” She looked so relieved.

Welcome back for part two! (Here’s a link to part one if you missed it)

Circus is awesome.

Circus also asks for people to make shapes and lines that require an above-average amount of mobility. (More often than not, people call it flexibility, but what we’re really talking about here is mobility). And this is where life/circus has the potential to get all sorts of interesting.

On the one hand, we have the people who are working and working (and working) at becoming “more flexible”. And on the other hand, we have the people who have mobility in spades.

The bendy folks.

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Hypermobility is a bit of a big topic.

No, it’s a huuuge topic.

It’s way too big to adequately address in three small blog posts (so I’ll undoubtedly write more in the future), but it is a topic that we should have a sensible discussion about because it carries with it an increased risk of injury if not managed appropriately.

As I mentioned last week, if you’re hypermobile, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome…or any other connective tissue disorder. (Though, given the health implications, it can be very worthwhile looking into).

Either way, hypermobility suggests that your joints have an above-average degree of laxity and how to manage that laxity within the context of your circus training is what we’re here for.


Last week, I wrote about how if you’re hypermobile and you do circus, you should get really freaking strong.

The thing is, there’s more to it than that.

But wait, there’s more!

By strong, I mean develop functional, balanced strength.

The fundamental prerequisite to developing functional strength is functional movement.

Copyright: vertolet / 123RF Stock Photo

Most commonly—in my experience—the key to improving movement quality ends up being that we need to work on achieving adequate range of motion in each of the joints involved in a particular movement.

For circus, these movements tend to require large ranges of motion.

For the hypermobile circus artist/athlete, achieving “adequate” range of motion tends not to be an issue.


A sort-of aside:

Functional movement isn’t just about mobility. It’s about an appropriate balance of mobility and stability.

The question that arises from here is ‘Which is more important: mobility or stability?’

A smart answer is ‘Both’ or ‘It depends’.

A better answer is ‘Alignment’. (Thank you, Mike Reinold).

And that’s because neither mobility nor stability are worth much if your joints are not in a good position in the first place.


Which brings us to joint position (alignment) and stability.

Both are tremendously important as part of moving well and developing functional strength.

Proprioception is a big deal.

Our basic equation right now looks like this:

Hypermobility –> greater level of joint laxity (looseness of the passive joint stabilizers) –>

Hypermobile circus athletes need super-awesome dynamic stability –>

Super-awesome dynamic stability means you need to know where your body is in space at all times and be able to control it—no matter where it is in space.

And the prerequisite for super-awesome dynamic stability is that your joints need to be in a good position (alignment)…and for that, you need to know what good alignment feels like.

Hence, proprioception.

And (as luck would have it..or not), hypermobile athletes tend not to have the best proprioception…especially at the outer edges of joint ranges of motion.

(This is possibly related to the relative laxity of the passive joint stabilizers. The joint capsule and ligamentous structures around a joint normally provide the nervous system with positional feedback. Laxity of these structures can make that feedback signal a bit fuzzy.)

The outer edges of joint ranges of motion, however, are precisely where you need to be stable, strong and in control.

I mean, I’m sure you can think of at least one way that your circus-discipline-of-choice has put one of your joints into an extreme edge of its range of motion and then challenged you to be strong there.

So what to do?

2. Mastery-level Proprioception: Take your time and control yourself.

This is a call for some movement sensitivity.

If you’re particularly bendy, I’d like to suggest the following when it comes to warm-ups:

Be especially careful when it comes to aggressive, dynamic and uncontrolled movements—especially with your arms (meaning shoulder joints) and legs (hips and knees). So yes, that means leg swings and arm circles have a lot of potential to be problematic for you.

The quest for super-awesome dynamic stability starts out slow and gradually builds to faster, more aggressive movements. And even then, make sure you’re paying close attention to controlling the movement.

Where possible, avoid crab walks. If I were to make a general recommendation, it would be: don’t do them. These put your shoulder in a position that encourages the humerus to push forward into the front part of your shoulder’s joint capsule…which is the part of your joint capsule that you don’t want to stretch out.

As with so many things, there may be specific cases where crab walks may be useful for your training, but unless you’ve already nailed down dynamic shoulder stability, it’s tough to see the benefit in doing a crab walk.

The theme is going to be slow controlled movements to start…because, having a greater level of joint laxity than the rest of your class means you have to be a master of joint movement control. And that takes time.

Developing sensitivity and awareness of where every part of your body is in space doesn’t necessarily happen quickly. Hypermobility often comes means less overall sensitivity to joint position—at first.

The good news is that you can train it.

The tricky thing is that if you’re moving too quickly, you’ll miss it. (Or worse, put undue stress on your joints).

This can be tough when the pace of your class/training is pretty fast. Where possible with newer skills (and maybe some older skills), it’s up to you to take yourself through them slowly so that your brain has time to process what’s going on and where everything is going.

It won’t always be possible to slow things down in your skills classes.

This is where your training outside of circus class comes in. One of the many reasons why I advocate for strength and conditioning training in addition to your circus training is that it provides you with an opportunity to focus on elements of movement that you might otherwise have difficulty paying attention to when you’re training on your apparatus.

I’m a fan of CARs

Perhaps it would be worth noting that here, “CARs” is an acronym for Controlled Articular Rotations. CARS are a Functional Range Conditioning method/exercise for improving your overall awareness of joint position while simultaneously improving joint stability and end-range strength (not to mention strengthening the joint itself).

The key to benefiting from CARs is to gradually progress the amount of tension you create. This turns a simple movement into an opportunity for developing increased strength and neurological control at end ranges of motion.

(As with all of this, non-hypermobile folks can benefit, too. It’s just that this is that much more important for the bendy folks).

Here’s an example:

Quadruped (hands and knees) Hip CARs

Getting the most out of Hip CARs

  • Before you move, develop tension in your core.
    • Take a breath in through your nose and then a slow, forceful breath out through pursed lips.
  • Irradiate that tension from your core through the rest of your body.
  • Move slowly—“like you’re moving through thick mud”. Create active tension through your leg and hip.
  • At all points through the range of motion, try to “expand the circle”.
  • Pay attention to where you’re creating motion: the goal is to rotate through your hip joint while keeping your pelvis relatively still.

Shoulder CARs

Getting the most out of Shoulder CARs

  • Before you move, develop tension in your core.
    • Take a breath in through your nose and then a slow, forceful breath out through pursed lips.
  • Irradiate that tension from your core through the rest of your body.
  • Move slowly—“like you’re moving through thick mud”. Create active tension through your whole arm and shoulder.
  • At all points through the range of motion, try to “expand the circle”.
  • Pay attention to where you’re creating motion: the goal is to rotate through your shoulder joint complex keeping the humerus centered in the socket. As your arm moves behind you, be mindful that your humerus doesn’t jut forward.

CARs have the potential to be a very beneficial exercise—if done well. Again, the key is tension.

Wrapping up part two

So, if you’re hypermobile, you kind of have to strength train.

And by kind of, I mean you have to strength train.

But it’s not that simple: you have to do balanced strength training…

…and you have to take your time to really develop awareness and high-level control of your body…especially at end-ranges.

And, as always: there’s one more thing. We should talk about stretching…but I’ll save that for part three.


2 thoughts on “Hey bendy people! Managing hypermobility for circus (part two)”

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