To stretch or not to stretch: hypermobility and aerials

Most of the time, those of us who have fallen in love with aerials and/or flying trapeze find ourselves engaged in an ongoing quest for ever-greater levels of mobility and flexibility (and we know the difference! Do you know the difference? I’ll elaborate below). The problem—for some—is that more flexibility is not what you need. For some—the bendy folk—stretching is just not the best idea. In fact, for the hypermobile athletes out there, stretching may just be making things worse for you.

If you’re a contortionist, chances are you’re hypermobile. Maybe, ever since you were a child, you could just do the splits. Or maybe you’re one of those people who are prone to having certain joints ‘dislocate’. These are signs of hypermobility—but how do you know for sure? Before we begin discussing strategies for how to navigate the unique considerations that come with being bendier than normal, let’s take the guesswork out of it. Let’s do a self-assessment!

Here’s how:

Your Beighton Score

Your what? The Beighton Hypermobility Test is a series of five tests whose cumulative result provides a reliable indicator of a person’s degree of general hypermobility.

Beighton Test

One point is assigned for the ability to accomplish each of the following movements (with the maximum score being nine):

  • Easily bending your small finger back further than 90 degrees – 1 point each side (left pinky/right pinky)
  • Easily bending your thumb forward to touch your forearm – 1 point each side (left thumb/right thumb)
  • Hyper-extending your elbows, that is bending them beyond a straight line (1 point per elbow)
  • Hyper-extending your knees, that is bending them beyond a straight line (1 point per knee)
  • Easily putting your palms flat on the floor without bending your knees (1 point)

The higher your score (think >5), the more general hypermobility you have.

So, you’re hypermobile…

So hypermobile just means really flexible, right? No exactly.

Let’s talk about mobility vs flexibility first.

As a baseline, we’re here to discuss factors that influence your ability to perform safely and effectively on your apparatus of choice. The goal is always to provide you with tools and knowledge to get to know your body better so that you can take your own personal performance to a higher level. With that in mind, flexibility is actually a rather limited concept. It generally refers to the spectrum of muscle tightness and length. On the one end, there are short, tight muscles and on the other end, muscles can be long and loose.

Flexibility is about the length of a muscle.

Mobility is about the available range of motion at a particular joint.

In terms of a conversation about movement quality, thinking in terms of flexibility is limiting because muscle length/tightness is just one of a variety of factors that can contribute to just how much or how little range of motion is present. Examples include muscle stiffness (which is not necessarily the same the muscle being short and thus, not necessarily remedied by stretching), motor control (it could be that muscles are not being recruited in the right order…or at all) and/or trigger points (‘knots’ which can impact range of motion and generally don’t respond well to stretching). Moreover, the range of motion within a joint can be influenced by the joint capsule (which is ligamentous, not muscle). In short, flexibility is just about the length of a muscle and we need to be thinking of so much more than just muscle length.

Enter mobility.

We can define mobility as the functional range of motion at a particular joint. Mobility is required in order to move well. In cases where there is limited mobility at a joint, this can get in the way of effective movement and impede good performance. Our hypermobile friends do not have this problem. They’ve got mobility in spades.

Mobility first, then stability

In general, once you’ve got sufficient mobility at a given joint, the next priority is to make sure you can stabilize the joint—in both static positions and dynamically. This approach works for just about any athlete/aerialist/flyer, but is especially relevant for hypermobile folks.

Joint mobility exists along a spectrum from extreme stiffness to extreme laxity. At the risk of over-simplifying, the key physiological element at play here is how good your body is at making collagen. Collagen is the main structural protein that’s found in your skin and ligaments (and other connective tissues). You’ll recall that your ligaments are passive constraints to joint stability. Under normal circumstances, they provide a certain amount of ‘give’ to joints. This becomes particularly relevant for hypermobile athletes because their collagen is stretchier than others’ and that creates more ‘give’ or ‘looseness’ in their joints. Consequently, they must be extra diligent about making sure they can maintain stability through the active joint restraints, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here….

Hypermobility can be somewhat of a mixed bag.

Getting back to our spectrum of joint mobility. On the end with lots of mobility, we have the hypermobile zone. The higher your score on the Beighton scale, the greater degree of general hypermobility you have. This can be somewhat of a mixed bag. Circus is filled with examples of places where extreme ranges of motion is clearly an advantage.

On the other hand, this tends to mean that hypermobile folks are predisposed to ankles sprains, shoulder ‘dislocations’ and osteoarthritis among other things. Beyond that, the collagen deficiency can affect not only muscle, tendons and ligaments, but also the smooth muscle within organs, skin and blood vessels. Laxity in the blood vessels can result in higher than normal levels of venous pooling (blood that ‘pools’ on its way back to the heart). This may cause elevated adrenaline production which may be the reason why hypermobile folks are more likely to have high-energy, always-on-the-go lifestyles. Similarly, hypermobile athletes (and non-athletes) can be prone to anxiety issues—likely because the extra adrenaline has them always on alert. It is also worthwhile noting that elevated levels of laxity can also be associated with (and possibly even the cause of) joint pain and stiffness (and dislocations), along with muscle strains and ‘generalized’ neck pain or back pain. This is somewhat beyond the scope of this article, but the presence of many of these symptoms could be indicative of Ehlers Danlos/Hypermobility Syndrome. These extreme examples are the sort of thing that—if you are experiencing multiple symptoms (not just a high Beighton score)—you should definitely see a doctor about.

For both those with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and those who are just hypermobile, there are some things you should know:

First and foremost, you really need to understand, be mindful of, and simply get a handle on stability.

As I mentioned earlier, because of the generally greater degree of laxity in your joints (passive restraints), active stability becomes very important. Non-hypermobile athletes take note: this applies to you as well. It’s rather convenient, actually: in general, any approach to exercise that is rooted in maintaining alignment and encourages stability should serve both hypermobile and regularly-mobile athletes well.

Stability starts with your core and moves outward from there.

A really simple way to stabilize your spine is to start with squeezing your butt and then bracing your stomach. (Hmmm…where have we heard that one before?) Do this and bam—you’ve stabilized your spine. It really is that easy.

Please do not underestimate or gloss over the significance of this sequence. Squeezing your butt sets your pelvis in neutral—having your pelvis tilted forward or backward can lead to a whole host of issues in a ripple-effect kind of way above and below your pelvis. And then solidly bracing your core musculature protects your lumbar spine.

Simple. Easy. Effective.

Pull yourself together!

From there, if you’re going to hang from something, the next piece of the puzzle involves making your shoulders stable. To do this, you need to focus on screwing your shoulders into their sockets. That’s right: pull yourself together. No passive hanging from stuff. Ever. Normally, I’d suggest thinking of rotating your armpits forward and ‘breaking’ the bar with your hands, but hypermobility warrants the additional consideration of actively pulling in while gravity is pulling down.

The point here is that hanging from things must always be active. If you find that it’s tiring, then that’s your cue to include things like hanging shoulder retractions in your warm-up (one to two sets of ten to twelve repetitions).

Speaking of warming up…

Stretching—in the traditional static stretching, sit there and hold it kind of way—is probably not a good idea for you. Yes, that means re-thinking your warm-up if you happen to be one of those sit-down-and-stretch-before-class types. As much as it feels good, stretching is for decreasing tension in tight tissues–specifically, muscles–and with your stretchier ligaments, chances are you’ll end up stretching ligaments instead of your muscles.

The purpose of the warm-up (and the subject of a post coming soon) is to prepare your body (and mind) for movement. Specifically, the goal is to prime and prepare the muscles you are about to use for the work they are about to do by moving them. Stretching—whether you’re hypermobile or not—generally does not help with this. Moving—like doing the hanging shoulder shrugs, above—makes muscles not only warmer, but more responsive, which is helpful for stabilization.

This also means re-thinking yoga. Please note that I’ve said rethink which is not the same as don’t do.

A brief foray into yoga—principles and practice…

One translation of the word yoga is that it means union. The union being referred to that between the mind and the body. Yoga is meant to be a mindful practice. This means you need to pay attention to—and ideally, listen to—your body and how it feels as you move into and through each individual posture. Regardless of whether you’re actually working through a vinyasa flow or whether you’re training on your apparatus of choice, the key is going to be mindfulness.

Pay attention to your body. Listen to your body. Be patient and kind to yourself. Take it slow. There’s no rush. You really need to give yourself permission to take it slow. Feeling your way through what works and figuring out what doesn’t may take time. But if you take the time to make sure you’ve got stability and movement control under control, there’s no reason why you can’t stay healthy, bendy and strong.

6 thoughts on “To stretch or not to stretch: hypermobility and aerials”

  1. Hi Mike,

    Nice to meet you and thank you for spreading the word!

    Sometimes I wish the worlds “stretch & flexibility” were completely erased from the dictionary. Or that media and folks never heard about them. Ha! I’m tired of hearing “I’m not flexible” or “I don’t stretch” (sounds familiar?) when that is not even the issue! What is it going to take for people to say: “Can you help me MOVE, better?” Or “What can I do to improve the way I move (as in the quality of my Movement)?”

    Most people don’t understand the difference between mobility and flexibility. I was sharing these same points you’re making with one of my clients just the other day.

    Mobility/stability, 3D movement diversity, movement intelligence… This is what we’re all lacking–individually and collectively!

    Our ability to move and control our joints in space far exceeds any possible benefits from isolative or supposedly “warm up” useless stretches performed in dysfunctional, artificial way. Aghh! Cheers.

    1. Hi Eva! Nice to meet you, too. It’s good to hear another voice sounding the call to connect with the body, treat it well and move better!

  2. Pingback: What are we stretching and why? | Get Strong. Get Circus Strong.

  3. Well put. I have Hypermobile Ehlers danlos. The noslogy, aka the definitions ans types, were redone this year. The Hypermobility Spectrum is vast and encompasses many comorbid (similar and related) conditions. Such as cheonic fatigue, POTS, ME, Dysautonomia, and others. As for the flexibility, i just had my 4th ACLreplacement 3mos ago. Never lost tenability to do a 180 side spilt, have almost full leg extension 180′ (ankle at the Left ear) and can hyperextend both hip to an oversplit with about 10 min of working into it. I have terrible fight flight disorder. Blood pressure medications are life changing and life saving. Alpha and beta blockers inhibit that panic response. and look up dr pocinki and his joint hypermobility papers. In any case..i would like to get back into training with a true contortionist who works on muscles and russian style resistance training. Recommendations welcome. I used to be a stripper lol. No meaninfful contortion but it is very profitsble if done well. Guess I did enough oversplits to get paid ;).

    1. Hi Ryan!
      Thanks for reading! Where are you located? I can’t say that I know many contortion teachers, but who knows? Maybe someone in my extended network knows someone…

  4. Pingback: For the bendy people: Managing hypermobility for circus (part one) - Redefine Strength & Fitness