I would like to tell you a story. It’s not about circus. It’s about the Boston Marathon. Every year, around the time of the Marathon, personal trainers around the city have the same conversation with each other. Trainers in other cities where marathons are held probably have similar conversations. It goes something like this:
“One of my clients just said to me that they want to train for a marathon,” one trainer will begin, often with a mildly incredulous tone.
“One of mine said the same thing!” another will often say, this one sounding almost saddened.
“Oh yeah? What did you tell them?”
“I said ‘no’. Just ‘no’.”
“Hahaha! I told mine the same thing!”
I should perhaps offer a bit of background to explain. First of all, long, slow distance running is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people seem to love it. I get that—when I used to go for a “run” (and I would only ever “run” for 5 km at most), it was a fantastic, Zen-like, mind-clearing experience. On the other hand, jogging can be brutal on your body.
Compounding this is the fact that we live in a society in which people do more sitting and less stuff-to-counteract-the-sitting than perhaps ever before. The incomplete/partial hip flexion and extension involved in the jogging stride (as compared to a running stride) paired with the typically short and tight hip flexors tends to mean that with each stride a (not-really-at-all) healthy amount of the impact forces are transmitted right into the lower back.
And then there’s the repeated pounding on ankles that might not be moving well, transmitting forces into the knees and/or hips.
For trainers who have clients who do not currently have a ‘jogging habit’—and who are regularly working with their clients to counteract the effects of all the sitting—they recognize the idea of ‘training for a marathon’ as an injury waiting to happen, so it’s easier to tell them that it’s not such a good idea.
But try telling a jogger not to jog so much…
Now, before this turns into a giant tangent, I’m going to bring us back to the reason I shared this story:
Hey there, bendy folks!
If you already have the passive range of motion you need in any given joint, then it’s probably a good idea to stop stretching.
I’ll be honest: I phrased it that way to be nice. And, when looking to encourage behavior change, adding things is usually more successful than taking things away…but if we were to go for ‘keeping it real’, I would have to say…
If you’re hypermobile, chances are that any passive stretching you’re doing is actually increasing your risk of injury.
Let me say that again. This time, with feeling:
If you’re hypermobile, chances are that any passive stretching you’re doing is actually increasing your risk of injury.
This could be a bit like the jogging conversation…except different. And for the bendy folks who love their stretching, it might be tough to hear/read.
Allow me to explain.
Let’s talk about stiffness.
The stiffness of a muscle—or some connective tissue—refers (broadly speaking) to that tissue’s resistance to stretch. It’s a function of tension.
Stiffness refers to the resting, passive tension in a muscle or connective tissue.
Most of the time, we assume that ligaments have a greater amount of stiffness than muscles do.
You can see this assumption play out every time someone stretches…well, anything. Say you’re standing up with your leg on a railing. I could describe it as a hamstring stretch and you would probably know what I mean—and this is based on both our understanding of where the hamstrings are and our assumption that, in this position, the hamstrings are the most stretched thing in this position.
We can even find some very impressive illustrations of stretches that highlight the muscles that are “supposed” to be stretched in each particular stretch-position.
And if the muscle drawing says that’s what’s being stretched, it must be true.
And most of the time, it’s mostly true.
Except for the hypermobile crowd.
Relative Stiffness: an important concept you probably didn’t know you already know
For our hypermobile friends—in particular those whose hypermobility is a product of a collagen-production defect—their tendons and other passive joint constraints are usually less stiff than their muscles.
Consider the following photos.
Imagine the thick band represents normal connective tissue and the thinner band represents muscle tissue. What happens if we try to stretch this system?
The thinner band elongates more than the thick band. In fact, the thick band barely changes shape compared to the thin band.
Now, imagine we have connective tissue that is more lax—be it the result of defective collagen or because it’s already been stretched loose. In this case, the thin band now represents the connective tissue that normally holds a joint together and the thick band now represents the muscle.
What happens now when we try to stretch the system?
You might not be stretching what you think you’re stretching
If, in any given stretch, the muscles that you’re targeting are more stiff than the passive stabilizers (like the ligaments and tendons), then the less stiff tissue is going to stretch.
And it will feel sooo goooood…
But is that what you really want to be stretching?
And, you might not be stretching what you think you’re stretching
Consider this really popular photo of Russian gymnast Irina Tchachina stretching her oversplit. If you were to look carefully at her front leg (or at the lines I’ve added), you’ll note that her knee is hyperextended.
Rather than stretching her ‘hamstrings’, she may be straining her knee into (more) hyperextension. It’s pretty safe to say that we all know the knee isn’t supposed to bend backwards…but if you stretch out the passive stabilizers of your knee joint, well, that’s just making the joint less stable…which isn’t necessarily a problem…unless it becomes a problem (see below).
The thing about overuse injuries
The thing about overuse injuries is that it’s possible for you to have no idea one is brewing. Perhaps the best (really? Best? I don’t know…) scenario is the one where certain movements begin to hurt or your <something> begins to hurt…just a little bit. That’s your sign.
Wait. It’s more complicated than that. For some in the hypermobile crowd, pain is complicated and it’s important to acknowledge that. I don’t think I could adequately treat the topic of pain here without turning it into a separate post entirely, but I wanted to take at least a paragraph to note that, for some hypermobile athletes out there, pain isn’t simple. And it sucks.
Now, the thing with circus is that there are all sorts of things that you’re going to want to train that are going to end up beating up your body.
Some of it will just be ‘circus pain’—you know, like when you’re learning a toe hang. Or when you’re doing anything on a lyra.
But some of it will be the pain that comes from putting your body into compromising positions. (Of course, just to make life that much more interesting, what constitutes a ‘compromising position’ will vary from body to body). Some of it will be because you’re making your body do things that put a ton of stress on bits that either aren’t intended to absorb that stress or simply don’t have the capacity to absorb that stress.
And of course, it might not even hurt… right now.
If you’re a professional/career circus artist and this is your livelihood, maybe you make an informed decision, accepting that there are things you’re doing that put you at an increased risk of injury (which means it is by no means a certainty)…and probably something that will be more like an overuse, wear-and-tear kind of injury.
If circus is not how you put food on the table, then maybe the factors you consider when making decisions are different. Maybe.
Anyway, the thing about overuse injuries is that it’s hard to really say for sure what factors are going to contribute to whether a tissue fails or not.
We can, however, use our knowledge of biomechanics, known mechanisms of injury and the study of tissue tolerances to make a pretty educated guess about what sort of things will lead to injuries.
And I think we can be fairly certain about two things:
- If you’re hypermobile, stretching is probably not targeting your muscles. It’s probably stretching out the passive stabilizers around the joints you’re stretching.
- The more joint laxity you have, the more your joints will ‘move around’, creating additional wear and tear on nice things like the labrum in your hip or shoulder.
And this is why technique and form matter so much.
But this is also why it’s important for you to make informed decisions about how and why you manage your flexibility.
All of which brings us to this:
If stretching is out, what can you do?
You have to get strong and stable.
But stable doesn’t mean still. Stability really means dynamic control of your joints—especially at the end of their ranges of motion.
The basic principle of specificity is that your body will adapt to the “training stresses” you subject it to. Sitting there in a stretch still counts as something that you are training your body to do.
If the goal is to do a split on the floor—perhaps as a cool party trick—and you have no plans to add any further level of challenge to your split, then…
- I don’t know why you’re reading this (welcome just the same!); and
- Stretching on the floor is probably fine (but in all likelihood, not really)
If, however, your goal is to do a split between two lengths of fabric or your goal is to move into and out of your split while you’re on your apparatus of choice…then you need to train your muscles to be active and strong at those end ranges of motion.
And as with all forms of strengthening, this is best done as a progression. For now, I will present a starting point to such a progression. I’ve got to warn you, though: it is decidedly unsexy. Tremendously important for the bendy folks, but definitely not sexy.
See? Even the name isn’t sexy.
For the following examples, I am going to assume you already have a full front split and/or seated straddle.
Wait, how about we call these:
Yeah. That sounds a bit better…doesn’t it? (I still like positional isometrics, but I’m nerdy that way).
The next time you find yourself wanting to sit down in your split, try this:
- Set yourself up in a nice front split: point your toes, sit up tall.
- Take a breath in through your nose and into your belly. Brace your core as you exhale slowly and fully through pursed lips.
- Clench both hands into fists. Squeeze at about 25% of your maximum, safest muscle contraction.
- Allow the tension from your fists to spread up your forearms all the way to your shoulders. From there, develop tension throughout your chest and back and down into your core.
- Breathe: in through your nose—maintain body tension—and out through your mouth—fully, slowly.
- Next, draw up through your pelvic floor (pretend like you really have to pee) and sit just a little taller.
- Now, squeeze the muscles in your lead leg: your glutes, your quads, your hamstrings, your calves, your feet (point your toes harder!).
- Squeeze the muscles in your rear leg—starting with your GLUTES. Squeeeeeze. Then hamstrings, quads, calves and feet.
- Now, everything is engaged at 25% of your maximum, safest muscle contraction. Whole body tension.
- Take five full breaths here (as described above) without losing any tension.
- Then, starting with your fists, increase the tension to 50% of your max, for five breaths.
- Repeat for 75% and 95% of your maximum safest contraction.
- Switch sides.
Next, switch to your seated straddle.
The procedure is the same only you should also feel yourself connecting with the deep hip rotators as you maintain your leg position.
As you dial up the tension, there should be shaking. If you find yourself having trouble squeezing certain muscles (like, say, your GLUTES), that’s your cue that this exercise is for you.
Positional isometrics/shaping drills are far from sexy, but they are certainly a more active (and functional) way for you to pass the time when you feel like sitting down on the floor in a split. I’m tempted to outline a continued progression for developing strength in the extremes of your joint ranges of motion, but I’m trying to keep this (relatively) short. I’ll save those ideas for another time.
Wrapping up…for now
Hypermobility is a rather complex thing. For some, it’s a collagen deficiency. It could be EDS, Marfan’s or another disease that comes with additional complexities and considerations. For some, it could just be joints that are rather stretched out. There are multiple possibilities, but there remain certain key concepts that will help any of you in the hypermobile circus artist-athlete crowd to manage your “bendy-ness”:
- Get really freaking strong. And stable.
- Develop mastery-level proprioception…as a precursor to mastery-level control.
- Consider the possibility that stretching isn’t something that’s good for you and isn’t something you need to do.
“Don’t keep stretching. And you have to be super strong and super stable. You don’t have a choice.”