Did you know you can overstretch?
Our body is held together by a continuous network of muscle and connective tissue. These amazing machines work together to distribute force and keep us moving.
The mobility of our body is determined by the by the range of motion allowed by our muscles and fascia. Our stability is determined by the strength of our connective tissue.
Both tissues adapt to loads, getting longer or stronger as needed.
Ideally, stretching targets both muscle and connective tissue, making your whole body more supple and responsive. Sometimes, the positions we use to stretch targets that connective tissue more than anything else.
In some people, the connective tissue moves more, and is more responsive. And sometimes, this more responsive tissue can overstretch and lose some of its stability.
My preferred word for this phenomenon is hypermobility. Hypermobility exists on a spectrum. It can be anything from being more mobile in one joint to a full body connective tissue disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
Hypermobile people across the spectrum will have a tendency to move in a way that relies much more on their connective tissue than their muscles.
Have you ever seen someone bend their knee straighter than straight, so that the back looks curved in slightly the wrong way?
This hyperextension is very common with hypermobile people, and is the most common place to have some extra flexibility. When someone’s leg is in this position, they’re using their ligaments and tendons to hold their leg straight; their leg muscles are passively going along for the ride. I call this “resting lock”.
This also means that if they’re stretching their leg in this position, they aren’t stretching their muscles much at all. Over time this can create joint instability, pain, and in some cases significant injury.
Here’s what that looks like in an actual body (mine!).
Above I’ve allowed all my muscular brakes to turn off and my knees hyperextend. Notice how my shins are not at a right angle to my feet. This feels “straight” to me, but I know it’s not.
Here I’ve reapplied all my muscular brakes and gotten into good alignment.
If you load hyperextended joints, you risk pretty significant injury. This is one reason why stretchy people are more prone to sprains and joint pain.
Luckily my elbows are one of my more stable joints, but they do tend to bend backwards if I’m not being too careful. You can see on the left that there’s a slight curve in the wrong direction; on the right I’ve softened my elbows a bit and achieved a straight arm.
I’ve made the mistake of strength training without being mindful of my alignment, and enjoyed several weeks of elbow strain because of it.
There are other interesting quirks with hypermobility. Super stretchy people often feel a strong “need” to stretch despite already having good flexibility. This happens because the muscles are tightening up to find some stability for the joint, possibly creating trigger points.* Because of this, it can even feel painful to not stretch!
The key to long term health for hypermobile people is to learn how to apply their muscular brakes so they don’t go too far and rely constantly on resting lock. Learning whole body alignment helps a lot, as well as using a mirror during stretching or strengthening exercises. If you have hypermobility, I strongly recommend seeing a trainer or restorative exercise specialist who understands your unique needs. A few sessions learning how to put on your brakes will go a long way to improving strength and stability.