Hyperflexibility and Joint Pain
When I first started going to yoga classes in college, I found that, despite being terribly out of shape in other ways, it was incredibly easy for me to reach my toes and perform other feats of flexibility. It was effortless! I was “naturally” flexible!
However, several years later, in better shape and a lot smarter about my body, I could still touch my toes and bend into all sorts of inhuman poses — even when I had shooting sciatic sensitivity in my hip from a running injury (caused by muscular imbalances). Even at the time, I had to ask myself: how is this possible? Anytime I Googled “sciatic pain,” there are no immediate results for “exercises.” Instead, the suggested treatment is “stretches.”
What’s wrong with this picture? I could stretch! Why was I still in pain?
Despite lots of advice to the contrary, stretching alone often does not relieve pain. Instead, strength training is essential to correct muscular imbalances and to protect potentially unstable joint areas.
Hyperflexibility is Not Really Flexibility
In order to explain this in-depth, I’m going to include an excerpt from my book, Injury-Proof: Moving Better, Training Smarter, and Building an Invincible Core:
Yoga advertising often puts hyperflexibility or hypermobility on display, while true flexibility is simply the ability to move through the full range of motion without pain. Flexibility does not have markers except for feeling and motion – it cannot be captured in an image, and it is not impressive. It is simply a lack of restriction or pain in free movement.
Hyperflexibility and hypermobility are terms that, often used interchangeably, refer to a quality that some people (mostly women) have, in which collagen fibers are weaker around joints and ligaments are looser and more relaxed than is typical, usually due to genetics. These people are hyperflexible, and they often gravitate towards certain activities in which their unusual natural ability to bend, reach, and stretch give them an edge, such as swimming, dancing, and yoga. However, hyperflexibility, while inherently harmless, can become problematic in practice.
So what? If some people are naturally more flexible than others, why is that a problem?
Hyperflexible people naturally, if unconsciously, promote an unrealistic, competitive image of yoga and make it more difficult for people of average flexibility to participate in yoga practice. Extremely difficult, deep poses, unattainable for most people, are relatively easy in a short period of time for the hyperflexible and become the “gold standard” of flexibility thanks to social media and athletic retailing.
You may be hyperflexible if you a “natural” gymnast or dancer as a child, and/or if, as an adult, you have gravitated easily to yoga and learned the postures quickly.
The normalization of hyperflexibility through yoga advertising and athletic retailing creates an expectation that yoga is only about “stretching” and total bendiness, which is not entirely true, and can be harmful for people who are experiencing chronic muscle tightness (as well as to hyperflexible people who eventually become injured due to weak ligaments and unbalanced muscles).
If someone has muscular imbalances in their hips that put pressure on their lower back, for example, doing any kind of forward fold can be inherently harmful to that person’s lumbar spine region. It is more likely that they will experience increased tightness and injury than that they will reap any kind of flexibility benefits. However, many people who have tight, restricted muscles think they “should be” doing these stretches, and push through intense pain to “develop flexibility.” Or they simply quit because of the pain of deep stretching.
On the other hand, hyperflexible people, unless they work on building strong muscular support around their joints, are actually more prone to injury than the typical population, because the collagen and ligaments that support the joints and help the body to move through the full range of motion are weaker than they should be.
A good friend of mine who is a yoga teacher (and in superb physical shape) recently sustained a serious SI joint injury, practicing a balance pose. Even yoga teachers aren’t immune!
In other words, just because someone can pop into a quick pretzel shape doesn’t mean that they are truly flexible. The two are almost unrelated.
True Flexibility: Movement Without Pain
Stretching does not fix pain. Only strength can fix pain.
If you are experiencing pain in any joint area, you do not need to yank on the soft tissues through stretching. Instead, you need to strengthen the muscles that are responsible for stabilizing and protecting vulnerable joint areas.
Why do we worship flexibility? Because we can see it and measure it. We can Instagram it. We can “like” it and “share” it.
True flexibility is not measurable or likable. It is simply enjoyable, because it is unrestricted, balanced movement.
I remember the fitness tests for Physical Education in middle school and high school – part of the test was flexibility, and there were clear markers for measurement. When we sat on the floor and reached for our toes, the score we received was based on the inches past our feet to which our fingers crept.
This creates an unrealistic method of measurement that, again, promotes hyperflexibility. If true flexibility lacks visible markers and relies on the feeling of the individual, how do you cultivate it, practice it, and measure it?
My answer is this: there is no flexibility without strength. This dictum includes the hyperflexible as well as the tight and constricted. Strength training and flexibility training together are essential both for the yogi and the anti-yogi, and the Injury-Proof Workout is designed to address this balance.
Keep in mind that strength training does not mean that you need to purchase Olympic weight plates. Strength training can be simple calisthenics, a strength-based yoga practice, and/or any kind of well-programmed bodyweight training.
Are you hyperflexible? Leave a comment about your experiences with yoga and strength training!