You often hear about the importance of being flexible. When you play sports, being flexible improves your performance and reduces your risk for injury. That’s why trainers recommend warming up at least 5 minutes before a workout and doing stretches to lengthen the muscles you worked at the end of a workout. Stretching is equally important if you strength train. Strength training shortens the length of muscles. This shortening, over time, can create muscle imbalances that lead to injury. No doubt, flexibility has its benefits – up to a point.
What Determines How Flexible You Are?
Flexibility refers to the degree of movement a joint is capable of. How flexible you are at a particular joint depends upon the structure of the joint, the length of the muscles and ligaments and the shape of the bones and joint cartilage. Some joints are more flexible than others. For example, one of the most flexible joints is the shoulder joint. Genetics also play a role in how flexible an individual is. Some people are naturally more flexible than others. Flexibility also decreases with age.
Even time of day and the temperature can affect how flexible joints are. Joints are most flexible when core body temperature is highest, which is later in the day. That’s why you feel stiff and inflexible when you wake up in the morning. Gender is a factor too. Women tend to be more flexible than men. Not unexpectedly, a higher proportion of people who are very flexible are in sports such as gymnastics and ballet.
Too Much Flexibility?
As you can see, being flexible has benefits, but, yes, it’s possible to be TOO flexible. Excessive flexibility can be a sign that ligaments are too loose or lax. Ligaments are connective tissue that connect bone to bone and provide stability. About 5% of the population has ligaments that are genetically too “lax.” Lax ligaments with too much “give” cause joints to be excessively mobile and unstable. This is often referred to as hypermobile joints. Women are three times more likely than men to have this problem. As you might expect, hypermobility increases the risk for injury just as much or more than being inflexible. When you have lax or loose ligaments, your muscles have to work harder to keep your joints stable.
As mentioned, excessive flexibility is more common in women. Why is this? One theory is women are more flexible to accommodate pregnancy. As a fetus grows, it shifts a woman’s center of gravity forward. To compensate, women have to have a more flexible spine. Hormones are also a factor. Women have higher levels of estrogen, which gives them greater joint laxity and hypermobility.
How Do You Know if You’re Hyperflexible?
Doctors use a scoring system called the Beighton score to measure joint mobility. They would ask you to perform certain movements. For each one you’re capable of doing, you get a point. Here are the moves:
Bend your thumb forward to touch your forearm. (one point for each side)
Bend your fifth finger back more than 90%. (one point each side)
Bend your knees or elbows further than a straight line (one point for each joint on each side)
Place your palms flat on the floor without squatting or bending your knees. (one point)
How’d you do? The majority of people score less than 2 on the Beighton scale. Only about a quarter of healthy people score 4 points or higher. Higher scores are suggestive of joint laxity but you have to take the results in clinical context.
Some people who are hyperflexible experience chronic pain, especially in larger joints like shoulders, hips, knees and back. Other “red flags” that suggest you might be hypermobile is a history of a joint dislocation at more than one site or a history of recurrent tendonitis. People with joint hypermobility are also more likely to suffer with neck, lower back, hip and knee pain. Also, it’s possible to be hyperflexible and mobile without having any symptoms at all.
When joints are too mobile, it takes more effort to maintain posture and avoid overextending. As a result, you may experience generalized achiness and soreness due to the extra work your muscles are forced to do.
What Precautions Should You Take if You’re Hyper-Flexible?
Unfortunately, there’s no “cure” for hypermobile joints. If you have frequent bouts of tendonitis or frequent injuries, especially joint dislocations, it’s important to find a health care professional who’s knowledgeable about this problem for guidance.
What type of exercise is best? Resistance training helps to strengthen the muscles that surround the joint and give it more stability. Focus on using good form and avoid hyperextending your joints when you work with weights. Don’t lock your knees when you do movements like squats. Stop short of maximal range-of-motion when you do exercises to avoid hyperextending.
Stretching may feel good while you’re doing it but excessive stretching will lengthen already over-stretched ligaments even more. Instead, do a 5-minute warm-up and cool-down. If you enjoy the feeling of a good stretch, use a foam roller to massage your muscles. Likewise, yoga workouts aren’t always the best option since the movements are designed to stretch and lengthen the muscles.
Don’t forget about strengthening your core. A strong core helps maintain the stability that may be lacking when you have hypermobile joints. Make sure you’re doing stability exercises like planks, bird dogs and push-ups.
The Bottom Line?
Yes, you can be too flexible. Experts believe joint hypermobility is an underappreciated problem. If you’re overly flexible, take precautions like using good form and not locking your joints when you resistance train. Resistance training and core workouts improve strength and help to compensate for laxity.
Sports Injury Clinic. “Flexibility”
Daily Mail. “Why the female of the species is more bendy than the male”
Core Concepts. “Beighton Scoring Scale”
IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “How To Handle The Hypermobile Client”
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