Can Athletes Really Be 'Too Mobile'?

Blindly prescribing soft tissue and joint-manipulation modalities to athletes without an understanding of their unique anatomy could prove detrimental.

Athletes are frequently instructed to stretch what feels "tight," and to stretch it often.

Although the majority could benefit from some targeted mobility work, the sweeping generalization that "more is better" doesn't reign true. In athletics, we're always after more. More strength. More speed. More agility. More endurance. More wins.

It's natural to approach mobility with that same mindset. However, blindly prescribing soft tissue and joint-manipulation modalities to athletes without an understanding of their unique anatomy could prove detrimental.

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Athletes are frequently instructed to stretch what feels "tight," and to stretch it often.

Although the majority could benefit from some targeted mobility work, the sweeping generalization that "more is better" doesn't reign true. In athletics, we're always after more. More strength. More speed. More agility. More endurance. More wins.

It's natural to approach mobility with that same mindset. However, blindly prescribing soft tissue and joint-manipulation modalities to athletes without an understanding of their unique anatomy could prove detrimental.

Perhaps the natural "stiffness" an athlete possesses is in all reality an important contribution to their success. And perhaps making an athlete with good mobility even more mobile could actively hamper their performance.

What is Hypermobility?

Hypermobility is defined as some or all of a person's joints having unusually large ranges of motion, as well as the ability to move into positions many others would find impossible.

Most coaches have seen it: the athlete who can fold in half, converse comfortably while in the splits, or even bend their elbow in a direction that doesn't seem possible.

These individuals are often labeled "double-jointed" and credited for their feats of flexibility. Although some would argue this extreme range of motion is beneficial, it's not necessarily that simple. Further prescribing stretching/mobility work to these athletes could be a waste of time, if not detrimental. Although research has recently disproven that hypermobility increases one's chances of sustaining an injury, it does appear to have some negative consequences on performance, specifically strength.

A study in 2016 examined 106 young adults, half of which were considered hyper-mobile (25 male, 28 female), while the remaining half were considered non hyper-mobile (25 male, 28 female). Isometric elbow and knee extensor strength was examined, ultimately displaying that males with hypermoblity were significantly weaker than those who were non-hypermobile. Females however, did not display any significant difference in strength between groups.

It's difficult to draw conclusions from a single study, particularly when the results are mixed between genders.

However, what we do know is that force production has an optimal range of motion, no matter the movement.

Hypermobile joints impair external force production during muscle contraction. The ability to squat to full depth is an admirable trait, one that I believe most individuals should aspire to (so long as they have the proper anatomy and movement competency), but it will not produce the force outputs that a half or even quarter squat could.

Depending on the phase in which one is training and the desired outcome, training a movement throughout a full range of motion may be unnecessary. Certainly movements should be trained through an entire range at some point within the year, but not always.

The point is, why would attempting to increase one's range of motion or mobility in a given movement correlate with an increase in performance when it is not even necessary?

Coaches should ask themselves: does my athlete really need this quality?

Furthermore, how many sports require an athlete to consistently reach an end range of motion for performance? Basketball players do not squat as low as they can to jump, hockey players do not lift the stick as high as they can to shoot a puck, and soccer players do not reach their leg as far back as possible to kick a ball.

Context is key. Understanding what level of mobility is acceptable for athletes to effectively perform while remaining safe should be the number one consideration.

How to Train Hypermobile Athletes

Although the degree to which hypermobility exists varies by the individual, general guidelines can help ensure they're getting the most out of their training. It should be mentioned, however, that if hypermobility is present, a visit to a healthcare provider is necessary before partaking in any activity.

Closed-Chain Exercises: Performing closed-chain exercises such as Squats, Deadlifts, Lunges and Presses assist in safely increasing strength for the athlete as well as assisting in furthering joint stability. Attempting to perform open chain exercises may prove to be ineffective as the athlete likely will lack the motor control to execute them through such large ranges of motion.

Isometrics: Incorporating isometrics is not only a fantastic way to work on one's overall force production, but a rather safe way to do so when appropriately applied. There is no significant change in joint angle, thus hypermobility or lack thereof becomes an irrelevant factor.

One of my favorite exercises is the Isometric Mid-Thigh Pull as shown below.

Pull the bar into the safety racks as forcefully as possible for 6-8 seconds while maintaining good posture. Repeat for 2-3 sets and let your self rest completely after each set. This is not a setup I'd use if I was testing on a force plate, as the racks have some give and I am not using an aluminum bar, but I'm still achieving the desired stimulus.

Coaches should be aware that these type of exercises, which are known as overcoming isometrics, can be extremely taxing on the nervous system and should be applied in moderate doses.

Tempo: A common issue for those with hypermobility is general laxity and decreased muscle tone. Thus, focusing on a slower tempo during resistance training that can help emphasize muscle tension can be useful. A common misconception is that resistance training makes people more "stiff." Rather, proper resistance training assists with motor control when training through entire ranges of motion and the overall integrity of joints, tendons, and ligaments. Slowing the eccentric portion of a lift down to 3-5 seconds at a time is an excellent way to emphasize technique and tension.

In conjunction with these techniques, it's important to consistently ask the athlete where they're feeling each exercise. If they're struggling to engage the muscles we want them to engage, it's time to problem solve and think of ways to we can better tailor the training to the individual.

Photo Credit: Drazen_/iStock

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Topics: FLEXIBILITY TRAINING