Getting Strong with Hypermobility

6 min read. Guest blog by Jenni Sanders

‘Mobility training’ is all the rage at the moment; increasing your ROM is surely the way to greatness. If you touch those toes of yours maybe that girl/guy will finally go out with you, maybe you’ll get that promotion, maybe you’ll win the lottery… maybe you’ll suddenly get a 200kg Back Squat. But being flexible isn’t always a good thing.

 

The term “double-jointed” is thrown around a lot, if you can do any weird thing with your fingers or arms etc you’d be called double jointed. Although nobody actually has “double joints”, it is a common colloquialism for Hypermobility, which basically is a condition that allows your joints to have an unusually large range of motion without mobility training. It’s likely that either you or someone you know has some hypermobility, and most will live without experiencing any issues, however for some it gets a little bit more interesting.

Jenni doing wall splits

Hypermobility is caused by an increased laxity of connective tissues and there is a scale of severity ranging from one or two affected joints, all the way up to the extreme Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) where every part of a person’s connective tissue is affected; including those which support blood vessels and internal organs. I sit somewhere in the middle, I have what’s known as Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS), it’s mostly just my joints which are affected.

 

On a day to day basis, all my joints feel painful, stiff and achy – if I move too fast I can easily hurt myself, from a painful tweak to a sprain or dislocation without any external force. Often when you live with something like this you don’t realise that other people don’t – why would what you feel not be normal?

 

A few years ago I would struggle to do everyday things like chop vegetables, open jars, press down onto paper as I cut it.. it would cause me a lot of pain in my fingers and wrists. If I needed to walk more than a few miles I’d be brought close to tears with the pain in my ankles, knees and hips and every attempt I made to make myself stronger in and out of the gym resulted in injury after injury, disappointment after disappointment. I was operated on, had physiotherapy for years, been on and off crutches and unable to keep up with friends because I’d need to sit down or sit out due to pain… and unfortunately watching your friends bowling isn’t that fun. Every time I did anything I felt as though I was one small movement away from injury.

Jenni on crutches 2014
2014, crutches were a common feature

The problem is that I was trying to train as if I didn’t have JHS, I was looking at the people around me and trying to copy them – how weak must I be if I can’t do something as normal as jump and land without pain? So I’d push more and more, try to keep up, all the while trying to ignore the genuine excuse that I had in place of a growing sense of failure. It wasn’t until I actually started seeing a coach who cared enough to recognise I was struggling that things started to change. (Don’t tell Tom, but he was that Coach – if I hadn’t have met him I probably would be in a wheelchair by now).

 

I was flexible, so I gravitated towards Yoga, I enjoyed using my flexibility to make fast progress in the Asanas, but I paired this with HIIT training, intense circuits and vague, ill-educated weightlifting and later, Crossfit. What a good idea – stretch already unstable joints then start flailing around in unpredictable ways. Despite seeing many others pair yoga & Crossfit it was the exact opposite of what I needed – I didn’t need to gain range of motion to increase my performance; I already had too much; I needed to learn to control it.

jenni doing king pigeon

My joints are inherently unstable, and when something is unstable it isn’t strong: your CNS kicks in, saps you of strength and brings the pain to make you stop whatever it is you’re doing and protect your body. It was a hard pill to swallow, but I started back from the beginning for the sake of my body. With the help of Tom we assessed what I could do, what I struggled with and tried to pinpoint particular areas of weakness.

 

When I first started, I went right back to basics – wobble boards, bodyweight, resistance bands, trying to eliminate as much impact and sudden movements as possible. I’d continue with WODs and still did some yoga, but now I had a better awareness of my body I’d adjust and adapt what I was doing to be actually beneficial rather than detrimental. I wouldn’t avoid the extreme ranges – quite the opposite – I’d need to go to the extremes frequently in order to strengthen them, but now I would go there on my terms and aim to create tension, rather than accidentally over-stretching.

 

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come with something as gradual as strengthening connective tissue. When I first started I would frequently find myself in tears with frustration, with pain, or sheer tiredness of working on things that seemed to be making no difference whatsoever. Despite every effort I’d still often leave the gym with intense pain in my knees, ankles, shoulders, wrists, etc. and the world ended every single time it happened. How could I ever be an athlete? How could I ever be who I wanted to be?

 

Muscular changes happen over the course of weeks and months, but connective tissue changes happen over months and years. It’s been just over 4 years of working on this new type of strength and throughout that time period I’ve had many little victories: gaining the ankle, knee and hip stability to do a string of full height box jumps, or run in a WOD for the first time, strengthening my shoulders enough to finally kip my pull ups and even doing a few butterfly pull ups, but the biggest changes have happened without any defining markers. Nowadays I can go on walks, I can sleep without pain, I can try new things without being afraid and I am seeing consistent improvements in my strength. They didn’t happen overnight, and I still get days where I’ll suddenly get too much movement of my knees or shoulders, or my ankle will sprain for no reason other than I took a step too fast, but over time I’ve learnt to realise this is not a setback, just something I can work around.

jenni sanders splits

From now on, I’m able to work on my own goals with less focus on specific exercises for my extreme ROM. I use programs like End Range Training to build overall strength, and every exercise I do can be used to improve my stability and control now that I have awareness of my bodies weaknesses.

 

The hardest lesson I had to learn was to stop comparing myself to others and to start focusing on what’s best for me. Try different gyms, talk to as many coaches as you can and if you’re finding yourself in pain, injured or struggling where others aren’t then it’s up to you to take action. Regardless of your starting point, what your training has been like in the past or whatever existing conditions you have, there’s always something you can do and always ways you can get better.