How Much Flexibility... Is Too Much?

People get hurt.  This is a fundamental downside of absolutely any workout regime, sport or however the hell you want to classify Zumba.  By and large, some kind of tweak or injury is an unavoidable part of working out and getting fit.  I’ll go so far as to say if your training program has zero risk of injury, you really ought to re-think what you’re doing cause I STRONGLY doubt it’s actually doing anything.  In the old days of CrossFit we used to say, “the only program that’s perfectly safe is perfectly ineffective.”  We take every possible step to avoid injury but I’d be absolutely lying if I said that it isn’t a possibility. 

So what do you do if/when you get injured?  Well the number one, top of the list, above all else answer is to re-assess your movement.  In 99.99999% of cases injuries are not some disease that you caught.  It’s an unavoidable risk, but it doesn’t come without precursors.  The goal is to do our best to understand what happened so we can avoid it in the future. The only real mistake is not learning from your past mistakes. 

This is why I think it’s so critical to have an outsider’s perspective on your movement.  I tell people this all the time but how it feels is a lie.  It’s like when you hear your voice on recording.  It’s both shocking and humbling, “that’s what I sound like!??!”  In that same vein, what you think your movement looks like and what it actually looks like are usually two very very different animals.  So whether that’s a coach or a camera (if only there were some ubiquitous recording devices we could carry with us all the time, right?) you absolutely need to look at your movement and re-assess what could have happened to get you where you are.

 

Once you look at your movement and identify what you need to fix, then it’s time to game plan how to fix it.  Here’s where I think most people make the biggest mistake.  Let me be absolutely crystal clear about this:  JUST BECAUSE YOU GOT INJURED DOES AUTOMATICALLY NOT MEAN YOU NEED MORE MOBILITY/FLEXIBILITY.    As I mentioned above, in the overwhelming majority of cases there was a problem with your movement that caused your injury.  Lack of mobility/flexibility could be what caused your movement dysfunction.  In which case some dynamic range of motion drills and soft tissue foam rolling might be just what the doctor ordered.  But automatically assuming that was the mechanism is a foolish FOOLISH mistake.  Being too flexible IS ACTUALLY BAD FOR YOU!!!  Hypermobile people are more prone to things like arthritis and spondylolisthesis; which, believe me, you do not want to mess with. 

 

I tend to find this “more flexibility!!” idea more prominent in women (as they tend to be more flexible than men).  In my opinion it’s a case of confirmation bias.  Flexible people naturally gravitate towards things that prioritize what they’re good at.  It’s the same reason why tall people seem to like playing basketball more than short people (weird, right?).  Flexibility often comes at a cost of stability. So given enough repetition, things eventually go awry and joints get worn out.  Mix in a little “common knowledge” that stretching prevents injuries and you have a recipe for disaster.  Keep in mind, I was on the CrossFit Movement and MOBILITY Staff teaching this stuff [Side note: the course is officially titled Movement and Mobility. In that order. On purpose.  We spent 70% of the course talking about watching and diagnosing movement faults, only 30% on treatment.]  So when I say to stop putting so much emphasis on mobility, I mean it.

 

Before you start roasting me, let me be crystal clear that I’m not saying to throw out mobility as a whole.  Everything works in the right context.  I’m just saying it’s not a cure all.  How do you know if it’s a good idea for you?  Well the unfortunately obvious answer is: it depends.  This video is a demonstration of what’s known as the Beighton Test.  While it should be performed by a licensed DPT [happy, lawyers?] it can easily be performed at home to give you some idea of whether more flexibility will help you.

 

My good friend and co-MWOD Instructor, Danny Matta, told me about an amazing study the Army conducted.  They took every Ranger School applicant and put them through the Beighton test above to measure their joint laxity. They plotted them along a spectrum of hypermobile to immobile and tracked their injury rates. Guess who got injured the most? Immobile or Hypermobile?  Trick question!  They showed the same rates of injury.  The optimal score correlated with the lowest injury rate was right in the meat of the bell curve in that 4-6 range of the Beighton test.  Unfortunately those studies were for internal use only by the Army.  We’ve tried to find them on JSTOR or PubMed to no avail….

 

So the real question you should be asking is: “how much mobility do you need?”  The answer to that one is paradoxically simple and complex.  The answer is: exactly as much as you need and no more.

 

Are you a Powerlifter?  Then you need to have enough flexibility in the shoulders and hips to get the bar to your chest or hips below parallel.  Any more and you’re robbing yourself of the ability to generate enough force to move the weight.  Any less and you’re compromising the structural integrity of the joints and not only putting yourself into a more dangerous position but you’re also less able to produce optimal force.

 

Are you a Gymnast?  Then you need to have UBER flexible joints.  You need to get into extremely complex positions and (???) fit yourself into very tight spaces like straight legged under a bar, splits, etc.  But make no mistake, even though they’re flexible, gymnasts get hurt ALL THE TIME

 

Are you an Olympic Lifter?  Well you BETTER be both flexible and stable.  For weightlifting, micrometers make massive differences. So if your shoulders are stiff, you will not be successful. You need to get into the deepest squats imaginable to catch the bar.  But getting into that position isn’t enough.  If you’re not stable enough in those deep squats, good luck standing up the weight.  Stretch all you want, it won’t help you lift that PR out of that weak position.

 

Are you just a regular person? You should probably be flexible enough to bend over to grab a bag while maintaining a neutral spine but strong enough to lift your bodyweight while maintaining a neutral spine.  It’s probably helpful to be able to push something like 50-75% of your bodyweight over your head without losing a neutral spine.  Long and short, you should be strong enough to move a decent amount of weight and not have to compromise your spine or joints.  But if you think more flexibility is gonna inherently make your joints safer, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

 

Now look: don’t go crazy and start saying “this guy is so smart, intelligent and handsome and he said to NEVER do any mobility exercises so I’m not gonna!”  Mobility work is crucial to keeping the engine running smooth.   But it’s absolutely critical you don’t get too much of a good thing.  [NO RISK ANYBODY IS EVER GONNA SAY THIS… J]

 

Perform that Beighton test above and self-assess.  If you’re injuring yourself and scoring a 7+ you REALLY NEED TO STOP DOING SO MUCH MOBILITY AND STRETCHING!!!   You lack stability, not mobility.  GET STRONGER AND MOVE BETTER!!!  Get a coach (better yet, if you know what to look for, get a video camera), clean up your movement, and build your strength.  Your body will thank you.

Andrew Killion