It may surprise you to know that you can actually be too flexible.
Hypermobility and wide-open hips are often revered and those that are born that way are often proud of that characteristic. If you have the kind of body that is so tight, this article doesn’t apply to you. But those of you that can easily touch those toes or open your hips, read on, your longevity depends on it.
What you think of as achieving a “full range of motion” may actually be excessive range of motion. Even routine stretching – done incorrectly or too deeply – can be just as detrimental as a sedentary lifestyle. Thinking through the lens of “what is my body designed to do” when embarking on a stretch is a good framework to start with. Your body is always seeking a balance between mobility and stability, being too mobile is just as dangerous as being too weak, yet we rarely discuss this side of the coin.
Because there is so much emphasis around hip flexibility with “hip openers” a common phrase, let’s dive into the effects of this mobility on this part of the body as an example.
The “hip flexors,” more accurately called the psoas and iliacus muscles are the reason you don’t slip out of your chair while sitting, walk around the block, and balance in tree pose during morning yoga. They not only bring your leg forward like in a march, but they also hold together your upper body to the lower body by stabilizing the hip, pelvis, and spine as one.
As you continue to stretch muscles around your hip such as your glutes, piriformis, hamstring, quads, and even your hip flexors, two risks start to emerge. First, the deeper the stretch the higher change you will not only jam your joint and irritate the joint surfaces, but you also start to stretch connective tissue like your ligaments, joint capsules, and fascia. Connective tissue is not meant to be stretched. Connective tissue, as implied by its name, is meant to hold you together. When it becomes loose, so does the joint it connects too, resulting in a sloppy joint that is prone to wear and tear.
Then, in an attempt to restore more stability, your iliopsoas muscles, whose job is to hold this area stable will contract and stay on for good, creating constant tension. Then other muscles around that joint join in the fun and become tight too. This is often why the piriformis, glutes and hamstrings hold tension. Your first instinct is to stretch those newly tight muscles more, creating this vicious cycle of more stretching creating more tension. What your body really needs is to help restore stability.
Balancing strength and flexibility and understanding the range of motion the body is designed to do is key. Here are some of the tips that help you get there:
- Always warm up. Whether you’re gearing up for a big game or a long day at the office, you know you’re going to be asking a lot from your muscles. Give them a short, gentle warm-up with some active – but not necessarily deep – movement.
- Slow down your strength building exercises. Slow movements keep the focus on your muscles and ensure you aren’t using momentum to get into a new pose or stance. This helps promote the stability side and may prevent you overstretching a ligament because you have the time to really notice what is happening to your joints as you move.
- Be aware that tension doesn’t equal tightness. If you have tension in a muscle, it may be tight because it’s trying to hold the joint together. Stretching the muscle in a way that takes that joint too far from its happy place will just give that muscle more reason to be tight. Prolonged pressure to the muscle using a ball, foam roller, or specialized tools like the Hip Hook will get you much farther than stretching in this case.
- Stay within a healthy range. Just because you feel a stretch doesn’t mean you are tight. Think of what a healthy range of motion should be. Anything beyond that could be excessive for your body.
- Don’t push through pain. Pain is not progress. People tend to feel tension and stretch past it, thinking that will make your muscles feel better. But rather, they respond by contracting more and causing pain.
- Balance your flexibility. Spend at least as much time on strength building and releasing trigger points as you do on kicking, deep stretches, or deep squats.
If you begin to experience hip or back pain, tension in your body could be developing. Muscle tension can pull on your bones and change the alignment of your body, ultimately creating pain anywhere along the chain. The hip flexors are notorious for this as they are at the core and affect everything from head to toe.
It can be difficult to know if you need more stretching or less – and your symptoms in both situations can be the same. Thinking through the balance of mobility and stability in your body and what is designed to do will go a long way in keeping yourself healthy and pain free.