Hypermobility and exercise: What you should know

I often say that being hypermobile is like being part of a secret society that you never asked to join. This is definitely the case with hypermobility and exercise.

You have a bunch of body challenges that non hypermobile people will never understand. Sometimes you wonder if you’re imagining things until you meet other hypermobile humans who confirm that you’re not alone.

To be clear: Your experiences are valid and your challenges are real. Hypermobility affects far more than your joints and it can have a major impact on your fitness experience. 

With that, let’s dive into the real talk about hypermobility and fitness.

Hypermobility and Exercise Challenge #1: Reduced body awareness

It’s not uncommon for hypermobile humans to have issues with proprioception – aka body awareness. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, proprioception is your body’s GPS system.

It’s your ability to sense where your joints are in space. For us hypermobile folks, it can feel a lot more like MapQuest than Waze. 

How does this relate to fitness, pain and injury?

Muscles respond to position and load – aka the amount of weight or resistance being applied. If you can’t feel where you are it may mean struggling to feel your muscles engage. It can also mean hanging out in the end range of your joints and difficulty moving with control.

These things don’t necessarily mean you’re going to damage your joints or that a movement is dangerous. However, it may result in the experience of pain, because joints don’t like to be loaded without muscular support. 

This can make hypermobility and exercise a challenging combination. It can also be really scary to hear, so let’s talk about what you can do about this.

The good news is that proprioception can be improved! Once you can better sense your joint position, you tend to move with more control, have better muscle engagement, and may experience less pain.

Ways to improve body awareness during exercise when you’re hypermobile:

  • Make friends with props. Props are not just for “modifications.” They are actually a way to give your brain feedback on where your joints are in space. More feedback = better control and more muscle engagement. All good things!
  • Add load / weight. I’m not suggesting that you use a weight that you don’t feel like you can control. The weight should just be heavy enough that you feel your muscles after a few reps. Load = more feedback and often makes an exercise feel EASIER even though it’s more physical “work.” 
  • Body mapping through ball rolling, foam rolling, nerve flossing, and “stability” exercises. All of these things can calm things down when our joints and muscles feel tight or sensitive. They also your brain information on where your body is in space. More info = more accurate movement. This can be a great thing to do as a prep or cool down for strength training. 😉

Hypermobility and Exercise Challenge #2: Issues with Recovery and Fatigue

Once again, that exhaustion and excessive soreness is not in your head.

Please note that reasons for fatigue extend beyond what I am covering below. However, there’s only so much I can cover in one post. I also cover this topic in a podcast with physical therapist and hypermobility expert Dr. Melissa Koehl.

Hypermobile humans are more likely to get delayed onset muscle soreness DOMS. We’re also prone to central nervous system (CNS) fatigue after exercise. CNS fatigue is when the motor neurons that cause your muscles to fire get exhausted and you feel like you were hit by a truck.

And you probably don’t need me to tell you that “just powering through” will almost always make you feel worse.

Ways to manage soreness and fatigue for hypermobility and exercise

  • Do fewer exercises, with lower reps and moderate weight. This is often referred to as low volume programming! CNS fatigue and DOMS are often made worse by high reps even with low weight. It may seem counterintuitive, but doing fewer exercises for fewer reps with a moderate weight will give you better recovery and results, and less exhaustion.
  • Follow a program that uses progressive overload and repeats exercises over time. Yes, you may need to progress in weights and reps slower than the average person, but that’s okay! What’s cool about repeating exercises is that the more you do them (with appropriate recovery, re the first bullet point), the more your nervous system will deem them as “safe” and the better adapted you’ll be. This means over time, you will start to see clear improvements in fitness without being so damn exhausted. 
  • Leave a little in the tank. Whether it’s cardio or strength training, you don’t need to max out to see results. You just need enough challenge to create positive adaptations. While this takes some practice, over time you’ll be able to find a balance between appropriate challenge without total exhaustion. And if you’re not sure, it’s okay to take the less is more approach!

Hypermobility and Exercise Challenge #3: It’s harder to build strength and muscle

Some of this may be genetic potential. However, part of this challenge is that we’re often dealing with fatigue, pain, and all the crap I listed above. This makes hard to stay consistent in a fitness practice!

What’s important is that even if it may be harder for us to build strength and muscle, we have the ability to. We just need the right symptom management and strength programming. Once we figure that out, having more strength and muscle can greatly improve our quality of life. 

How can we do this? 

First, you might need to figure out some of your other health issues first! And that’s fine. You also might need to find a physical therapist to help you manage your pain. Sometimes fitness isn’t the best starting point!

But let’s assume you have that somewhat well managed. If that’s the case and we’re looking at things through the fitness lens, then a lot of it is by following a program that uses the principles I outlined above.

What to look for in a strength training or exercise program when you’re hypermobile

  • Opt for a low volume strength program that progresses with fewer exercises, sets, and reps while using moderate to heavier weight ONCE you feel ready for it.
  • Follow a program that doesn’t change every exercise at once each month and gives you lots of options so you can pick exercises that feel right for your body and use things like bands and blocks to provide feedback
  • Practice exercises (these can be part of the warm-up and cool down) that address body awareness and help calm down your nervous system, which may mitigate against joint discomfort and exhaustion post workout.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a one size fits all workout for hypermobility. 

Hypermobility exists on a spectrum. Our challenges, needs, and abilities will vary greatly. I believe we are capable of participating in most, if not all, forms of fitness. We just need the right progressions and considerations for whatever we have going on. 

Looking for an ongoing app based strength program with considerations for hypermobility? Here’s a no pressure invite to check out Total Package Strength. 

How Total Package Strength is Designed for Hypermobile Humans

I designed this program to be adaptable for the needs of hypermobile humans. It also includes a low volume version of the program for anyone who was dealing with recovery issues or excessive fatigue.

If you’re a super beginner, then this program probably isn’t a good fit for you right now. But you may want to check out my beginner program Strength for Hypermobility instead.

However, if you have an exercise or movement background and you wanted a way to get stronger at the gym or at home with the support of a trainer who understands what it’s like to live in a hypermobile body, then you may really enjoy this program. 🙂

Click here to learn more and enroll.

P.S. Not sure if the program is going to be a good fit for you? Click here to get a week of free workouts pulled directly from the program delivered to your inbox.

Note, these are the workouts from the “standard” version of the program. However, if you join, you can opt for a low volume version of the program. It’s very similar to what you’ll see in the PDF, but it has fewer sets and reps and 5 strength exercises per workout.

And If you’re debating if this program is a good fit for you, here’s what one participant had to say about her experience following the program with hypermobility

It is not an exaggeration to say that working with Nikki has changed my life. 

I am 54, perimenopausal, hypermobile and have a history of easily injuring myself.  While I have always loved movement practices of many kinds, over the years it has been hard for me to start, and or continue, with many desired activities due to injuring myself.   

Being both strong and bendy, it has been easy for me to blow past my limits and then get injured and exhausted and eventually limit my activities because I have no idea what an appropriate dose of a given movement practice is for me. 

Working with Nikki has taught me to honor and acknowledge where I’m at, set realistic goals to not trigger pain, exhaustion and a whole host of other weird nervous system symptoms.  Her teaching has educated and inspired me to pay attention to my body’s and nervous system’s responses and to retool aspects of my workout, intensity, duration, frequency, etc., to an amount where the benefits outweigh the setbacks.  Nikki is very supportive and responsive to any questions or feedback and the Everfit app that she is using for Total Package Strength is easy to use, has great videos and it’s easy to keep track of your personal training details. 

Thank you Nikki!

Lara H.