Strength Training with Hyper-mobile Joints

Many swimmers exhibit the common characteristics of athletes who have spent the majority of their athletic development in the water. In particular, hyper-mobile joints are advantageous in swimming, but can be detrimental to strength training on land if the athlete is not mindful of the tendency to hyperextend or hyper-rotate these joints. There is a concern for injury when athletes who have hyper-mobile joints reach their end range of motion during weightlifting because the body is not maximally stable in these extreme positions. This can lead to strains and tears in the joint tissue. Let’s discuss how to recognize hyper-mobile athletes and how they can strength train in a safe and effective manner.

What does a Hyper-mobile Joint look like?

Swimmers generally have hyper-mobile ankles, knees, hips, elbows, and shoulders. Did I miss anything? The point is swimmers become very limber and flexible around joints they use due to the repetitive nature of swimming. Ankles become loose from the repetitive flexion and extension of kicking, hips gain greater range of motion from the undulations in butterfly and breastroke, and shoulders hyper-rotate from the repetitive circling of the arm in every stroke. Swimmers even create micro-tears in their shoulder joint to meet the demand for greater mobility in their strokes; these small tears are asymptomatic and simply increase the joint range of motion. However, an increase in joint mobility can be accompanied by a decrease in joint stability, leaving these areas at a higher risk of injury. Knees and elbows tend to hyperextend based on genetics more than training. Knees and elbows help swimmers be more propulsive in their kick or their catch, respectively, because they can move more water past the normal angle of the joint.

When identifying a hyper-mobile athlete, analyze one joint at a time. Swimmers will often have excellent toe point from their flexible ankles. Check the knees by having the athlete stand up straight. Observe from the side or profile of the athlete. If their legs bow inward when locked, meaning the knees are set back while the hips advance forward, then the athlete can hyperextend that joint. Check elbows by having the athlete straighten his or her arms. If the forearm advances past a straight line and into a crooked position when locked out, the elbows hyper-extend. Most swimmers will have hyper-mobile shoulders.

Emphasize Technique

Protect hyper-mobile joints by emphasizing proper technique. Hyper-mobile athletes must pay even greater attention to detail during each of their exercises in the weight room. For example, make sure the knees do not cave inward toward the midline of the body during a simple squat. This is a natural tendency for those with hyper-mobile hips and weak glute muscles, and it can lead to knee pain. The elbow joint is most at risk during pressing exercises, such as bench press or pushups. A hyper-extended elbow puts more stress on the wrist in these loaded positions and sets the athlete up for a hyperextension injury during heavy lifting. The same goes for the knees. Never lock out your legs during lower body exercises. Leave a slight bend in the knee even during triple extension movements to maintain a stable base. Pay particular attention to the angle of your arm during upper body movements. Some swimmers are so hyper-mobile in the shoulder that they over-reach and over-rotate in strength exercises on land, which can lead to pain and injury.

Emphasize Stability

In your strength training, master bodyweight exercises first before attempting heavier loads. Implement stability exercises for at risk joints. For example, monster walks will activate the glute muscles and stabilize the hip and knee. Stabilizing the shoulder requires the use of very light weights (2 lbs is plenty) or bands for minimal resistance as you move through various arm motions. Check out our Bridge Shoulder Exercises to get started on your stability training. Core strength will also boost your stability in any plane of motion so be consistent with your core exercises as you work through your strength training.

Hyper-mobility can be advantageous yet risky. Working on your stability throughout the season not only protects you from injury, but it also allows you to move confidently and smoothly through your strength training. This will maximize your strength gains from each exercise. For more information on the biomechanics of swimmers on land, check out this post here. With these tips in mind, you are well on your way to a successful strength regimen!
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Ken Jones

This is a very interesting article – and I encourage swim parents to research it a bit further – especially if they have swimmers who are very flexible and have noticed some changes in their kids recently. Our family was just diagnosed with a disease called Ehlers – Danlos Syndrome (EDS) – there are different forms of the disease (Vascular and Hypermobility) – and swim parents need to be mindful of what their kids are doing – ESPECIALLY as it relates to any dryland training. Our son who has been an excellent swimmer – was NOT welcomed back to his swim club due to his diagnosis. The swim club in our area – was changing its training philosophy – and… Read more »

dcor2an

Thank you for the info Ken; my tween DD has all of those symptoms. We’ve been to the Ortho/PT for 3 different joint groups over the last 3 years. I’ll ask her Dr. about EDS.

ken jones

I’m so sorry – it’s very frustrating because doctors don’t really know about it and they discount it quickly BECAUSE they don’t know about it. I would do your own research and join the facebook group. You can ask questions from people who have lived with this for years – who KNOW – versus an ortho that wants to operate on a dislocated knee cap – which is what happened to our 11 year old – and after the surgery – it dislocated again – simply 8 months AFTER the surgery. We always wrote it off to growing pains – but it’s not – it’s much more – and they need to know about it – as well as teachers… Read more »

Lelah

Thank you for being EDS up. My sister, daughter, and I all have it. My sister even stopped swimming in college due to the need for her shoulder ligaments to be tightened up (repetitive use combined with EDS stretched them out). don’t get me wrong, swimming is absolutely wonderful for EDS to a point. I swim Masters, try not to take it too seriously, and have never felt better. But the training an be really damaging if not done properly, or is excessive

My wish is that coaches become informed about EDS, and act accordingly with parents and training accommodations. Swimming can be the absolute best for it, or the worst.

Michelle

After swimming competitively through college and now as an occasional masters swimmer I want to bring awareness to ehlers danlos syndrome as well. Starting as a teenager I had terrible problems with my joints and getting sick. It wasn’t until last year I was diagnosed with ehlers danlos syndrome. There were a lot of Drs visits in that time and a lot of ‘in the head/stress remarks’ but the right strengthening does make a huge difference in stability!

Shelley

I wanted to add that often people with EDS also have POTS. This disorder is a result of EDS and lack of collagen. An autoimmune disorder.

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