Activating my front leg quad and back leg glutes to protect my hypermobile joints, like a good girl.

I teach a class called Flex Fit, which is a mix of yoga, active flexibility, and mobility exercises energized by breathing. I teach seven Flex Fit classes a week to a variety of different age groups, body types, and fitness backgrounds, and every so often someone will ask me how long it will take them to get their splits/backbends/etc. There is no good answer to this question because everyone’s body is different. Some bodies hold on to tension more than others, and some bodies are hypermobile.

Taking more than one of my classes every week will of course increase your flexibility and range of motion, but for a person like me who has hypermobile joints (aka Ehlers-Danlos syndrome), flexibility comes easily. I used to feel lucky my body was this way, but now I realize my super flexible joints can easily become overworked unless I teach my muscles to work smarter.

Every so often in class, I’ll see a body like mine — elbows and knees that bend backward, or shoulders that dislocate to get a pole trick. I wish I knew about Ehlers-Dalos syndrome when I was a young dancer so I could have worked to saved my body from damage. Luckily we know what we know now, and when I have hypermobile students in my class, I am eager to help them gain better control of their muscles to protect their joints while they practice.

Ehlers-Danlos syndrome affects connective tissue, primarily the skin, joints, and blood vessel walls. Symptoms include overly flexible joints that can dislocate, and skin that’s translucent, elastic, and bruises easily. In some cases, there may be dilation and even rupture of major blood vessels. It requires a blood test to diagnose, and you can find more info at the Ehlers-Danlos Society.

After a lifetime bad posture habits mixed with forcing myself into splits without using muscles to help, I tore my right ACL in the summer of 2017. There it is in the photos above all torn up on the left, and then what it looks like now, reconstructed using my hamstring tendon.

look how high my leg can go!

I was just yanking my legs into the air using my strong arms to hold them in place. No core or hip engagement, just forcing my ligaments to stretch — and those things are not supposed to stretch. I did this for so many years. On the left photos below you can see my terrible form, taken a month before my injury.

On the right, you can see me and my smarter body, taken 3 months after ACL reconstruction surgery. I’m using my hips, engaging my core, and activating quads and glutes to protect my hypermobile knees like a good girl.

For me, I need daily reminders to activate my muscles to protect my joints when I walk, sit, stand, and pole. Teaching my Flex Fit class really changed my life and how I think with my body, helping me stay on track to protecting my body so my joints will stay healthy throughout my career.

If you have EDS and are an athlete or dancer, how do you deal with your hypermobile joints?

your workout warm up

…stretching should go at the end of your workout

As a young dancer, I recall most dance classes began with a warm up that included stretching. We prepared our bodies for dance this way for years, and I do believe many instructors still lead their students through stretches at the beginning of a class.

Over the years, dancers and athletes have been studied, leading to an evolution in the methods used to progress performance, changing the way we think about warming up. In my adult dancer life, I learned that stretching as a warm up is no way to prepare my body for movement. In fact, stretching should go at the end of my workout!

now what do i do?

A good warm up is designed to prepare your body for the work you will be doing in class. For instance, jogging for 20mins is not a good warm up for pole fitness, or lifting weights, or even a dance class. It may be good to begin with a few seconds of jogging in place to get your heart going, but adding cardio to your warm up is just a part of the routine.

A warm up preparing my body for splits and back bends would be different from a warm up that would prepare me for doing tricks on the pole. For the splits and back bends warm up, I would focus more on range of motion while the pole warmup would focus on muscle activation and include exercises that act as a movement rehearsal for moves we may try on the pole. Once I set the intention for my class, the contents of my warm up become easy to create.

Here’s a video of a 25min warm up that prepared me for splits and back bends to give you an idea of the flow. Follow along with the video and let me know how you liked the warm up, and then use the outline listed below to create a warm up that works for you.

how to warm up!

In general, I like to begin with breathing and a gentle introduction to the range of motion of my joints. I work my way from head and neck, to shoulders, chest, hips, knees, elbows, wrists, ankles, feet, and hands. Twisting, bending, and drawing circles with my body while incorporating breath to power the movement is a great way to stay mindful during warm up.

Next I work through larger movements to work my cardiovascular system, activating large muscles. My favorite go-to is squats, and you can do them in all different ways. Lunges are another great one, paying attention to engaging the muscles of the legs and glutes.

I almost always include some yoga in my warmup, like Downward Dog, Plank, Cat and Cow Pose, and Childs Pose. Finally, I end my warm up with about 3mins of ab exercises. Don’t forget to warm up your feet and toes, too! There’s nothing like getting a cramp in your foot while you are upside down on the pole!

In general, I like my warm ups to last 20mins, but in a pinch you can do 10mins of warming up — but never skip the warm up! If you don’t get your body moving before you do the work, you body may not be ready when you need it to be, and that is when injuries happen. Also, a good warm up should not wear you out before class has even started, so save that conditioning for later in class.

Save the passive stretching for the absolute end of your workout. Stretching your muscles actually makes them exhausted for a few hours after you have stretched them, so it makes more sense to stretch when you are done using your body. I like to hold and breathe in my passive stretches for no longer than 2mins each stretch.

How do you prepare your body for your workout? Let’s share tips so we can keep evolving and growing as artists and instructors 🙂