By Cecily Milne
A couple years ago in a Pilates reformer class I was told to unlock my elbows and turn the creases in to face each other. In response, I corrected my alignment to please the instructor rather than ask what is now my favourite question of any teacher: WHY?
After 10 years of yoga practice, I was used to hearing the cue "soften your elbows" and taking it for face-value. For ages I just assumed that teachers knew more than I did and had my best interest in mind, so their instruction must be correct. When I immersed myself in the movement world, which meant training with strength coaches, gymnasts, martial artists and clinicians, I learned that the much of the information I'd gained through yoga trainings was glaringly inaccurate.
Soften your glutes.
Don't let your knee go past 90 degrees.
Stand with your feet parallel.
These are just some of the cues I accepted for too long without questioning their validity. The list of things I don't say to my students anymore goes on, and I know this is the same for hundreds of other teachers as well. We've moved on from regurgitating outdated cues and have begun to teach from a place that reflects self-exploration and contemporary research. I’m writing this article to share some of my own self-exploration as it relates to elbow hyperextension and why "micro-bending" the elbows deserves to be reevaluated.
Before diving into the fun stuff, let's first make sure we're on the same page with what I'm about to talk about:
When I say "hyperextended" I'm referring relative hyperextension - the appearance of the arm straightening beyond 180 degrees. For many people, this is simply their natural end range or lock-out point.
Absolute hyperextension is an injury. Your joint would not be functional. Absolute hyperextension is painful and would require physical therapy. Relative hyperextension is natural end range.
What happens at the surface of the skin (what we can see just by looking at someone) vs what happens at the level of bone and joint aren't quite one and the same. It's important to remember that while someone's arm might look hyperextended, their actual joint architecture could be entirely healthy. Rarely do yoga/Pilates/movement teachers have the assessment skills to determine anything other than what’s happening at the surface.
Hyperextension is not always an indicator of systemic hypermobility (hypermobility and hyperextension are NOT synonymous). While hyperextension can occur when hypermobility and joint laxity are present, it's also possible to have hyperextension in some areas of the body without being hypermobile everywhere else. Hands up from all those with hyperextended elbows and tight shoulders!
I'm going to talk a lot about the benefits of training to end range of motion. When I do, I'm referring to INDIVIDUAL end range of motion - mine is mine, yours is yours. What's "regular" or "normal" matters less than what's going in in your unique structure.
Part I: If You're Not Locking Your Elbows, Your Handstand is a House of Cards
The yoga practice exposed me to handstands. That bug bit me hard as I became obsessed with both the freestanding handstand as well as the straddle press. I needed to get it. I worked at it tirelessly until one day, like magic, the hopes and prayers paid off and there I was standing on my hands when only a moment before my feet had been planted on the ground. I had reached unicorn status. Or at least that's how it felt…
That moment was about 2 years in the making. Sure, it happened, but I have to wonder if things would have happened far more efficiently had I known how to train handstands through skill progression.
"WTF does that mean?" That's what popped into my head the first time I heard Coach Sommer utter the phrase ‘skill progression’ at a Gymnastic Bodies Foundations seminar. That was in 2014 (I think?!), after I'd already worked with the Ido Portal team and Agatsu. I was spending more and more time around people who really knew what they were talking about when it came to hand-balancing.
They exposed me to the various components of a sustainable handstand which included:
- Wrist prep: mobilizing the wrists not only in extension but also in flexion, as well as countless palm raises
- Hanging work to build grip strength and beefier forearms
- Shoulder external rotation drills
- Acquiring full range shoulder flexion, meaning the arms can reach overhead without creating compensation in the spine and ribcage
- Ridiculous amounts of core work - hollow body holds, hollow rocks, hanging leg lifts...all the things that people crazy about handstands will subject themselves to
When I started working on these components in isolation, the handstand evolved as the sum of its many parts. By working on all the basic ingredients, performing the end-game skill was no big deal.
WHY WASN'T THIS APPROACH TALKED ABOUT WHEN TEACHING ASANA?
The other major difference when training handstands in yoga vs. the movement and strength communities was the fact that in the latter no one told me NOT to hyperextend my elbows. They acknowledged that fully supporting my body weight on my hands required the elbows to be locked.
Why weren't they concerned about hyperextension?
Because they promoted balanced training and acknowledged the benefits of progressive overload. That meant working on both straight arm and bent arm strength while allowing the workload to start small and gradually get harder.
Some days we trained all the handstand prep that required straight arms: palm raises, shoulder dislocates, hollow-body plank holds, Powell raises, active and passive hangs, etc. Other days we trained bent arm strength which included push-ups, chin-ups, pull-ups, ring rows, bent arm shoulder external rotation drills, falling and catching.
All of these movements were scaled, so if someone didn’t have control through full range of something like a push-up or chin up, they weren’t expected to just struggle through it. Instead they’d work on maybe just the eccentric portion of a chin-up, slowly lowering down as opposed to trying to pull themselves up. They might use the same approach to a push-up, or take the complete movement into an incline at the wall and progress that to a bench or platform until eventually arriving in a horizontal position.
Movement wasn't modified in a way that limited range. No partial push-ups, no partial chin-ups. Using modifications meant finding the TOTAL movement (full flexion and extension of the elbow) in accessible positions. While progression happened over LONG periods of time - weeks, months or even years - tissues had time to adapt to the complete range of motion.
When the elbows are placed under all sorts of progressive demands, the tissues around them are reinforced. These demands strengthen not only the muscles and their attachments, but the tendons and ligaments as well. It creates a bolstering support structure around the joint, allowing for controlled movement through full range of motion.
PART II: CONTROLLING YOUR RANGE IS FAR MORE EFFECTIVE THAN FEARING YOUR RANGE
While it would be super convenient if yoga ticked all the movement variety boxes, it doesn't come close. That's likely not news to you - more and more yoga students and teachers have come to realize that the asana practice has some serious holes when it comes to balanced movement patterns.
One of those holes is joint prep. Yoga asana gets our bodies to move in lots of different ways, but rarely are we first preparing our joints to be the stable structures required to do things like arm balances, backbends and binds. Since the purpose of this article is to talk about the elbows, I'm going to refrain from going through all the ways we could be preparing the joints for what yoga demands from them and instead just focus on this one spot.
Truth: for someone who isn't aware that their elbows hyperextend (or doesn't know what that means) and/or someone who only does yoga without any cross-training, it's likely a good idea to address the pros/cons of locking out the joints.
Notice that I didn't say "a good idea to tell them not to hyperextend their elbows".
It's time to stop saying "Don't do this, you'll hurt yourself." Perpetuating these warnings cultivates fear and supports the view that the human body is far less robust and adaptive than it actually is.
There is a world of difference between telling someone not to do something vs. encouraging them to build awareness and understanding of their own body. As teachers, we can address hyperextension with an emphasis on agency ("You can do this in a way that's going to make you strong and capable!") and experiential know-how as opposed to simple repetition of all the cues we've heard before.
Let's say someone can straighten their arms to 190 degrees, 10 degrees past the ‘optimal’ 180. If we ignore that 10 degrees range of motion, we create a blind spot.
Compare that to the blind spot when you're driving. Regardless of whether you check it before merging, anything or anyone in that blind spot is still going to be there. Ignoring the blind spot doesn't make it go away. It just becomes a liability.
Rather than creating a body blind spot by ignoring or avoiding full range of motion, we can acknowledge it and do the work to create more awareness and strength within those 10 extra degrees.
Apply load that is within the capacity of the tissues. When load outweighs capacity, injury occurs. But when we stay at or just below that strength threshold and continually introduce greater increments of load, tissues adapt and get stronger.
If there's no strength at end range, then loading those tissues would be a bad idea. But by gradually introducing load to the range that CAN be controlled, that range will eventually grow as long as we keep moving toward its limits. Eventually it becomes possible to build strength into those 10 extra degrees and in doing so eliminate the blind spot - win!
We could apply this approach to the bicep curl in two ways:
Gripping the weight, straighten your arm only to the point where it’s still possible to contract back up, keeping the work concentrated in the belly of the muscle. This type of work is suitable for those with systemic hypermobility and joint laxity despite the fact that it’s normally used by meatheads who care more about lifting heavy weights as opposed to moving through end range.
Use lighter weight (less than 10lbs, maybe even less than 5lbs to start) and extend the arm to end range, focusing on contracting the muscle fibres near the elbow to return the joint into flexion. Do this with your elbow supported on the edge of a weight bench so that the upper arm remains fixed the whole time.
The idea is to communicate with all the muscle fibres, loading them in a way that generates an effective response as opposed to putting them at risk.
Outside of the gym, we can build controlled range through varied movement. We're designed to be hanging and brachiating, pushing and pulling, carrying things around and hoisting stuff over our heads.
When we do all of that with consistency, our bodies adapt accordingly. Conversely, when we only do some things consistently (like a million chaturangas), everything we're not doing (like swinging from monkey bars) gets put on a shelf in the back of the brain and labelled "Things I Don't Need Anymore". Energy gets directed away from the shelved movements and their requirements to better support whatever you've told the brain is the main priority.
To flush this out for you in a real world scenario, here's a mind-blowing case study from one of Yoga Detour's very own. Refresh your coffee and then c’mon back...
PART III: (RE)BUILDING A FULLY FUNCTIONAL ELBOW
In 2013, YD alum Ashley Monaghan tripped and fell while walking down the street. She caught herself on one hand and dislocated that elbow. Her hyperextended joint gave out under the pressure, setting in motion of series of events and realizations that would change Ashley's life.