“Oh No, I think I’m different”… Hyper-mobility and the CrossFit Athlete

Written by Lindsey Johnson

I’ve been doing this CrossFit thing for quite some time now and it’s very rare that I come across someone with a similar issue in regards to mobility. We coaches spend hours researching and working with clients on how to help our clients and ourselves become more mobile. We start many of our classes using bands to stretch and mobilize our members’ tight muscles and joints. I can remember thinking early on… “I don’t think I need to get any more mobile, but it seems like this is what everyone does, so I’ll just do it”.

In light of our sedentary lifestyles, most coaches assume their clients are immobile and need to be stretched and stretched, and stretched some more.

Initially, I was utterly confused with the idea that there should be tension in the hamstrings, among other places, while setting up for my Olympic lifts. I’m still searching for that tension! Finally I realized I’m unlike most CrossFitters. It’s only within the last few years that I realized I’m in a different category when it comes to mobility. Hyper-mobility is what plagues me and I can’t be the ONLY one.

Hyper-mobility is a term used to describe joints that stretch farther than normal. For example, some hyper-mobile people can bend their thumbs backwards to their wrists, bend their knee joints backwards, put their leg behind their head or perform other Cirque du Soliel type tricks. It can affect a single joint or multiple joints throughout the body.

Most people have hyper-mobility with no other symptoms. Approximately 5% of the healthy population have hyper-mobile joints. However, some may experience difficulties. For example, joints may be easily injured, be more prone to complete dislocation due to the weakly stabilized joint and they may develop problems from muscle fatigue (as the muscles must work harder to compensate for the excessive weakness in the ligaments that support the joints).

What determines ‘Hyper-mobility’? We’re all born with varying degrees of congenital laxity; meaning, some of us have less “give” in their ligaments than others. Most often females have more laxity than males. Additional determining factors include cold hands and feet, even in warm environments, and hyper-mobility is more common in those of African, Asian, and Arab decent rather than Caucasian.

The Beighton Hyper-mobility Test is another indication; the screen consists of five tests (four of which are unilateral), and is scored out of 9; a higher score is indicative of greater hyper-mobility:

1. Elbow hyperextension > 10° (left and right sides)
2. Knee hyperextension > 10° (left and right sides)
3. Flex the thumb to contact with the forearm (left and right sides)
4. Extend the pinky to >90° angle with the rest of the hand (left and right sides)
5. Place both palms flat on the floor without flexing the knees

Now we know how to determine whether or not you or one of your clients is hyper-mobile. So what the heck do we do about it? Build stability! Stretch your hyper-mobile athletes and they’ll get worse. We Gumby types still feel tight, however, because our sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive in an attempt to protect the joints. Foam rolling and massage or work with a lacrosse ball is a great way to work through tightness and to help shut off that sympathetic nervous system.

What does it mean in regards to CrossFit? No more static stretching! It’s not helping those joints! For the purposes of warming up, I prefer the foam roller or the lacrosse ball along with a row or run to actually feel “warm” and then slowly building up to those heavy weights seems to help. I do not prefer to jump into anything heavy, for any lift.

When it comes to Olympic lifting or training, do what works for you or your athlete. Ideally, stop the joint before the end range of motion. We all know that stopping your arms from locking out while also attempting a heavy snatch is not a possibility. Moving the grip around seemed to help for me, and be mindful of trying to “save” a lift or put you or your athletes’ body in an unstable position. As most good coaches know, everything’s connected. I find that the more stable I can get my shoulders to be, the easier time I have stabilizing extremely hyper-mobile elbows. Don’t be a hero: I’d say I dump the bar a lot more frequently than others do in an effort to steer clear of the possible complete dislocation or torn ligaments.

The moral of the story….
We’re all different, therefore, one thing may not work for you or your athletes. Be sure not to put all your athletes into one box. Talk to them, run the above tests and find out how their bodies work before assuming we all need the same type of assistance. As a coach, that’s the beauty of CrossFit – the ability to modify and assist our athletes in their quest for Fitness.


Eric Cressey,  Jonathan Goodman CSCS, Oct 21, 2013.  “Why You Must Not Stretch Hypermobile Clients”, retrieved from:  http://www.theptdc.com/2013/10/why-you-must-not-stretch-hypermobile-clients

“Hypermobility”, Nov 23, 2013.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypermobility

Eric Cressey, Aug 6, 2013.  “Assessments You Might Be Overlooking: Installment 2“, retrieved from:  http://www.ericcressey.com/tag/hypermobility

  • Jon_PTDC

    Great piece and thanks for referring to Eric’s article on thePTDC. Also, just wanted to give you an Internet high five for referencing so respectfully. It’s rare and very much appreciated. http://www.ihighfive.com/

    • Cj Martin

      Thanks Jon! You’re right, proper accreditation happens too infrequently in this industry. We respect good coaches and always try to note where we learned helpful information.

  • Calvin Sun

    Great post, Lindsey!

  • Jonathan Williams

    Thanks for this. I’m hypermobile and have been considering crossfit. I was worried about the lifts, especially how they would affect my wrists and shoulders. Hopefully, I can find a coach who understands that I need form over high numbers.

    • Megan Elizabeth

      I stopped CrossFit for a while because of wrist pain due to my hyper mobility. I worked with a coach that modified my workouts to eliminate my pain (i.e., burpees and push ups on dumbbells). He also got me in a routine of exercises to build the muscles around my lax ligaments. It can be done! Don’t let it keep you out of the gym.

      • JaneAmi

        Also be careful! If your hyper mobility is caused by something like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobile then Crossfit would be one of the WORST things you could do. (Any jumping or jarring motions are terrible for hypermobile joints!!!)

        • Megan Elizabeth

          You don’t have to jump to do Crossfit. You can keep weight lighter and actually help from hyperextending ligaments in the future. You just have to be aware of what is helpful and what is hurtful.

  • Gaby

    This is a great article. I have been suffering back/hip pain and decided to see a physical therapist and apparently im hypermobile. I’ve stopped Crossfit but really miss it, but i’m afraid of going back and getting injured 🙁

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  • Fiona

    I’ve been going to crossfit for about 4 months and just been told by my coach that I have hypermobile joints when struggling with overhead squats! Makes total sense as my elbow dislocated a few times when I was younger. Do you suggest a compression sleeve or anything like that for the elbow? That’s where I find I struggle the most and tend to compensate by using my shoulder (which isn’t good and painful!)

  • I’ve been doing crossfit for 3 years and I always thought my mobility was a huge advantage. Until I had a minor back/buttock injury and my physiotherapist told me “You’re hypermobile, that’s where the back pain comes from”. Fortunately, I’ve managed to build quite a strong muscle set before I started to lift heavier, but now I have to focus on more precise and thorough stability. And I was so surprised to read that hypermobility goes along with cold hands and feet as well as varicose veins.