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Hyperextension: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

What is hyperextension?

Hyperextension refers to a joint that has a greater than normal range of motion, and most commonly occurs within the elbow and knee.

Joints have a predetermined range of motion available, and that range is determined by muscle length, bone size, cartilage and ligaments. Some of us are born with a natural hyperextension (like ‘double-jointed’ elbows), while others train their bodies to work within a greater range of movement.

The Good

Funnily enough, hyperextension is coveted by the Ballet world, even though it’s not always aesthetically pleasing (in my opinion) and quite harmful if not trained properly. Having hyperextended knees provides for longer, precise lines and is an indication of training and strength.

Let’s look at a classic ‘straight leg’

 (Image Via: https://balletskills.com/tag/arabesque-photos/)

And now a Hyperextension

 (Image Via: https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/176133035399973448)

Regardless of whether or not you like the look of hyperextended knees in Ballet, you have to admit that it does add something to simple movements. This is perhaps the biggest (only) pro; that you have more variations on staple movements and poses than those without hyperextension.

Other professionals, such as contortionists, use hyperextension to train for injury prevention. By strengthening the joint in a greater range of motion, you know that, should something go wrong, you’re body is used to that position, Some examples of this are:

  • A contortionist training dislocations so that should they occur (and often they do), they are strong in those instances.
  • Gentle weight-baring on the outer edge of your foot so that you are less likely to be injured should you roll it.

The Bad

Dancers who haven’t trained their hyperextension are more prone to injury as pressure is put on the Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) This is the long ligament that runs behind your knee and when you hyperextend, you’re lengthening this ligament while also adding pressure from the patella (knee cap) pushing back.

Having hyperextended knees also means that your centre of gravity is different and often smaller. With straight legs,  your centre of gravity is placed in line with your hips (perfect alignment for turns and balances). However, with a hyperextension, your weight is shifted forward and your alignment is out, meaning you have to adjust the rest of your body in order to balance out.

 (Image Via: http://thehealthydancer.blogspot.com/2012/07/working-with-hyperextended-knees.html)

This image perfectly shows how your alignment is changed with hypermobility.

The picture on the right shows good alignment where each bone is stacked upon each other, creating a vertical line. In this position, all of your weight, and any extra pressure you put on it, goes driectly through the leg and down to the arch of your foot. Every muscle in the leg is engaged to absorb pressure.

The picture on the left shows the alignment of someone with a hyperextended leg. Instead of every bone being stacked upon each other, the alignment is interrupted at the knee. This means that any weight/force you put on your legs, goes through the knee instead of thr whole leg. Added pressure  on the knee can cause tears in muscles and ligaments, and if not properly trained, it can lead to major injuries including tearing of the Anterior Crucial Ligament (ACL)

What To Do

Chances are, you were born like this and it isn’t something stemming from training or trauma. In this case, there’s nothing you can do to reverse this, but you can train yourself to reduce injuries.

Dances with loose ligaments, particularly in their legs, tend to ‘lock out’ their knees when told to straighten them. In fact, you almost need to do the opposite and slightly bend them in order to make them appear straight. Things to think about, especially when requiring to bare weight on a straight leg:

  • Know what straight is to you. This means spending time in the mirror adjusting yourself and slightly bending your knees to appear straight. For most, this may actually feel like a plie position even though the legs are now straight.
  • Don’t pull up from the back of the knee (aka don’t lock out). Think more about pulling up from the quadraceps to shift the patella up towards the pelvis. Over time, this will strengthen all those little stabiliser muscles around the knee, protecting it.

May the Turn Out Gods be ever in your favour!

Learn More

Check out these great resources to find out more!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjaZjpYZbJI (Hyperextension Advice for Dances – Kathryn Morgan)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnXCQWQ5U-g (How to control Hyperextension – Dancing Through Strength)

Should You Hyperextend?

Ballet Leg Types