Should I Lock My Joints?

We had a really good question the other day in our student forum for our Fundamentals Pro course that we thought warranted a detailed explanation.

“This may be a silly question, but if someone’s hyper mobile should they still lock joints on exercises? On the Beighton screen I score on the knee and elbow extension, and can usually get my palms on the floor, although it’s not from hamstring flexibility as if I keep neutral spine that isn’t great. Hand tests I don’t show positive. My instinct is not to lock, but is this just as that’s what I’ve been told up until now? As surely a lot of gymnasts are hyper mobile, and they must lock out?

I’m thinking specifically the elbows, so handstand etc.”

ATHENS - AUGUST 22:  Dimosthenis Tampakos of Greece  competes in the men's artistic gymnastics ring finals on August 22, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games at the Olympic Sports Complex Indoor Hall in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

ATHENS – AUGUST 22: Dimosthenis Tampakos of Greece competes in the men’s artistic gymnastics ring finals on August 22, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games at the Olympic Sports Complex Indoor Hall in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Ok so first off, it’s definitely not a silly question and one that absolutely warrants further discussion.

So to start with, lets clear up something about the terms extension, hyperextension, hypermobile and under extension. 

In an otherwise healthy joint, the “lock” is simply the natural end range of motion. This signifies a complete opening on one side and closing on the other. All joints should be able to experience their full biomechanical range of motion. This means they should be able to achieve a lock. If they can’t this is something we’d definitely want to address.

Locked joint positions should be extremely strong and extremely stable, much more so than in a bent position. For example, if you were to unlock your knees and stand around for a significant amount of time with bent legs you’re going to get pretty fatigued.

Isometrically locking your joints with appropriate load and leverage is also FANTASTIC at developing the strength of the connective tissue.

Hyperextension is where a joint travels past the physiological ‘norm’ for a particular range of motion. Most of the time this only happens during an injurious event involving high speed, impact and a generally bad afternoon or in those individuals who are clinically hyper mobile or potentially suffer specific autoimmune conditions or other disease states that reduce kinaesthetic awareness, ligament tension etc – that’s not most people. What the vast majority of people consider hyper extension is actually in fact just a normal range of motion.

Elbow Hyperextension

Hyper extension is where a joint travels past the physiological ‘norm’ for a particular range of motion. Most of the time this only happens during an injurious event involving high speed, impact and a generally bad afternoon

Depending on a persons individual biomechanics; level of mobility etc, full extension or a 'joint lock' can look very different. In a healthy individual these are all acceptable and safe ranges of motion.

Depending on a persons individual biomechanics; level of mobility etc, full extension or a ‘joint lock’ can look very different. In a healthy individual these are all acceptable and safe ranges of motion.

Please note that the term hyper-mobile is not an interchangeable term with hyper-extension. Hyperextension is not a common occurrence.

Thou Shalt Not Lock!

One analogy I’ve heard thrown around in the anti-locking circles is a doozie. I’m not going to name and shame but I read this not too long ago on a blog by a sports physiotherapist (who really should know better)

“Would you ever jump up and land without bending your knees a little bit? No. Instinctively you bend them because it is the best way to deal with resistance and avoid injury. Think of this when trying to remind yourself not to lock your joints during exercise.”

I mean COME ON? Seriously?!

Of course you don’t want to lock out your knees when you land a jump. You’d be putting a lot of force on your joints if you did. But think about most traditional exercises and think about what force actually is

Force = mass x acceleration.

So unless you’re throwing the weight up and catching it, or doing something awesome like this

you’re not putting any force on your joint by locking out in the majority of movements if there is no acceleration in the mass towards your joint.

But, but, but..

‘But I can’t lock my elbows and I’m weak in that position and it doesn’t feel secure or safe

Of course you can’t if you haven’t been training/practicing straight arm strength!

  1. This is that old chestnut the S.A.I.D Principle. Specific Adaptation to Implied Demand. If you’ve never trained straight arm strength then of course the position is going to be weak. You haven’t conditioned the connective tissue to be able to bear the load/angle etc. As with any training you’re going to have to regress or progress movements to suit your or your client’s specific requirements.
  2. Your actin and myosin chains are only accustomed to working through a shortened and incomplete range of motion. Right now you don’t have the proprioceptive mapping to allow the joints to straighten.
  3. Initially the poor interdigitation of said actin and myosin chains creates weakness. Please refer back to points 1 & 2

Unfortunately a lot of the information propagated in the health and fitness industry, especially at the foundation levels of education is based on weight training techniques designed for the sole pursuit of enhanced glycogen storage. To put it another way; body building.

This ironically has very little to do with ‘health & fitness’, it has rather a lot to do with glycogen storage. Granted, not locking out your joints on a sub maximal repetitive movement such as a bicep curl will most likely maintain greater tension on the muscle belly than allowing the joint to complete it’s natural range of motion and lock.. But who cares?

If you want healthy joints move them through as varied and as complex a range as you can possibly dream up. Obviously using common sense and experience to determine what your client’s current ability level can handle

Straightening the arms and holding isometric positions for progressively increased durations and through more challenging leverages will strengthen your tendons, ligaments and aponeurosis to levels that are otherwise unobtainable with classic weight training techniques

Isometrics are difficult, strength building, stability improving, structure improving, range of motion improving beasts, hence they’re worthwhile pursuing!! In specific response to the question above if you’re considered hyper-mobile by the beighton scale or any other type of movement screen, then isometrics are even more important for you to spend time developing if you really want that connective tissue to support your joints in a range of different positions.

Practicing straight arm strength is humbling at first. There needs to be some checking-in of the ego which is a magical and highly recommended process as it will open up the body and mind to a whole host of activities that truly are pursuits of health and fitness. 

Summary :

Being able to straighten the elbows or knees completely should be a normal thing but being extremely strong in this position is something that takes training and patience. 2yrs ago I couldn’t completely straighten my arms, no matter how hard i tried. There were a few little pains and grumbles along the way but that was just my neurophysiology flagging the unfamiliarity of the new positions I was pursuing. Now my arms hang straight and I can load my body weight through locked out joint positions with ease. My structure, the stuff that holds my skeleton together is much, much stronger.

If you are otherwise Asymptomatic and want to pursue movement work over classical pumping pursuits, welcome to the other side and get practicing. Those flexed joint positions will straighten out in time!

DRILLS FOR IMPROVING STRAIGHT ARM STRENGTH

 

Copyright AMN Academy Limited 2015. All Rights Reserved

5 Comments on "Should I Lock My Joints?"

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Fantastic post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is a fairly contentious issue in the Pilates world and unfortunately most instructor err on the side of keeping “soft” joints. As an instructor who has hypermobility myself, I don’t find it useful keeping the joints soft or bent when exploring full range of a movement, but have often been told not to lock out. However I will say though, that I do struggle with knee pain in both knees….could this have something to do with this cueing? I would very much like to discuss this further through correspondence. I am also very interested in doing the Neuro Skeletal Screen Certification. I would be very grateful if some could respond!

    Many thanks and best wishes
    Angela Botha

  3. Hi, I’d love if it you could clarify cause I’m not sure I understand. You’re suggesting a person with hyperextended elbows should do all these moves while in hyperextension in order to get stronger? Because you mention your case where you couldn’t straighten initially so that’s a different situation. Also, what if there is pain in the elbow during working (as in the exercises shown in the videos) on straightened hyperextended elbows? Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Theodora, thanks for your message. There’s a difference between hyperextension and hypermobility. Hyperextension is usually the result of some kind of trauma and should be treated as such. Hypermobility should absolutely be trained in isometric positions to develop strength. In actual fact, it’s probably even more important to train isometrics for people with hypermobility than those who need to develop mobility. As with everything, it’s about using your best judgement and experience. If something hurts, then it’s usually not a good idea to continue doing that. I would regress the movements to a point where you felt safe and secure, whilst still challenged enough to elicit change.

  4. If using isometric contractions for hyper mobility are you not just strengthening the joint in a position where the ligaments/capsule are lengthened ? Shouldn’t we be doing the opposite to try to create stiffness around the joint? That’s without talking about proprioceotive input

Comments are closed.