Contortion, and One Short Woman’s Quest for Longer Lines

Hello friends! I am back after a rather significant bout of thesisitis, and pleased to report that everything went well, the thesis is out, and I’m back in the world of the living. Unfortunately, along the way I’ve become rather terminally educated, but I knew that was a risk. Mostly, I’m just thrilled I can go back to the things I love. Like, for example, writing about science and movement.

Really, writing about anything that is not my thesis.

On that note, let’s get right to it: the video below is really cute, mostly for the host’s blithe wonder at Cirque contortionists. “Oh my! They’re so bendy!”

I recommend you go to watch the whole thing, but their embedding is not happy with wordpress at the moment, so follow this link.

A summary, for those of you who aren’t going to click: contortionists are amazingly flexible, and scientists don’t really know why. Perhaps collagen?

It turns out they’re not all Mongolian, either! Shocking, I know! One of them is Russian. She was inspired by Mongolian contortionists, after a career as a gymnast, and stretched every day for hours, and eventually got good enough to be in Cirque du Soleil. Which is pretty cool.

Unfortunately, the TV news anchor couldn’t quite get there fast enough to include pictures of him doing any back bending or splits, but he was able to be the bottom of a pyramid, which is also pretty cool.

Here’s a youtube embed of the second half:

Sadly, that video does not actually teach me how to be a contortionist. What makes some people more flexible than others? How can I improve my flexibility? Is there any hope of me doing the spilts?

Made of Rubber and Cartilage

When I was a kid, I was always really frustrated in gymnastics practice. Everyone else (my brother included) was more flexible than I was. They could do all three of their spilts, they could look back and bend their knees in cobra and touch their feet to the backs of their head. I struggled, and winced through the pain of my Russian coach sitting on me in various poses, and reaped none of the “benefits”.

Anymore, I reason that the same physiological things that made it incredibly hard for me to build flexibility made it relatively easier for me to build strength. And I’m super glad I have the strength that I do. But is that true? Does it come down to a simple strong/flexible dichotomy? What makes people bendy?

About 5% of people are “hypermobile”. This means, basically, that there’s more space in their joints, which in turn parlays into a wider range of motion. My stretching coach, Leslie, is a great example: when she was born, she says, the doctors didn’t think she would ever be able to walk, because her hips were so mobile. (She proved them wrong, because she’s awesome like that). Even I have places that are hypermobile: in particular, my knees and elbows naturally hyperextend.

Hypermobile fingers -- they bend backwards to 90 degrees. By Anthony Appleyard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hypermobile fingers — they bend backwards to 90 degrees. By Anthony Appleyard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is a quantitative scale for this: nine measurements that make up what’s called a Beighton score. Can you bend your pinkie back more than 90 degrees? Can you pull your thumb back to touch your forearm? When you straighten your arms as much as possible, are they straight or over-straight (by more than 10 degrees)? How about your legs? If you stand up with straight legs, can you bend forward and rest your hand flat on the floor? Anything more than 4/9 is borderline, and more than 6 is hypermobile.

But here’s the thing about using hypermobility as a code-word for flexibility: it doesn’t actually parse that way. My best friend Janelle is incredibly flexible (so much so that after about a week of instruction she was sitting on her head). But I actually probably meet more of those criteria than she does, on account of my freakish knees. What the Beighton score actually asks is, in common parlance: “are you double jointed?”

Which, as any contortionist and probably many double-jointed people will tell you, is a very different question from “are you bendy enough to be a contortionist?”

A lot of studies have been done on hypermobility and associated syndromes. And often they’ll find defects in collagen. These defects mean that people with hypermobility are more likely to dislocate their joints, they have weaker tendons and ligaments which are more likely to tear, they’re more prone to arthritis.

In short, collagen likely has a lot to do with joint flexibility, and especially hypermobility syndromes. But that’s not the same as the flexibility that my contortionist friends strive for, that I’ve been chasing after.

Working Hard to Relax

If it’s not just answerable by hypermobility, what does make a joint flexible or stiff? Really, this is a multiple choice question, because there are only so many things that go into making a joint: bone, sinew, and muscle. More space between your bones will result in a bigger range of movement in your joints (this is especially seen in hips and shoulders). Looser and longer tendons and ligaments will allow more play. And a tight muscle means a tight joint.

Changing the shape of the bones in your joints sounds like the kind of thing that requires surgery. But stretching can lengthen both muscles and sinew. And different forms of stretching stretch different things in different ways.

Passive Stretching is using an external force (in most cases gravity or a partner) to lengthen a relaxed muscle. It’s the old tried-and-true method of having your coach sit on you in an uncomfortable position, and trying to relax.

I like that her foot is higher than her head, and also that she's just sort of chilling.
I like that her foot is higher than her head, and also that she’s just sort of chilling.

Active Stretching generally refers to any time you use the muscle you are also stretching, but the most popular form is known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. It uses neighboring muscle groups to assist in lengthening a muscle, first by engaging the opposing muscle group to lengthen a stretch, and then by tensing the muscle being stretched for brief periods. This method tends to get faster results if you do it properly, and is particularly popular in physical therapy for this reason.

A bit more complicated, resistance stretching uses the muscle it is stretching.
A bit more complicated, resistance stretching uses the muscle it is stretching.

Ballistic Stretching uses momentum to swing through a full range of motion. Kicks are an example here, or any time you bounce in a stretch. It’s especially common in warm-ups.

Ballet dancers doing grand battements are doing ballistic stretching. By Fanny Schertzer (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Studies have shown that short-term, (i.e. in a warm-up) ballistic stretching will probably lead to the greatest increase in range of motion. However, ballistic stretching done wrong can easily lead to overstretching. Middle-to-long term, each method will build range of motion. PNF, or active, stretching seems to be generally preferred in the literature, because it leads to more consistent results. But all of these methods increase range of motion, they lengthen muscles, and they lengthen tendons, although in slightly different ways. And that’s about where the scientific literature ends.

My coach, Leslie, has an interesting take on this. It’s two fold. First of all, there is work you do to lengthen muscles and tendons: long-term, daily work; a combination of passive and active stretches. But secondly, there is work you do to teach your muscles to actually relax. That starts to look more like yoga: learning which muscles are needed to support you in a stretch and which aren’t, teaching yourself to relax everything else.

My pet theory is that PNF stretching gets around the difficulty that many people (especially nowadays, especially people like me) have with consciously relaxing our muscles. Tensing a muscle when it’s fully extended is a difficult, tiring thing. PNF exhausts the muscle you’re working on, so that you can finally actually relax it. It also provides a conscious contrast – you can flex a muscle and then notice it relaxing. Thus, people relax using PNF and can get more consistent results. But learning how to actually relax a muscle, without exhausting it, is also important for those of us who want to get the most out of our bodies’ ranges of motion. That’s a separate skill, something more like mindfulness, with a separate way of practicing it.

And it’s what my coach spends the most time helping me with.

At the beginning of the year, I made a new year’s resolution to get a split. To somehow, someway, be able to sit on the ground with my legs making a single straight line between them. It was going to be epic, and it was going to fundamentally change the way I felt about myself and my capabilities as an aerialist.

Turns out, for me at least, getting the thesis done was faster.

Then again, I still have two months. And, thanks in no small part to my coach, I’m closer than I’ve been in about 16 years.

One day, one day I will have splits like that. By AerialShowgirls at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
One day, one day I will have my splits. By AerialShowgirls at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Featured image is By lululemon athletica (Flickr: Yoga Journal Conference) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

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  1. This sort of thing amazes me. I have been doing yoga and am so proud that I can simply touch my toes now. Haha. Baby steps…

  2. I love reading your posts on fitness, strength and flexibility. This was a great read right now because I’ve just been banned from doing any more flexibility training because it’s negatively affecting my hip strength.

    Instead, I’m planning on focusing on aerial move transitions that will look swoopy and pretty and hopefully distract people from the fact that I’m incredibly not-flexible. ^.^

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