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Hyperextended Elbows: Here’s a Tip for Correcting Hyperextension
Aligning the bones accesses their inherent strength so that yoga poses ultimately require less muscular effort to maintain. For example, in a recent post, we gave a tip on using the big toes to correct the tendency for the pelvis to drift back in standing forward bends and one-legged standing poses like Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III). This correction brings the leg bones upright and perpendicular to the floor, which better supports the body weight.
Aligning the bones in this manner also has the benefit of increasing joint congruency and spreads the joint reaction forces more evenly across the articular cartilage. Conversely, engaging the muscles that align the bones has been demonstrated to have a protective effect on the joint cartilage.
(Figure 1 Dog Pose showing the direction of force through hyperextended elbows vs aligned elbows.)
Hyperextending the knees or elbows in yoga poses can be disadvantageous because it misdirects the forces that create the form of the asana. For example, if the elbows are hyperextending in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), then the force of the hands pushing into the mat is angled inward. Ideally, this force should be directed through forearm bones, humerus and shoulders, and then through to the trunk and pelvis.
Aligning the bones of the arms helps to create the proper form of Downward-Facing Dog Pose. Pressing the body back in this manner then synergizes the stretch of the muscles at the backs of the legs.
Hyperextending the elbows also confers other undesirable effects, such as potentially overstretching the capsule at the front of the joint and concentrating the joint reaction forces abnormally.
Here’s a Tip for Avoiding Hyperextended Joints in Your Yoga Practice
(Figure 2 Attempt to drag the hands towards each other to engage the elbow flexors.)
Warm up first with several Surya Namaskaras (Sun Salutations).
Then take Downward-Facing Dog Pose. Relax the triceps and, with the hands firmly fixed on the mat, gently attempt to drag the palms towards one another. This engages the elbow flexors—the biceps and brachialis muscles—and bends the elbows to counteract hyperextension.
Keep the elbow flexors engaged with this cue and then gradually dial in contraction of the triceps to straighten the elbows. The biomechanical term for working in this manner is “co-contraction” or “co-activation.”
(Figure 3 Co-contraction of the elbow flexors and extensors.)
If you’re teaching this to a yoga student who is hyperextending their elbows, demonstrate the technique first, and then talk them through it. You can also have your student try it with their knees on the floor first—like a modified Balasana (Child's Pose). This takes the weight off the hands, making the cue a bit easier to access.
A key to integrating these cues into your yoga is to try them once or twice to align the bones in the pose, and then use them again the next time you practice. This trains proprioception and muscle memory so that within a few sessions, practitioners can engage the muscles directly without attempting to drag the hands toward one another. The cue remains as a resource, however, and can be used to refine the movement.
This is true for accessing nutation, engaging the tensor fascia latae to stabilize the knees, using the accessory muscles of breathing to augment the diaphragm, and so on. Once used several times, these techniques become automatic.
Here’s the Anatomy of Correcting Hyperextended Elbows in Yoga
The biceps brachii muscle has a long and short head. The long head originates from the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula—a small protrusion of bone at the top of the shoulder socket. The short head originates from the coracoid process of the scapula—a beak-like extension of bone at the front of the shoulder. Both heads combine into a single tendon that inserts onto the radial tuberosity of the radius bone of the forearm.
The biceps act to flex the elbow and supinate the forearm and to flex the shoulder forward. In addition, it acts to adduct and internally rotate the humerus. The long head of the biceps also aids to stabilize the humeral head in the shoulder socket.
The brachialis muscle originates from the distal half of the front of the humerus and inserts onto the ulnar tuberosity, also known as the coronoid (crown-like) process at the front of the elbow. It acts to flex the elbow.
The triceps muscle has three heads. The long head originates from the infraglenoid tuberosity on the bottom part of the shoulder socket. The medial head originates from the back (posterior) part of the humerus, below the radial groove.
The lateral head originates from the back part of the humerus above the radial groove. All three heads combine into a common tendon that inserts onto the olecranon process of the ulna (at the back of the elbow). The triceps acts to extend the elbow. The long head also adducts and moves the arm backward and can aid to stabilize the scapula.
More practice tips and inspiration from Ray Long, MD - Connect Your Cuff, Save Your Wrists in Plank Pose.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.
Author Ray Long MD FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.
3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to video games and underwater imagery.