“How do they bend like that?” Contortion and hypermobility questions answered by Betsy Shuttleworth

“How do they bend like that?” Contortion and hypermobility questions answered by Betsy Shuttleworth

The questions I am asked mostly as a flexibility specialist/Contortion trainer is “How do they bend like that?” “Is she double-jointed?”  “Does she have a spine?” Especially after they see this:


Shelby Miller @twisted_shelby            Photo by: Brent Clark @brentclark20965

Well of course she has a spine. And while Hypermobility is frequently referred to as being double-jointed, technically that does not mean there are two joints that allow these flexible positions to happen. It is possible to have extra bones but the real reason behind the flexibility is an increased range of motion. Sometimes this is a condition you are born with, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (joints are unstable) or a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).  Unstable joints can cause sprains, tendinitis or bursitis. Hypermobility can be created however EDS cannot.  For more information on EDS visit

[bctt tweet=”The real reason behind the flexibility is an increased range of motion.” username=”verticalwise”]

Is it better to start contortion at a young age?

Yes. When we are younger we have more collagen fibers & less calcium in our muscles and joints. This allows the body to move more freely. As we age we have less collagen and more calcium hardening the muscles & joints so becoming more flexible can be a slower process, but not impossible.

Am I too old to start contortion?

If you research it, the books will tell you not to start after the age of 26 however I have a Skype client that proved that theory wrong.

Meet Lisa.  Lisa is a skilled pole dancer. She decided to break into the art of contortion at the young age of 47. She asked me if it was too late. I said, “There are no limits”.  And boy did she prove that theory wrong.


How can a spine bend this way?

Your spine is made up of 3 sections. The lumbar/lower back (made up of 5 vertebra), Thoracic/mid-back (12 vertebra) and the Cervical/Neck (7 vertebra). In between each vertebra is a disc. Each disc supports a vertebra and acts as a cushion, a shock absorber. Important to remember how vital water consumption is to keep this cushion hydrated.

The muscles that run along the spine hold the vertebra in place and this is why strengthening the back muscles are super important.

So lengthening the muscles along the spine and with the support of the discs, extreme flexibility is possible in the back.

“Stretch what you strengthen and strengthen what you stretch”, the golden rule for contortionists.

Strengthening increases muscle tone and shortens the muscles so stretching after strengthening is highly recommended to any athlete. This shortening you see sometimes in body builders when they are unable to have their arms straight down. Why can this be harmful? If you happen to go into a flexible move with shortened muscles I’m sure you can figure out what could happen. Muscles could get torn and strained. The reciprocal of this is if all you did were to stretch, you would have no muscles to protect joints.

How long should I hold my stretches?

At least 15-30 seconds to lengthen a muscle. When you are doing stretches it means that the cells in your muscle get longer and skinnier. If you are not holding this, chances are not much will happen. I have also noticed over the years that some stretch and unknowingly squeeze their muscles. How can you lengthen something your squeezing? Make perfect sense, you can’t.

What I will continue to preach is if you are interested in learning the art of contortion do search out qualified trainers.

We are educated on the importance of appropriate stretching and strengthening practices. There is a lot more to it than just mimicking a picture off of the Internet. When it comes to your spine and neck, you can never be more careful.

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Fact recourse; Gary Shuttleworth PT,CEAS, Director of Physical Therapy

About the author

Betsy Shuttleworth

Betsy is a flexibility specialist with over 18 years experience in contortion and over 30 years of dance experience working with different athletes from all over the world including dancers, contortionists and cheerleaders.
Betsy started Dance Extensions in 1996 as an instructor after her Point Park University education. Immediately Betsy attended and still attends as many workshops and classes to better herself as an instructor/trainer as well as judging performing art competitions. While ballet was her first love, contortion has become one of the main attractions at DEPAC. Betsy travels the United States as well as Internationally teaching proper warm up and contortion techniques for the safety of the children. DEPAC makes sure they do charity performances each and every year. These include rest homes and cancer research fundraisers.
Betsy combines her creative contortion techniques with her guidance from Ska Von Schoning of Showbiz Productions (Germany) as well as Alixa Sutton (Ukraine), Cirque Du Soleil choreographer and flexibility expert. Betsy has also had the pleasure of training with Cirque Du Soleil trainers Otgo Waller, Angelique, Olga Pikchenko and Enkhee Tumen

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