How Does a Contortionist Become So Flexible?

By June Kane
Two contortionists posing in a storage bin.

Contortionists display shocking feats of flexibility as they bend their bodies into pretzel-like shapes. But don't try this at home; contortionists train for many years and often begin learning this athletic art form at a young age. Like other athletes, contortionists work diligently to maintain healthy bodies that safely push the boundaries of human endurance. Any degree of flexibility requires muscular strength, supple ligaments and tendons, and core stability and balance.

Flexibility and Stretch

Exercising to become more flexible includes stretching to elongate muscles and keep the ligaments supple. Practicing some forms of yoga and other exercises regularly can help you achieve this. Contortionists train to become so flexible that they have the full range of motion around every joint in their body. This includes the spine or backbone. Most people are not aware that the spine has many joints as it is composed of a group of small bones held together by a lattice of tough ligaments. Contortionists undergo extreme training to increase the flexibility of their spine and back muscles. Similarly, they practice regular exercises to increase the flexibility and stretch around other joints, including the shoulders and hips. In some cases, overextending the joints can cause contortionists to develop changes in their bones, including small fractures.

Balance and Stability

Literally bending over backwards requires balancing on your hands or other areas of your body. Contortionists perform extreme movements that drastically shift their center of gravity from near the middle of the body to other areas. To do this they must train vigorously to learn to maintain balance and stability as they work. Exercises that increase balance and stability begin with simple work-outs such as learning to stand up from a sitting position on the floor without using your hands, or simply walking on your tiptoes. Contortionists and other athletes slowly progress to much more difficult balance exercises that surpass the average physically fit individual.

Core Muscle Strength

Flexibility and balance require muscular strength, particularly in the core muscles. These include the transverse abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, which provide abdominal support; the diaphragm muscle below the lungs; and lumbar, or lower back, muscles. These internal muscle groups give the torso and spine strength and also stabilize the movements of the arms and legs. Contortionists work to deeply engage their core muscles for maximum strength and flexibility. This allows them to support their ligaments and bones when they push their bodies into extreme positions. As with other athletes, achieving and maintaining this level of core strength requires regular exercise and training for many years.

About the Author

June Kane is a Registered Radiation Therapist (RTT) and radiotherapy instructor from Manitoba, Canada. Her writing experience includes peer-reviewed articles in the Lancet and Journal of Nuclear Medicine and Radiation Therapy, patient information booklets and website content, and student curriculums.