Strength vs Flexibility: Which is Better for Health Improvement?
Curious to know what might help you improve your health quicker, focusing on strength vs flexibility?
Which is better for health improvement, strength vs flexibility? Have you ever wondered which part of your fitness program you should really be focusing most of your time on? It’s an interesting question, and while I might spark some controversy with my comments on this topic, I truly believe it’s relevant to helping you make the most of your workouts and can make a huge difference to help you reach your wellness goals. But before I share my thoughts with you, I have a question… Which of these two aspects of fitness do you PREFER to focus on – Strength or Flexibility? Would you rather lift weights, or do some type of strength conditioning? Or, are you more of a fan of something like a Hatha Yoga class, where you get to work on relaxing your mind and stretching your body?
In my experience, most people tend to be drawn to the types of activities they are already good at! Which means, if you are genetically strong you probably prefer doing something in the weight room; and if you are more limber (or hyper-mobile) you will be drawn like a moth to a flame to Yoga-type
activities that give you an opportunity to go deeper into your stretching positions (i.e. overstretching!). Often we choose one: strength VS flexibility. Why do we default to this dominant type of activity? Because it’s easy for us to be successful with what we are doing. However, it can also lead to an increased risk of injury, overuse, and chronic aches and pains because we aren’t doing a very good job balancing our muscles and listening to what the body needs to stay healthy.
I’m comparing weightlifting and Yoga but I want to be clear, this is just one example. Flexible folks might be more drawn to activities like dance, gymnastics, wrestling, and martial arts. Strength oriented people might prefer sports like football, track & field, cycling, rowing, and power-lifting. What you might notice by looking at these sports is that in reality, athletes need BOTH strength and flexibility to be successful. It’s a balancing act! But a power-lifter will never be able to win a competition if his primary focus isn’t on getting stronger. Likewise, a rhythmic gymnast has to be as limber as a contortionist and strong enough in order to control what she’s doing. As a general guideline, I would like to suggest that STRENGTHENING your body is the better place to focus your time. And, if you really understand what you’re doing to develop balanced muscle strength, you will ultimately be increasing your functional range of movement (flexibility) to stay healthy, safe, and injury-free.
Ok, now let’s analyze this… Say, you know you have a few tight muscles in your body. Which ones are they specifically, do you know? If I had to venture a guess, for the typical middle-aged male or female in the US population, I’d start by saying your calves, hamstrings, inner thighs, outer hips, and quads are all probably pretty tight. And if we look at the spine, chances are it’s not 100% mobile from top to bottom. Add to that muscle tightness chest and shoulders, probably tighter pecs, and weaker upper back muscles. Range of motion for the arms might be okay front and side, but is a challenge behind you and, for many folks, overhead lifting is painful too. What’s not supporting your core and spine correctly affects shoulder mechanics. All of this affects your posture and body alignment to sit, stand, and move.
Let’s pick on the Hamstring muscles for a moment… The Hamstrings are a group of three muscles that run along the back of the upper thigh. Hyper-mobiles, you can probably pull your leg up to your face and kiss your knee, no problem. But if you are strong (and tight), chances are you may be challenged to even get your leg to a 90 degree angle. Maybe you’re not a fan of stretching! Or maybe you do stretch. But come on, realistically tell me how much has your flexibility really improved – a lot, or only a microscopic amount of difference for all the effort you’ve put into it? Ever wonder why you’re stretching and stretching but not really seeing results? It very well could be because you don’t have the strength in the right places to support your body position for the tight muscles to really trust that it’s OK to let go.
Most of the time when I watch people attempt Hamstring stretches, they tuck their hips and bend their knees; which means overstretching the back muscles and not effectively stretching the Hamstrings (even though they still “feel” a stretch down the back of the leg). This poor pelvis position and lack of mobility affects the swing of the hip for gait to walk and run; affects the lower back; and is a contributing factor for low back pain, as well as SI joint issues and greatly affects what’s happening at the knee joint. Bottom line, if the hamstring muscles are tight and restricted, it’s a contributing factor to all the other muscles that support the legs, hips, and pelvis not functioning correctly either! OK, I’m off on a tangent, and rambling…but I hope you get the point. Good health is a balancing act, and better flexibility will never support you! It will help you move more freely, but as far as holding you upright, and MOVING your body through space, that’s active muscle firing (STRENGTH) that’s doing the work.
Focus on STRENGTHENING your body! And here’s the big secret… Most, if not all of our postural muscles, work synergistically. What does this mean? Our muscles work in teams. They are opposable forces that work like levers and pulleys. This work and release action is what creates movement. For example, the Quadriceps along the front of the thigh, are the opposing muscles to the Hamstrings along the back of the thigh. (Quads straighten the knee, Hamstrings bend the knee.) In the upper arm, the Biceps and the Triceps are a team, (the Biceps muscles bend the elbow, the Triceps muscles straighten it). Upper torso, it’s the chest muscles that help us push, and upper back muscles that help us pull. Core – Abdominals and back muscles. Stabilizers, and lateral movers for the legs – inner and outer thigh muscles! Hip flexors – swing the leg forward. Hip extensors – swing the leg backwards.
Since so many people have desk jobs and sit in a chair all day, Hip Flexors tend to be tight, and hip extensors tend to be weak. The result, more knee, hip, and low back problems plague the population. You can stretch your Psoas, and Rectus Femoris (primary hip flexor muscles) until the cows come home. But, if you don’t strengthen the opposing muscle groups that take the leg into hip extension (and train them to work properly, by firing in the correct sequence), your poor little tight hip flexors will never let go because they believe they are 100% responsible to support you. They don’t trust there are actually other parts and pieces of the body that should be doing the work, because these opposing muscles have been on holiday!
If one side of the team is too weak, the other side is too strong and may be overworking. If one side is too flexible and the other side is too weak, they and may not be giving you the support needed to hold good body alignment and move. You can completely balance your strength and flexibility by working on strengthening the opposing muscles. (And as a side note: it is entirely possible that you have muscles that you haven’t been using that are both tight and weak.)
This is one of the reasons I so dearly love Pilates. Work on the Pilates Reformer, Cadillac, and Chairs against spring resistance, can help to develop this balance of strength while working on movement in as full a range of motion as possible to re-train the body to stay strong and flexible. Even Pilates Matwork is doing this, (once you’ve found all the right muscles and are using them correctly!). By developing better body awareness and focusing more attention on strengthening the muscles you need to use to move well, you can improve your healthy movement habits, bring your body into balance, and reduce your risk of injury. AND along the way, you’ll find that your flexibility will improve too! It’s not an either/or; strength vs flexibility, it’s strength AND flexibility.
Pay attention to which muscles are too stiff; too strong; too weak; or overly flexible, and put a little extra energy in to strengthening the right parts of your body to improve posture, balance, movement, and whole-body health. Discover how much better you’ll feel with a STRONGER, and more flexible body.
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