Strength Versus Stretch – Is This the Right Question?
Traditionally, many trainers and movement teachers have considered strengthening and stretching to be opposites. But I would like to tell you why they are not, and how reframing your thinking will support you in more well-rounded exercise and movement.
Often, we think one or the other is more useful to our bodies, and that simply isn’t true.
Balancing Strengthening and Stretching Is a Thing of the Past
In the past, even I have talked about the balance of strengthening and stretching in a class or in the context of a well-rounded day. It’s a common theme in training sessions.
I had good intentions with my goal of offering both types of movement in a class. However, I think I may have perpetuated a few myths by continuing to reinforce that they are opposites.
I still believe that both are useful movement options, and we should all incorporate them into our day, but let me explain why you and I may want to change how we think about stretching and strengthening.
Seeking a balance between strength and flexibility is rooted in a paradigm where strength is viewed as an activity that ends up shortening and tightening our muscles. In contrast, stretching is viewed as an activity that ends up lengthening muscles, and possibly weakening them.
So, in that sense, we’re looking at the two activities as though they are opposite sides of a coin. From that point of view, we might draw a conclusion that too much strengthening will shorten all our muscles and make us muscle-bound.
Similarly, we would think that doing too much stretching might create an imbalance in our body, and we might have hypermobility issues.
From this lens, it would seem that we might need to bring ourselves back to balance by bringing in a lot more strength work or stretching work to counter what we have been doing. This means we see the balance as a middle point between strength and flexibility.
Our Muscles Are Affected, Just Not the Way You Think
However, we now know from movement science that that’s not an accurate way of looking at strengthening or stretching. These are not activities that change the physical length of our muscles from end to end.
In fact, our muscles have fixed attachment points, and unless we undergo some surgical procedure which might relocate an attachment point, we are not changing the length of our muscles from end to end.
So, strengthening the muscle tissue does not change the muscle length. Yet, strengthening does have effect on our muscles!
How Does Strengthening Affect Our Muscles?
When we strength-train we increase the ability of muscles to produce force, because we have actually increased the number of active muscle cells. Strength training makes our muscles stronger, not shorter.
How Does Stretching Affect Our Muscles?
Stretching makes our muscles more flexible and more extensible. So, stretching decreases resistance torque and increases our tolerance for stretching. Thus, we increase our flexibility, but it doesn’t make our muscles longer.
The funny thing is, we often hear people say that stretching weakens the muscles. But we know that the main way that we weaken our muscles is to not use them.
Stretching and Strengthening Are Not Opposites
Hopefully, it’s becoming clear that stretching and strengthening are not opposites. They don’t have a binary relationship in which they work against each other.
Instead of thinking about strengthening and stretching as opposites, let’s think of strength and flexibility as two separate qualities, alongside many other qualities that we can possess to different degrees in our body. We desire strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, and endurance in our bodies.
Thus, it’s not so much that we elevate strength and flexibility and think about them as two opposites, but instead as two features among many. Every individual’s body is made up of some mix of these traits, in terms of their bio-motor abilities.
What Does This Mean for You?
We know that the body is not as simple as pairs of opposites. If we want to be practical about this more complex way of looking at our body, it makes sense to fit all of this into the life we see for ourselves.
In order to do the activities you want, for as long as you want to, try this plan:
- Be as strong as you need to be and place force on your bones for bone health.
- Be as flexible as you need to be.
- Work on your balance.
- Maintain good coordination.
- Keep up your endurance.
As always, I recommend small, doable daily steps toward your goals of strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, and endurance. Seeing your body as an evolving, ever-changing blend of traits helps you choose right-fit activities that move you toward your unique goals.
Have you tried to do either stretching or strength-training? Which of these have you done more of and why? How do you balance your exercise routine for the best effect on your whole body? Please share with the community!