We’ve spent a bit of time on this blog discussing stretching and why it is good for us. But stretching is only half of the story; we need to be strong every bit as much as much as we need to be flexible. Just as flexibility can help us build strength more effectively, building strength can help us stretch more safely.
The Hypermobility Issue
Hypermobility refers to joints that move beyond the normal range of motion (think about those people whose elbows and knees can go past straight). Hypermobile people have loose ligaments, which are the bands of connective tissue that join bone to bone and are key players in joint stability. When someone is hypermobile, their ligaments cannot effectively hold their bones and joints together in proper alignment, leading to pain and discomfort, and potentially serious injury unless they can find an alternative way to stabilize their joints.
Some people are born hypermobile. Many children have some degree of hypermobility because much of our connective tissue is still quite malleable when we are growing. Some people who are hypermobile as children can outgrow it as they become adults and their bodies get stronger. The rest can learn to counteract the effects of being hypermobile through strengthening the surrounding muscles that help to stabilize the joints.
Where Strength Comes In
What happens if people don’t strengthen their joint stabilizing muscles and continue to stretch past a healthy range of motion? With no muscle engagement to help hold their body in place as they stretch, all of the load lands on the ligaments. The added stress to the ligaments eventually stretches them out to the point that they lose their recoil property, meaning that they can no longer spring back (like a very old rubber band) and hold the parts of the joint together. That in turn greatly increases the risk of serious joint injuries, such as dislocations and soft tissue tears.
Strengthening the muscles surrounding the joints can greatly reduce the risk of injury, as the muscles help share the load of the body in a stretch and aid the ligaments in holding the parts of the joint in place. Furthermore, engaging the muscles around the area being stretched will protect it from over stretching and strains. So strength-backed stretching can help provide full body stability, integrity, and durability.
Other Ways Strength Promotes Safe Flexibility
Strength Ensures That the Stretch Reaches the Targeted Area Effectively
Ever feel like some of your stretches aren’t really doing much? If you stretch often without seeing any increase in flexibility, it could mean that you don’t have the muscle strength necessary to hold your body in the correct alignment to stretch the targeted muscle. The body is really good at compensating, so it will find other areas to send the stretch until you are able to hold the rest of your body in place for the stretch to reach its target. For example, if your hamstrings are still tight even though you practice forward folds every day, it could be that your quads and hip flexors need to be strengthened so that you can shift your weight forward and keep the stretch from sinking into your lower back.
Strength Increases Useful Range of Motion
It’s great if you can squat all the way down to the ground until your glutes graze the floor, but if you can’t stand back up, there is little use for that skill. Building strength enables you to put your flexibility to good use. Being able to squat down low to pick up something heavy so that you protect your low back, now that’s a very useful skill, as well as a great example of strength and flexibility working together.
Strength Improves Posture
I mention in an earlier post that stretching helps improve posture by allowing you the range of motion to properly align your spine to stand up straight. But you need the requisite muscle strength to move your body into that proper alignment, and to be able to maintain proper posture throughout the day.
As an interesting side note, there is a body of research that has shown that resistance training (weight lifting, resistance bands, bodyweight exercises) can actually improve flexibility in certain muscles groups all on its own, without added stretching. If you think about it this makes sense, since your muscles are contracting against something pulling or pushing against them (similar principle to isometric and PNF stretching, although in this case the primary goal is improved muscles strength). Of course, stretching helps us in many unique ways, so it’s always a good idea to spend some time focusing on both of these fitness goals.
It’s All About Balance
Like with everything in life, having the healthiest muscles and joints boils down to finding and maintaining a proper balance. Stretching without strength can lead to instability and strains, and strength without stretching can lead to pulls and loss of mobility. But by working on both of these areas together, you can become the strongest, safest, and most mobile version of yourself that you can be!