Stretching vs. Strengthening

 

In my last post I wrote about the wonderful athletes who competed in the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast.

I am always fascinated in the different types of bodies that these athletes possess.

You've got the powerfully built sprinters engineered to sprint down the track in less then 10 seconds. Lithe swimmers who glide aerodynamically in the water. Combat and lifting athletes who are typically heavier set with chunky arms and legs anchoring them to the ground.

By far, the most impressive athletes to my mind are always the gymnasts.

Not only are these athletes absolutely ripped with muscle but they also have an unbelievable amount of flexibility too!

When you are watching gymnasts on the pommel horse or uneven bars or showing their aerial skills on the floor you are seeing skills that have taken a lifetime to train and possess.

It is in this context I would like to talk about how everyday people can have the same flexibility as gymnasts... well almost!

Here's my main point.

Too often as physios we are guilty of prescribing just stretches.

But what are stretches exactly? What does it do? How will that fix my pain?

To think that stretching will improve your muscle length and general flexibility is FAKE NEWS! It doesn't happen!

Believe it or not flexibility comes with strengthening work.

When you put a muscle under a load (especially at the end of range) it will require the muscle fibres to change and adapt so that it can withstand that load or pressure.

Then over time the muscle changes as it adapts to the load and it magically changes in length!

With time the connective tissue (think of it as the glue that holds everything between muscle and bones) also gets a nice stretch with the end of range training that it too adapts and becomes more elastic.

The end result is that you’re both strong AND flexible BUT it comes from strengthening work FIRST and persisting with regular stretches SECOND.

If you were to ask how long it takes a ballet dancer to perform an Arabesque they’ll tell you that it can take over 10 years! Here’s a short video of a ballet dancer’s training routine.

Same thing with gymnasts. To get the supreme strength to hold an iron cross on the Olympic Rings for example can takes years of incremental change and building strength to get to that level of strength and flexibility. You can see in this short video how the athlete is slowly introducing load as he’s lowering.

So what I hear you saying? I’m not a ballet dancer or a gymnast so what has this got to do with me?

Don’t worry because I’m not a ballet dancer or a gymnast either. What’s important is the principle.

With safe but gradual strengthening work especially towards the end of your joint range you will over time improve your flexibility.

But, if you only focus on regular stretching without strengthening work, you may only feel good for a little while but go back and do what you normally do and you stiffen up again.

So for that reason – my humble advice is that if you’re going to spend time and money on your health focus on strengthening work and the flexibility will come.

As always – doing something is better then doing nothing!

Have a good week and become more resilient.

 

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