Should we stretch or strengthen - which is more beneficial?

October 10, 2023
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Find out why the benefits of strengthening outperform stretching for remaining pain-free and boosting performance.

Is stretching all it’s made out to be?

Is good for our health?

Does it keep us flexible longterm?

Does it improve posture and reduce the risk of injury?

This may depend on how we’re doing it.

Here is an insight into what may be going on when we feel the sensation of a stretch and what we might really be feeling.

Is anything actually stretching?

When you try to lengthen a muscle by pushing your arm or leg past the point you can normally move it, the muscles have got to their end range or the range in which they have the ability to contract.

The sensation we may be feeling is called protective tension. This is where your body increases the tension in the muscle as it gets into an overly lengthened position. Your body will increase the muscle tension, the more you try to push or pull yourself further. If this mechanism wasn’t in place we could end up with torn muscles.

If the goal is to be more ‘flexible’, we need to build the strength in the muscle/s that move us into the position we desire. If we don’t have the strength, your body is clever in protecting itself by increasing your muscle tension to prevent potential injury risk.

If you keep stretching an area on your body you may end up overriding the body’s protective mechanism. This would mean you could potentially end up in a range where you have little to no strength and lose the ability to control the joint in its new range. This could end up leading to a potential injury due to the lack of strength and stability around the joint.

Ever found that when you stretch, you increase your range temporarily but then the next day you have returned back to your normal range? This totally makes sense as your body has returned to its ‘safe settings’ where it has the ability to perform daily tasks safely without a threat to cause harm. If it didn’t we may be in that same situation again where we have lost the ability to stabilise a joint which increases the risk of injury.

The bottom line:

If you feel a muscle is tight, traditional stretching may not be the best long term approach. If you do want some form of stretch, you have the option to do it actively, where you stay in control of your body.

For example, let’s look at trying to stretch the muscles on the back of our legs. Instead of trying to reach the floor from a standing position where your whole upper body mass is potentially pushing you further than your body can control or contract muscle, you could try lying on your back and raising your leg. This way you are using the muscles on the front of the leg to actively stretch the muscles on the back of your leg. You may get a similar sensation, but at least this way you are staying within your body’s capabilities rather than forcing it into a potential position it doesn’t want to go.

When active stretching is performed correctly, your body starts to build up more strength which may unlock new range safely providing the potential is there. By this I mean there may be other reasons your body doesn’t want to go deeper into a range such as a pathology in that area or it could be the case that the shape of the joint has reached the limit and you would be just pushing bone on to bone.

It’s important to understand that we are all built differently, with different genetics, differently shaped bones, and our muscle strength capability is hugely different for everyone. Being more flexible (what I really mean is gaining strength in deeper ranges) doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a smart approach and one that isn’t going to harm us further down the line.

If you want to remain active and prevent instability in your joints, start strengthening your muscles rather than stretching.

Greg Cornthwaite | Strength House Co-Founder