Why stretching and strengthening go hand in hand

Why it isn’t all about stretching

I’m a firm believer that stretching and strengthening need to be done together.

I speak to a number of different people here in the clinic and they tell me they’re stretching a lot, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference and they don’t feel as relaxed/flexible as they thought they would. It can get a bit disheartening if you’ve put a lot of effort into stretching, yet aren’t feeling the benefit you thought you’d get.

Stretching and strengthening go hand in hand if you want to get the best result. You can’t do one without the other.

Why stretching and strengthening work well together

Starting from basics, a joint has a ‘normal’ range of movement. There will always be some variation between different people, so we compare right and left to check the difference. If there’s a restriction in range of movement, stretching can help increase this. However, your body and muscles have got used to that limited movement and can revert back. Once you’ve stretched you then need to strengthen so you can maintain that extra range you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Case-study:

Let’s take the example of a desk-worker to talk through as this can help put the thoughts above into perspective. Typically, the desk-space may not be set-up correctly which encourages a slouched position. To be clear, sitting slouched is not automatically a bad thing, it’s sitting slouched for a long time that can create some problems.

Stretching and strengthening
Poor desk position

In the above photo, the screen is low which encourages you to lean forwards and look down. This can get uncomfortable if sitting like this for a long time. I have to say that laptops are the worst for encouraging a poky-chin head-down position.

Let’s have a look at other activities that can cause poor positioning:

Stretching and strengthening
Using a mobile phone

Yes, using a mobile phone or tablet also causes the head to come forwards and down, so even if you’re away from your desk, you may still be in a poor position.

What happens if you’re continually in these positions?

The muscles at the back of your head and neck get long and weak, and the muscles at the front of your neck get short and tight. As shown above, laptops are quite bad for encouraging this position as the screen is fixed. Unfortunately, you’re also not out of the woods when you’re away from your desk – everyone’s on their mobile phones!

What can you do to help yourself?

As discussed above, stretching can help increase the flexibility of the muscles. If you’re not stretching AND strengthening, this can be temporary. You also want to strengthen the muscles at the back of the neck and shoulders. Stretching is also temporary if you take into account the 8-10 hour work day people have and that they’ll probably only stretch one or two times a day (if that). Proportionally, this stretching is not effective. Is it any wonder that people don’t get the effect they’re after? If may feel good at the time, but only temporarily.

Stretching and strengthening
Neck stretch

Exercises done during a Pilates class target these areas at the back of the neck and shoulders. Once stronger, you’ll be able to sit in a more upright position, which will mean the muscles at the front of your neck become less tight.

Stretching and strengthening
This exercise works both upper and lower body. Maintaining the head in a good position works the neck and back muscles
Stretching and strengthening
This exercise works the upper body

Setting up your desk space

If you haven’t already guessed, the best way to set-up your desk space is to have a separate monitor that can be raised or lowered. If you raise this so that the top of the screen is level with your forehead, it will encourage you to sit up straighter. Your arms should be able to rest on your desk area without you hunching your shoulders up and your feet should be on the floor. Laptops aren’t great for prolonged working hours as the screen is fixed, which encourages the slouched position.

 

Using goals to help motivate

I tend to find people don’t want to do their exercises forever and I don’t encourage them to do this. Instead, I’ll give them a deadline and suggested target they can reach. Using this approach I find there’s better compliance with exercises. Read here about setting SMART (Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Realistic; Timely) goals.

It takes six weeks to start to strengthen muscles, so I always suggest to my patients to give themselves a deadline, take two months of strengthening muscles of the back of the neck and upper body. Targeted massage during this time can also help, as the massage can help loosen muscles and regain flexibility, which makes it easier to then strengthen.

As a suggestion, warm up a muscle group with targeted strength exercise before stretching it to increase flexibility. The underlying principle is usually put “Strengthen what you stretch, and stretch after you strengthen!”

As always, this is meant as general advice, please speak to us if you’d like more individual advice.