Many believe that strength is the key to reducing their risk of injury and maintaining a healthy body. In addition to staying fit, patient’s will often seek treatment for recent injury, such as a wrist strain or knee sprain, and ask for “strengthening” exercises to help facilitate a speedy recovery. Unfortunately, what is often neglected is a balance between both flexibility and strength within the affected region while recovering from injury, and across the entire body generally while maintaining health and fitness.
With regards to injury, the body goes through several stages when recovering. Depending on the severity of the injury, a loss of mobility and flexibility, in addition to strength is likely to occur. Once the acute inflammatory response has essentially resolved (typically a week or so), and the body is moving into the next phase of healing, restoration of functional mobility and flexibility of the affected joints and associated muscle groups is essential before strength training should be initiated. In fact, starting strength training too early within the recovery process can be more detrimental than beneficial. If you should happen to get injured, speak with your local Physical Therapist to get advice on when, how, and to what degree mobility interventions will help you recover.
With regards to general health and wellness, I would argue that, for most people, flexibility training is leaps and bounds more important that strength training. As we age, certain muscle groups and joint regions have a tendency to become short and stiff. This will vary depending on one’s lifestyle and activity level. Changes in muscle length and flexibility can have a profound impact on predisposition for injury, athleticism, and quality of life. For example, if someone sits for prolonged periods of time, this will increase their likelihood of developing stiff and short hamstrings, as these muscle groups are always in a shortened position. Short hamstrings can significantly impact sitting posture and lead to all sorts of problems associated with chronic bad posture.
Although strength is certainly important, it should be secondary to restoration and promotion of joint mobility and muscle flexibility in most cases. Of course, some instances call for strength over flexibility, such as situations of instability or hypermobility, but these are relatively less common. My advice is to find those areas where you are stiff/inflexible (PTs can help you with this) and stretch a little every day. Go to a yoga class. Do some stretching on your own, such as before or after a workout. Make it part of your daily routine. Unlike strength training, it is difficult to “over do it” with stretching. Just try and be flexible!
Greg Dixon, PT, DPT