Strength training along with stretching are both important to have and maintain healthy functioning muscles and lifestyle. Strength training protects your joints from injury by promoting stability and good proprioception, which allows you to know where and what position your body is in. Building your muscle can improve your balance and reduce your fall risk, so you can keep your independence as you age. Stretching promotes adequate blood flow and nutrition to nourish your muscles and structures around it, along with preventing any abnormal pulling on your bones to maintain good body mechanics. Stretching also promotes your independence by allowing you to have a good quality range of motion, and can even reduce stress.
Let’s talk about the different types of muscle contractions. You can strengthen your muscles using either isometric, concentric, or eccentric muscle activations. Strengthening your muscles using an isometric method is good for stability, which is a good place to start especially for your core and for joints like your shoulders or knees that feel like they want to ‘give out’ when using them. Isometric contractions are performed by contracting the muscle and holding that contraction. Start with 5-10 second holds without adding weight and gradually add in weight, increase time and the reps of the muscle contraction as your endurance increases. Concentric muscle activation shortens the length of a muscle. Think of a bicep curl, as you bring the weight up you are shortening the length of the muscle. The last type of muscle activation mentioned is eccentric muscle contraction. This is when the length of the muscle is elongated while being activated. Let’s bring back the bicep curl example. When bringing the weight back to neutral your muscle is still working, but now the muscle is being elongated instead of shortened. These types of muscle activations are great for strengthening and control. Strengthening parameters typically call for higher weight and lower reps, while endurance is the opposite with less weight but higher reps. As a Physical Therapist Assistant, these are the types of muscle activations I keep in mind in determining what kind of strengthening my patients need. Through strengthening your muscles you can improve your quality of life by being in control of your body and how it moves. As you age you naturally lose bone density and muscle, however, your bones and muscles will adapt by increasing your strength and bone density.
Stretching encourages adequate blood flow to your muscles and joints. When muscles are tight or restricted in motion, this can disrupt the quantity of nutrients your muscles may need. Stress or injury can be a reason for your restricted muscles. With stress, people tend to tense up and forget to release all of that tension, and with injury, you may be restricted to a certain position to promote healing during the recovery process. If there are restrictions in your range of motion and your muscles are tight they put an abnormal pull on your bones causing a malalignment. When there is a malalignment it can cause pain and strain on other muscles and structures around the area. Something as simple as stretching your muscles can improve malalignment, stress, recovery from injury, and promote adequate nourishment.
So, back to the original question. Is strengthening or stretching better? I think it is determined by the person, and I believe both are important to have healthy and functional muscles. It can be difficult to determine which muscles need to be strengthened or stretched. Through our Functional Rehab Exam at the ACS Racine, WI location we use J-TECH measurements that determine where your strength deficits and restrictions are. With the measurements, we gather we assess and determine a plan that is unique to your needs with our team of skilled clinicians.
Abby Spanske, Physical Therapist Assistant