Strength vs Flexibility: the age-old question



At some point in your life you might have wondered: “what’s MORE important for me: STRENGTH or FLEXIBILITY?” Maybe it was trying to answer the question of why you continue to have that nagging back pain? Or perhaps it was during that Yoga class when a static warrior pose was SO hard to hold for 10 breaths? Or maybe you’ve worked with various medical or fitness professionals in which 1 tells you that you need to have more strength and another tells you that you need more flexibility…???

The short answer is: you need both, at least some, to maintain good body balance and minimize injury risk. As with any fitness discussion, start with FUNCTION: what is your body required to do every day (or what are you asking it to do)? Secondly, look at your particular body type and tissue characteristics: are you flexy-bendy like a Gumby doll? Then you most likely need to concentrate more on core strength & endurance. Are you a bulky mass of power? Then you most likely need to focus more on flexibility & joint mobility. We know that there is an inverse relationship between length and tension, meaning basically the more lengthened a muscle is the weaker it is. So very flexible people typically should NOT do more flexibility exercises, which is often exactly what they end up doing because they’re ‘good’ at them and they come easy. Conversely, very bulky, strong people should NOT spend all their time just power lifting, but also putting time & energy towards maintaining good joint mobility and tissue flexibility.

Picture these 2 very different body types and see if you can figure out what each one would benefit most from:

Body #1: the thin, lean body (age is irrelevant, imagine any age you like) who is always doing Yoga so gracefully and beautifully, and no matter what the pose she can always go the full distance no problem…but if you asked her to carry a 5-gallon bucket of water up & down 2 flights of stairs she’d be pooped out after 2 minutes…

Body #2: that big, strong guy you see out working for the utility company, who can probably lift & set those power poles by himself…but if you asked him to bend forward and touch his toes he could barely reach his kneecaps…

Ok, so these are 2 extreme cases, but they’re not that far off from many of the patients I’ve treated over my nearly 20-year career as a Physical Therapist. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, but almost everyone who naturally (genetically) has more flexible tissues struggles with strength (often core muscle strength) and visa-versa; those that have lots of strength often lack flexibility. Of course a person’s lifestyle also effects their strength & flexibility. But how often do you see a skinny person working in a job requiring lots of heavy lifting or moving? By contrast, how often do you see big, bulky people teaching Yoga class? Finding out where your body falls on this strength / flexibility spectrum is a key first step to discovering where to best focus your efforts.

The best option is to see a Physical Therapist experienced in fitness testing and training. Two of our clinicians are Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialists (CSCS) by the National Strength & Conditioning Association and can help define very specifically areas of a person’s body that are more of 1 than the other. 

Here are a few simple, generic tests that can help determine where your body generally lies on the strength vs flexibility spectrum:

 1). Sit and Reach Test: this is often used as a flexibility test of both the hamstrings and the low back. Recent research, however, has shown it to be a poor measure of low back flexibility. Start in seated position, knees fully straight, ankles in neutral (placing feet flat against a step helps keep you from cheating). Slide fingertips along the ruler as you lean forward, reaching as far as you can without pain, then measure the distance.

Scores & Rating:

Adult Men – results in centimeters (cm)

  • Above 34 = Excellent
  • 28 to 34 = Above average
  • 23 to 27 = Average
  • 16 to 22 = Below average
  • Below 16 = Poor

Adult Women – results in centimeters (cm)

  • Above 37 = Excellent
  • 33 to 36 = Above average
  • 29 to 32 = Average
  • 23 to 28 = Below average
  • Below 23 = Poor

2). Side plank hold test: downside elbow may be placed on a pad or pillow, upside hand placed on hip, only lower foot touching the ground. Lift hips up to where trunk + hips + knees are straight (like a plank) and hold. Remember to breathe!

Scores & Rating for adult Males & Females:

  • > 90 seconds = Excellent
  • 75-90 seconds = Good
  • 60-75 seconds = Average
  • <60 seconds = Poor

3). Shoulder Range of Motion (“Back Scratch”) test:

Reach 1 hand behind neck and down along spine as far as able, while the other hand comes up from the low back. Try to get them as close to each other as possible without pain and measure their distance apart.

Scores & Ratings for Men:

Age below average normal (inches) above average
60-64 < -6.5 -6.5 to 0 > 0
65-69 < -7.5 -7.5 to -1.0 > -1.0
70-74 < -8.0 -8.0 to -1.0 > -1.0
75-79 < -9.0 -9.0 to -2.0 > -2.0
80-84 < -9.5 -9.5 to -2.0 > -2.0
85-89 < -10.0 -10.0 to -3.0 > -3.0
90-94 < -10.5 -10.5 to -4.0 > -4.0

Scores & Rating for Women:

Age below average normal (inches) above average
60-64 < -3.0 -3.0 to 1.5 > 1.5
65-69 < -3.5 -3.5 to 1.5 > 1.5
70-74 < -4.0 -4.0 to 1.0 > 1.0
75-79 < -5.0 -5.0 to 0.5 > 0.5
80-84 < -5.5 -5.5 to 0 > 0
85-89 < -7.0 -7.0 to -1.0 > -1.0
90-94 < -8.0 -8.0 to -1.0 > -1.0


If you’re not sure about whether your body falls more towards the strength side or the flexibility side, or if you simply want to know more about your body and how it functions best, please call us at 828-225-3838 and schedule your initial evaluation today!


Written by Damon

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