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Flexibility, Stability and Strength in Harmony

Swiss Ball Horse Stance Exercise


In the last article I spoke about the use of movement screens as a way to assess clients and give them a form of biofeedback to their movement restrictions. But, as with all assessments, the next question is what should we do about it?

In the world of functional exercise for rehabilitation we have three main considerations - Flexibility, Stability and Strength. All three have their uses and are all equally important to a fully functioning body but what is more important? Can one be separated from the others or do we need to find a compromise between them all?

There is a fine balance between these three that requires a particular order to be addressed before the body is happy and functional. Flexibility, Stability, Strength is the exact order in which each of us developed as a child. We were born with flexibility but no stability and little strength but over time we earned the right to move around by first developing some stability. As our balance developed, our strength was able to increase also.

As adults we take this strength for granted. We are generally strong enough for most tasks that present to us but over the years we’ve learnt to use tools, machines and seated positions for achieving many of these strength tasks. We’ve limited the degree of movement required every day by having everything we need easily to hand and sitting for hours and hours at desks and in front of televisions. This all results in a very limited stimulation to our range of movement and our nervous system, so flexibility and coordination are quickly lost when we don’t stimulate the need for them.

As with a child, flexibility is at the foundation of a healthy body. Movement screens often show up as a lack of balance purely because the client is inflexible. Try standing on a thin piece of cord with your left foot in front and your right foot about two feet behind and also on the line, both feet pointing forwards and heels on the ground. One foot should be directly behind the other which challenges your balance. Try now to squat down and back up again maintaining perfect balance. Many clients can’t remain balanced because of a lack of flexibility in their hips or calf muscles. Because the body can’t maintain the position, the brain will send you off balance to make you move your feet.

By improving flexibility, so that the position is easy to achieve, the client quickly regains their balance. So flexibility is right at the core of functional rehabilitation and is always the first to be addressed. However, if flexibility is no problem or the client is hypermobile can we move straight on to strengthening them up?
Building strength on a flexible but unstable surface is like putting a drag racing engine in an entry level town car. All that power will turn the chassis to a pile of metal dust, a bit like those big muscle bound guys with chronic joint capsule injuries. The last thing anyone needs is strength before stability because stability is all about controlling that strength.

Stability exercise can prove to be so challenging to people that they quickly give up in favour of strength exercises. The best stability exercises look so simple but are hard to coordinate correctly but after a little perseverance become very easy in a short amount of time. This is because the nervous system is crying out for stimulus in this day and age. Once, standing in a canoe with a spear in your hand for fishing was a daily task, now Tesco will deliver the fish to your door while you’re watching East Enders.

This lack of stability makes strength a dangerous thing. Only when flexibility and stability are trained adequately should strength be attempted. But, when ready, strength is vitally important. Being strong should mean that you are capable of lifting and moving anything that presents itself in daily life. For example, lifting your groceries out of your car (assuming you didn’t opt for the home delivery option) should not create enough load to injure your back. If you have practiced lifting movements with increasingly heavy weights on a flexible and stable posture no amount of grocery shopping should push you to your limits.

As a Functional Exercise Coach, addressing the balance between flexibility, stability and strength is at the heart of our practice. Without good performance in each the client is never progressed forward because the likelihood of injury is high. Most importantly however, the client learns the limitations of what they can and can’t do with their present level of conditioning. This learning outcome is by far the most valuable lesson a person can get. It allows them to move with greater conviction and teaches them the boundaries for which they should stop and ask for assistance when something is too heavy for them to stabilise on their own.

So next time your get injured in your garden, ask yourself, did you have the flexibility and stability to use your strength to push that old lawn mower in the first place?



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