Strength or flexibility: does it have to be a choice?

April 5, 2011

Circus Artemis
The aerial feats of Circus Artemis (image courtesy of K.Kendall, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Do you have to compromise flexibility to achieve strength? It’s a debate that crops up in online fitness forums from time to time.

It all comes down to how you do it. In my experience it is possible for people to train or work intelligently, where activities that require muscular strength are performed in such a way that you are not sacrificing so much of your innate poise and balance in the process. And in this way, flexibility is preserved, along with your ability to perform skillful tasks (so you don’t have to lose so much of your violin-playing ability just because you operate a power drill for several hours a day, for instance).

That said, I doubt you’d meet an Alexander Technique teacher who would recommend weight lifting to their students. The more strenuous an activity, the stronger is the impetus to do things in a way that isn’t good for the body.

If you read a little further on, you’ll hopefully gain some insight into some of the issues that require attention when doing strenuous activity, at least from the point of view of an Alexander Technique teacher.

Most people approach tasks of all kinds by tightening up and contracting their body’s musculature inwards. There’s an observable tendency for the head and neck to retract into the torso, and for the muscles of the arms and legs to pull inwards towards the torso.

This is a difficult thing to convey merely using words but when we operate habitually in that inwardly-contracted state, we not only put more pressure and strain on the whole body, but we cultivate muscular habits that have an overall rigidifying effect on the body. And we’re more likely to build up habits of chronic tension in particular areas – for example, chronically tense arms seem quite common with heavy computer use.

We tend to sacrifice some of our natural poise and balance and ease of movement when we do things in this inwardly-contracted way. Things also seem to become less well “connected” to each other – a kinaesthetic quality that is tricky to convey in words.

The underlying physiology behind this has to do with a set of muscular reflexes – “antigravity” reflexes, they are sometimes called. When working well, they tend to keep us in a state of poised, balanced, expansiveness, where the muscles can adjust to each other and co-ordinate all the different parts of us in a way that feels easy and natural, and reduces the pressure on the individual parts.

But many people approach strenuous tasks in a way that interferes with the operation of these muscular reflexes, and they’ve been doing this for years so there is a slightly chronic state of contraction or collapse. One of the most significant ways you might be doing this is by tightening up the neck muscles and holding the head in a fixed position on top of the spine. It’s something you can find yourself doing without realising it.

It’s useful to explore doing things, even strenuous things, with as little muscle tension as you feel you can get away with. For example, experiment with gripping your pen or toothbrush less tightly.

Chronic tension patterns also go hand in hand with a tendency to lose touch with your surroundings, and how things feel. For example, the person who grips their pencil fearsomely will also not be very aware of how that pencil feels in their hand. So try to work in a way that maintains your sensory awareness of your surroundings and the physical contact you make with things around you. Continue to feel the little changes in weight distribution of your feet on the ground as you saw a plank of wood, for example, or the way the keys of your computer actually feel under your fingers as you type. Keep your vision in a reasonably lively state, interrupting up-close tasks with looking off in the distance every now and again, and maintaining some awareness of your peripheral vision.

There are various reasons why it’s good to be “sensing” your surroundings in this way. But to cut a long story short, this has the effect of getting our muscular reflexes more involved in whatever we’re doing, making it easier to do it, and requiring less undesirable muscle tension.

Just to give you a quick demonstration of these reflexes, try something now: stand on one leg.

Done it? Great. Now try again, this time with your eyes closed.

Notice the difference? It was probably a good bit harder to balance with your eyes closed. That’s just to illustrate the effect that one of your senses – vision – has on stimulating the operation of these muscular reflexes (or “postural reflexes”, as they’re sometimes called). The more you can reduce interference with these reflexes when doing things, the better your coordination and the easier everything will be.

You can cultivate poise and expansiveness in everything you do, whether it be playing a guitar or operating a power drill, and this will tend to counteract the development of chronic patterns of tension and immobilisation. It’s best to begin this re-education process with relatively non-strenuous tasks, before taking it to the gym. It can admittedly take some time and application (observation) to become aware of these kinds of muscular patterns, and to begin changing them. Taking Alexander Technique lessons can make this a lot easier.

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