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Flexibility vs Strength: a zero sum game?

Without putting much thought into it, it is easy to claim that flexibility and strength are opposite qualities or even that they counteract each other. In my opinion: The above ideas hold true only at the end range of the spectrum.

The topic I think is a lot more straight forward than most people think. What makes it confusing is the lack of specificity.

3 factors that affect how strong and flexible you will get.

1. The degree of strength or flexibility need to be predetermined by a single skill, achievement or set standards.

2. The individual’s constitution will predispose him to favour strength or flexibility.

3. What maters most is how much you want the specific outcome.

Let’s elaborate on each of them…


How much do you really need?

To perform a snatch you need some strength and some flexibility but so you do to perform middle splits on silks. The amount varies significantly and so do the joints involved. For the former task you need minimal ankle flexibility, for instance, while for the latter you need a lot!

While some skills are complimentary the more skills you are after the harder it is to meet the physical demands of each.

It is equally important to look at how the masters of each activity do. Let’s look into yoga. Anyone that can practice the 2nd or 3rd series of Ashtanga is strong yoga-wise. He is likely though to qualify as weak based on most other standards.

Naohisa Takato

picture source

In the image above you can see Naohisa Takato an Olympic champion in judo, trying to put his foot to his head in pigeon pose. Judo requires flexibility but putting the foot to your head is not a prerequisite for stepping on the podium.


What are the key parameters?

Your genetics, alongside your upbringing will predispose you towards finding flexibility or strength easier. In extreme scenarios this holds true even for those that train only x2 per week.

You probably know someone that gets a pump just by looking at dumbbells or someone that puts his leg behind his head without ever having attended a single yoga class. If the 1st individual sets as a goal to become a contortionist, or the 2nd an IFBB pro body builder they both have an uphill battle ahead. While these are rare scenarios we need to appreciate that we all have an inclination.

Your joint structure, muscle bulk, connective tissue, proprioceptors, adipose tissue affect how you move.

If you are working on what comes natural to you, you are less likely to feel you are spinning wheels.


It’s a mind game.

Your mindset and standards will be the biggest determinant on how far you go.

If you want to stay at the middle of the bell shaped curve, chances are that you will not get very strong or flexible and you will be able to increase both qualities simultaneously with some effort. If you want to go to the end of the curve however, go for it and be ready to pay the price.


How to increase strength and flexibility at the same time?

Plan accordingly.

Assuming you:

a. want to put equal weight on both strength and flexibility and

b. are at equal level in both physical qualities.

you can see below what would be my suggestions for a training split.

UnfitModerate FitnessVery Fit
Strength : Flexibility (time)80 : 2060 : 4050 : 50
Strength : Flexibility (intensity)50 : 5040 : 6070 : 30
Strength Training Frequencyx3 per weekx4x4
Flexibility Training Frequencyx3x4x5 (short sessions)
How to combine?You don't.Stretch as part of the warm-up and cool-down.Strengthwork first, then stretch.


Does diet play a role?

Diet is a key component of training. Both strength and flexibility require protein to support the wear and tear of the joints, ligaments, and muscles.

Strength will benefit by keeping your body in a moderate, or high, anabolic state while flexibility in a moderately catabolic state.

If that comes as a surprise think of the typical yoga body. To that extent, a meat eating diet will support strength training while a vegetarian diet flexibility. For general health purposes though I suggest you refrain from black or white choices.


What’s the effect on athleticism?

Athleticism should be trained on its own. If you want to be more athletic you need to focus on jumping and sprinting. You will not become faster through bench pressing or middle splits. With that said, there is a high component of strength needed in athleticism and a small of flexibility.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can you build strength with yoga?

It obviously depends on what your starting point is but there are certain limitations for targeting the back of the body and the legs. For that reason I often suggest some other form of strength training to be supplemented.

The biggest benefit yoga offers to strength athletes is the increase of body awareness.

This is massive and of bigger importance than the benefits from flexibility, calmness and breathwork.


Does lifting weights make you flexible?

Again it depends on your standards. Weights will not get you seriously flexible, but you may still increase your range of movement in some body parts.

What is more critical though is how to avoid getting more stiff through weights, and for that you need to pay attention to the technique you use.

Again… Pilates training is fantastic at targeting supportive muscles (the muscles no-one cares about and when ignored cause injuries). My training in Pilates influenced a lot my teaching in yoga and would definitely recommend reformer pilates to anyone that is allergic to the gym environment.


What 10+ years of teaching yoga taught me?

I. Those that complain about tightness are the ones that need flexibility the least. Those that don’t complain are the ones that  need it the most.

II. Value the opinion of instructors above this of systems, methods, etc. Would you learn how to bake pizza from Dominos or your friend’s Italian father?

III. If you are starting out be a generalist. When you have lost track of the number of years you have trained, start making your training sessions specific. Yes you can train front splits for 1 hour.

IV. The best way to avoid injuries is to do what you don’t feel like.

V. Strength gains depend a lot on intensity and planning. Flexibility gains depend on patience and conditioning. Despite a common belief contortionist don’t just stretch.

VI. When in doubt ask your friend’s Italian father. The more my practice advances the more private sessions I take.