As a professional athlete, my job was essentially to follow orders without question. The results were great at the time. I was bigger, stronger, and faster than at any other time in my life. But the realities of chasing a max bench and squat started setting in only after my playing days were done.

I had aches and pains that prevented me from doing the activities that I loved. The only solution? Do what I always did: Train. Hard. This had been the philosophy drilled into my psyche for many years. Hurt? Work through it. Pain? Walk it off. Only the strong survive. **pound chest and grunt**

Well, no. Only the smart survive.

When I finally summed up the courage and ignored the machismo voice in my head, I hesitantly stepped into my first yoga class. It was a Yoga Tune Up® class in Santa Monica. Humbled would be the most politically correct way of describing how I felt after the class finished. Flexibility was a word that obviously never found its way into my vocabulary. It was time to learn.

Importance of Flexibility

While many people focus on strength and cardiovascular exercise when they enter the gym, it is actually flexibility that should be the primary focus as it is the foundation of physical health. With an injured shoulder or hip you can imagine not being able to reach above your head or taking a full stride when walking. The body will protect itself and prevent you from moving into ranges of motion that cause pain. This is a normal and natural protective mechanism since the body is not in perfect health. This is also why health can often times be gauged by how wide your sphere of movement stretches from your body’s center. Your sphere of potential movement starts with flexibility, since tight muscles can inhibit potential movement in much of the same way as an injury.

Improving flexibility will have an instant and drastic impact on athletic performance and decrease your risk of injury. Needless to say, I don’t talk about bench pressing or squatting anymore. Those are just numbers on a piece of paper that once served to inflate ego. Now, when I wake up in the morning, I move. I feel for tight spots and stretch. My Downward Dog looks more like a pointed arrow than a rainbow. I can comfortably reach down and palm the floor with locked legs. I’m a couple of blind spots away from doing a hand stand without the use of a wall. Oh yeah, and I don’t hurt.

Try this YTU pose called Asymmetrical Uttanasana (and for more like it check out the Quick Fix for Hips videos) to access the flexibility you need to forward bend successfully!

Watch our free Quickfix for hips video.

Discover solutions for hip pain.

Find a Yoga Tune Up® Class or Workshop near you.

Luke Sniewski

Luke Sniewski (www.lukesniewski.com) is one of the emerging leaders in the Sustainability Movement, since optimal personal health ultimately stems from optimal environmental health. A former Pro-Football player and CPA, this suit-and-tie left cubicle world to change the world one person and idea at a time. He is a micro-greens gardener which puts his Masters in Sustainable Food Systems and professional culinary expertise to practical use. His motto “Healthy Living. Smart Business. Endless Fun.” has provided a personal mission statement that guides his coaching, training, speaking, writing, and living. Follow him on Twitter. (@LukeSniewski)

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Lara Weithorn

I love the statement “health can often times be gauged by how wide your sphere of movement reaches from your body’s center.” It’s a great visual that is both poetic and practical! As far as this flexibility vs. strength conversation, of course they are both crucial, and each person will have their own needs. It’s obvious through the replies here that a wide spectrum of hypomobile to hypermobile is represented – it’s a great sampling! Each type, and each person, based on past and current use, will need to focus on a different combination of both. But we all do… Read more »

Nadjiba Medjaoui

This is totally right…I can’t imagine my practice without combining flexibility and strength….they both make my body happy!

Lindsay Smith

This is a great article that makes yoga, and especially Yoga Tune Up, accessible to those who are in a professional sport. Although yoga is slowly infiltrating these arenas, it is still a relatively new concept for many. Often times, it’s a scary and unknown practice, especially when the notion of push through the pain, walk it off that Luke described has been engrained into their minds. I try to find a way to relate the two with my guys (&gals) that Gwen Lawrence taught me. Imagining your body as a bow + Arrow: If you are super strong bow,… Read more »

Jeannette Foley

This article and the ensuing thread are very thought provoking. I’m almost a “senior” by age myself, and have a lifetime of exercise practices to reflect upon. I have to agree that as with all aspects of life, balance is my objective. I want to be strong AND flexible, but, even more, I seek wholeness. When I just pursued strong I suffered lower back pain. When I moved to yoga, after gaining some flexibility I began to pursue strong. But all along the way, I was integrating other wisdom, learning to breathe, manage stress, choose my fuel thoughtfully, capture my… Read more »

Linh Taylor

As a rock climber, I can totally relate to this. My yoga practice has been extremely important for rock climbing. Being flexible allows me to reach the moves I used to not be able to with my 5’1 physique. More over, since I can do different moves, I can build strength in area that classical yoga poses can’t. Rock climbing and yoga go hand in hand and keep me safe on the ropes.

Veronica

It easy for every person who is involved in a physical discipline to lose flexibility in order to be stronger or faster. This is the most important lesson that most of the people learn just after they face an injury or a lack of movility in the regular things to do in their life. Looking a balance between strenght and flexibility is important to be healthy.

John Greenhow

I just got home from my first CrossFit class. I was amazed by the mental strength in the room, the determination of the athletes. I was less amazed by the movement faults I was seeing all over the room. I agree with the title of this article, but I want to add that to be strong you need to be Organized and Stabilized. I found out for myself that this is just as true in yoga as it is in CrossFit. For that matter, it’s just as true when you’re gardening, or driving, or painting. I’m currently in Teacher Training,… Read more »

Holly

I totally agree with you Luke, not only do I understand what you re saying but I’ve seen the transformation first hand. Ive watched my boyfriend, an x golden glove fighter and mixed martial artist go from having to walk down the stairs backwards in the morning because he could barely move, (getting cortisone injections into his spinal column, etc.) to being mostly pain free, and more flexible than I am! After watching his example (doing Bikram yoga 5 days a week) I am following right behind him. After 20 plus years of Bootcamp style training, kickboxing and plyometrics I… Read more »

Tess

Thank you for this post. I find that it’s extremely helpful to find a balanced practice with long-term goals. What’s gonna help us kick ass at 80 or 90? That’s a balance of strength and flexibility. It’s also improving our breathing, mindfulness, diet etc. In your story, you’re absolutely right! You absolutely needed to find that balance and allow your body to become more flexibility. No matter what side of the strength/flexibility scale you’re on, definitely move toward balance mindfully with solid goals.

Orla

Well said. I hope for more people to have the same revelation. It seems that injuries are like a trophy sometimes: I worked *that* hard – rather than “I worked in a way that was unhealthy for my body, or incomplete.” So glad you found the right path for your body and can set an example for other professional athletes who may be ailing.

Jennie Cohen

And, of course, the opposite is true, as well (as Elizabeth W. also points out): Want to be flexible? You need to be strong. I came to yoga from a dance background, and so had more than ample flexibility, but zero upper body strength. And I had my share of attendant injuries. Yoga’s strengthening components have helped me stabilize excessively mobile areas in my body. What was that bit again about the union of opposites?

kalexander

A lot of people turn to yoga after developing injuries at other active sports. I on the other hand am not one who was injured elsewhere. Yoga helps build strength and flexibility. There is a lot of isometric work involved in holding poses and the flow sequences involve concentric muscle contractions. No, you arent pressing weights, but in many poses you are ”lifting” different amounts of your bodyweight. Its ”organic weight lifting”!

Sujun Chen

Luke says regarding Agility: The ability to transmit force (strength) through an optimal range of motion (flexibility) as quickly as possible (quickness/agility).
Kristen says: agility is the determinant of longevity.
You opened my eyes so much with those two sentences and I want to thank you for that. I will follow the suggestions thruout this blog and in the article to enhance my own and my students’ practice. Always keep a balance.

Jessica Sleiman

I love the title of this article, because it speaks directly to so many people nowadays who have the wrong idea of what being fit is. People have become more focused on their appearance, building the six packs and firming everything up, but they forget how essential stretching and taking care of your body is. Being strong enough to lift something without being able to reach for it in the first place isn’t going to help us. In the end, flexibility is what prevents us from losing our range of movement in different areas of the body, and what keeps… Read more »

Laurie Streff Kostman

Thanks for being an ‘out of the closet’ ex pro athlete who is now proud of his more flexible and in tune body, and isn’t afraid to boost about it! Eventually one has to face what years of literal wear and tear on the body has done to it, whether it be from professional sports or sitting at a computer day after day. Not only are you physically more flexible, but I’m also impressed with the psychological flexibility it took for you to make the transition from a strong “pro” body to a strong “flow” body. Improved flexibility also touches… Read more »

kim haegele

I’m in agreement with Elizabeth W. Encouraged by my early yoga teachers to indulge in my propensity for flexibility (without any mention of stability), I ended up with multiple injuries and a body that was that lax and weak in some areas and overly tight in others. It took months of work with an excellent physical therapist to lay the foundation for the stability that was necessary to reduce pain I’d lived with for years. I’m know a firm believer in the axiom “Proximal stability supports distal mobility”.

Marisa

I work with MMA fighters and the resistance to stretch and work on flexibility is strong but they are starting to come around. The toll their training does on their body especially on low back hips and shoulders keeps them bound up and unable to segmentalize. This is a great start to free up the lower portion of the body, hamstrings and hips and lateral flexion/extension.

Giancarla

I also agree with the word agility rather than flexibility. Flexibility has become a buzz word and the things I see in big yoga magazines are quite intense these days. While of course it was fun to tie myself up in a pretzel at a point in my yogic career, I no longer long for that sensation. In fact, I long for truthful sensation. Sensation where I can feel the limits of my structural body and obey them. As many other commenters before, I was also the uber flexible person in class that was always asked to demo and twist… Read more »

Pooja

I think this is a really interesting post. As a lifelong athlete, I just recently found yoga (5.5yrs ago). My main focus is now increasing my range of motion, which, as you mention, is a combination of both strength and flexibility. For the first 2 years I did yoga, I made leaps and bounds in bettering my flexibility in my hips and hamstrings (where I am extremely tight after years of running). However, the last few years I have made zero progress in improving my flexibility. I’m wondering if this limitation in range of motion is a result of the… Read more »

Rachel

I wish I was told “only the smart survive” when I was dancing professionally in ballet/contemporary because I was training and working in the exact same way as yourself , just doing what I was told to do-like a little ballerina soldier. I also felt my body was at it’s best physical strength and performance level. Turned out from just doing whatever they asked to get the desire performance took a toll on my body and by the time I discovered that I had to give up my dream career. It was only after that I discovered and became aware… Read more »

Marion

We not only need strength and flexibility but we should include endurance. I do need to be strong in order to fend off a tiger and agility to out maneuver him but if in a chase, I will need my endurance to run away (not that I can beat a tiger, am more agile and can out run one in the first place.)

Jiin Liang

Flexibility and strength are like Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy. Each needs and enhances the other. Too much emphasis of flexibility can also leads to injury, just like that with building strength. Another element is balancing the muscle on either side of your body, so that we do not overuse one side and underuse the other. I hope we all have the skills of awareness and the wisdom to balance ourselves in this multifacet life!.

Steeve Monpremier

Reading your words makes me feel as if I could have written them myself. Your story of the old-school Machismo attitudes towards traditional sports training (baseball, football, hockey, basketball, etc) is exactly the place where I come from. I’ve learned to train my old-school attitude towards training into accepting that flexibility is another skill set, just like speed, power, endurance, and so on are. However, with maturity I’ve learned to focus my attention on different skill sets, as opposed to the ones I so dearly desired when I was a “young pup.” In a nutshell, Yoga Tune-up and traditional Yoga… Read more »

Tomoko

Really enjoyed reading your blog ( and responses) as everyone says yoga is all about balance. It requires strength and flexibility in a healthy balance. Physically and mentally 🙂

Ben

This is a very important lesson that needs to be more advertised to the masses, as Luke pointed out often times the “machismo” of needing to be built like Arnold in the 70’s is what’s driving many men to the gym and their measure of success is the weight on the bar not whether or not they can touch their toes. This attitude obviously does not lend itself to longevity and eventually the body breaks down due to repetitive stress as a result of poor movement techniques and lack of flexibility. Thanks for this great article Luke and the Hip… Read more »

Giselle

This is a very simple yet effective way to release the hip and to teach it to athletes of all levels. Even those with chronic lower back pain can gradually ease into a deeper stretch and find their blind spots to target the problematic muscle fibers. 🙂

Narcedalia (Nars)

so true. I always try to do my best at stretching when training, but sometimes I see how it can be an area of the training or practice that is neglected. As my fitness coach say: training doesn’t finish until you have your post workout meal and shower. this including obviously a good amount of time in proper stretching. Prevent injuries, recover faster and the body just feel better! thank you for this post!

Vincent Budac

Hey Luke, I resonate a lot with this post! My deadlifting and squating dramatically improved when I started being able to open my hips and get fuller ranges of motion. I think every strength and conditioning program needs to be paired with a mobility/yoga practice! Thanks!

vivian

Great post Luke,

I’m finding more and more everyday that you just have to mix it up, you can’t always be doing one type of exercise or train too much in any linear pattern. I used to only practice hot yoga, the same 26 postures and that was it. Down the road I started having neck and lower back pain. Now i take into account my weaknesses and try to incorporate exercise and daily life activities that will help strengthen and lengthen every part of my body, even though at times it can be very humbling.

Helen

So often I see this in dance fitness as well…..lots of moves but not a lot of stretching time and mobility work. Everyone has imbalances and needs to listen to their body. Proper Stretching…,and breathing have made a big difference with my classes. Thank you for this reminder for us all to facilitate with what we do!

Alicia

This is so true!!! keep a good balace healthy body is not just strength and cardio exercices, and peaople so often pay so litlte attention and time to stretch after practicing sports. Combine flexibility and strenght will protect us from injuries.

Courtney

I am fairly lucky in that I have always been fairly flexible. While I feel it has helped me pick up many different sports and modalities easily, I’m wondering if being too flexible has caused some of my injuries. Is that possible?

Renee holden

I love to hear stories of athletes, especially men, that have found that flexibility has helped their performance. A strong long muscle is much healthier than a short tight muscle, athletes are now educated that by “re-habing” their bodies, they are able to be strong in their sport, and smart! Yoga Tune Up Balls are a great therapy tool to bring suppleness to our muscles!
Thanks for your story!

Gary Carlisle

I go by the idea that a tight muscle is a weak muscle. When I first started doing scorpion pose I realized much later that I could do the pose because my muscles were tight. It took me quite a while to realize that flexibility would make the pose work with awareness and therefore the proper balance between the two (strength and flexibility) was and is the place I want to be. And now much later, the humbling aspect of yoga has taught me to go even deeper into the lessons of yoga and life.

Colleen

This post made me “laugh out loud.” I thought I was such an amazing athlete myself (swimming, running) when I walked into my first yoga class only to be very humbled! My muscles were strong but tight! I think this is an important point for all athletes and yogis. Now I have been doing yoga for five years and I hardly ever swim or run for exercise (although I walk a lot) and very rarely lift weights (although I hold my own body weight in many poses!). I think it important to explore both strength and flexibility and the relationship… Read more »

Amanda Winkler

I just went running for the first time in years. Due to imbalances created by running without balancing it with strength and flexibility training, I continuously injured myself to the point of no longer being able to run. During today’s run two amazing thoughts came into my head: (1) I was running for me, not needing to look at my watch or care about how long I went for. (2) My body was pain free, and I was focusing on how my body moved, enjoying the fullness of movement and breath. I no longer cared to push myself to a… Read more »

Danielle

Well said. Now only if I could find the optimal combination of flexibility, strength and power. Feels like everytime I turn up the flexibility I lose strength and when I turn up the strength I lose flexibility 🙁

Hilda

It’s so wonderful to hear how an athlete discovered the benefits of yoga. Yes, weight training was big for me too in the 80s and I still believe that you need strong bones and muscles for a healthy body, but discovering that our own body weight can do all that and more for us is so powerful. Yoga humbles many of us; it is often regarded as not a great workout by many of my gym brat friends, but once they try it and notice how tight their body is from the pounding on the treadmill or the excessive weight… Read more »

Jen Sherman

It is so nice to hear men breaking the mold and trying yoga out. I know a lot of people think it is not really athletic or good exercise but hello?!?! Have you seen Yogi’s bodies?!? Not to mention, not just the abs but the peace of mind we all seem to share, and oh yeah the incredible flexibility! I believe that if everyone did yoga there would be a lot less crime and anger everywhere in the world. Stretching alone just makes the body breathe, all the muscles and bones slowly open and become happier as does the mind.… Read more »

Holly

Want to be flexible? You need to be strong. I feel like this term ‘flexible’ gets thrown around so much in yoga and often in tandem with the image of bendy, bound creature in a yoga pose to the point that people associate the concept of flexibility with loose joints. A loose joint is as unbalanced and problematic as a tight joint and is the same in terms of range of movement in so much that it does not have a good range of movement that the owner is in control of…. which effectively isn’t a useful range of movement.… Read more »

Sonya Genel

I am right in the same boat as Elizabeth. Being a hyper mobile person, my work in Yoga has been not to get more flexible, but to find my midline, my center, and to create strength, stability, and integrity in my body. Alignment based yoga has helped me to map my body better and understand where my limbs are in space so I can better keep myself together. Yoga should really be about balance. The trouble with most yoga class cues is they are generalized. When I would “take my shoulders back” I would also flatten my thoracic curve, and… Read more »

Chris Walling

Luke, you raise a valid point here, there is often a false dichotomy drawn between strength and flexibility. I have witnessed those who focused too much on building strength gains alone, and present with huge shoulders and beach muscles for yoga classes and be unable to think of being able to touch their toes because their traps are the size of footballs. Jill has some absolutely fantastic hip openers in this video! Thanks for sharing.

Jimmy

Good post. I tend to lead towards what Hawley P. is saying just above me about the combination of flexibility and strength moving toward a space where we find balance in our physical traits in turn “center’ if you will. Health and well being of the physical body is seen through the myriad of conditions we exercise to make the homeostatic whole. But I’d agree with the post that flexibility is often over looked and or ignored by many people, especially with the “chiseled” physique often displayed to exemplify over all health on the cover of so many magazine covers.… Read more »

Andrea Borrero

i teach a seniors yoga class & i’ve been teaching the same group for 3 1/2 years. Last week, as they were moving through their Sun Salutations (modified!) I looked around the room and saw 15 older bodies beautifully, and carefully, folded forward in Uttanasana. There were some full folds, some bent knees, some hands on blocks – all variations for various ailments – even one chair fold. But what struck me was that 3 years ago, this same group of 70 and 80 year olds balked at the idea of reaching for their toes, even in theory. Now, they… Read more »

Hawley Laine Proctor

Thank you for your perspective. It is always wonderful to hear what brought an individual to yoga.
I however believe that flexibility it just as important as strength, not one over the other. It is about balance. Each one of us is either more flexible or stronger. Through yoga we may work to find the optimal balance.

Veronica

One great connection here is the individual proprioceptions; being aware of where one’s body blind spots exist is the point of departure for creating healthy strategy plans (for some it may be focusing on strength traininig and for others is flexibility or perhaps even a cobination).

Luke Sniewski

Yup! Absolutely right! Power is another word for agility. At least in my book. The ability to transmit force (strength) through an optimal range of motion (flexibility) as quickly as possible (quickness/agility). Kristen, you are definitely right about agility being the determinant of longevity.

Kirsten

I always find it interesting to hear the stories of how people came to find yoga as a part of their life. I actually experienced an increase in my strength over the initial few months of practice. It was empowering to match my inner strength with my outer strength. The one thing that kept popping out at me while reading your blog, was a lack of emphasis on AGILITY rather than flexibility. It is the ability to be agile in our movements that we carry us gracefully into older age.

Luke Sniewski

Hey Elizabeth,

You are absolutely right. True health/performance comes from the optimal combination of flexibility, strength and power. Each individual will have different weaknesses they need to work on that will ultimately impact the other two. That being said, this post was much longer and touched on that, but both YTU and myself though it best to separate the long post into two or three shorter ones so it’s easier to digest. Hope the next one you see will touch on what you just mentioned! Thanks for your feedback!

Elizabeth W.

I actually think this post is not complete. Yes, you were a stiff guy who suffered from your inflexibility. But I was the opposite. Years of extreme yogi-ness left me in constant pain–sound familiar? I turned to strength training to cure my aching body. I am now proud to wake up every morning knowing how much I can bench and squat! Truthfully, both of us are on the right track. As Jill ( and Kelly Starrett) emphasizes, we want to have healthy tissues and move in a healthy way. For some that means getting more flexible. For others it means… Read more »