What to Stretch – What to Strengthen

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Most people make the mistake of never scientifically deciding which muscles they need to stretch and which ones they need to strengthen.

Typically, we stretch everything (or nothing) and mindlessly go down the line of exercise machines without thinking about which muscles we are working and why.

Unless you have had a thorough musculoskeletal assessment, you are undoubtedly ignoring many muscles that are relatively weak and strengthening muscles that are already too strong relative to their partners working at the same joint.

For example, if you have rounded shoulders you probably should be doing fewer chest and lat exercises and more mid- and lower trapezius exercises. (Don’t waste your time looking; middle or lower trapezius machines do not exist.)

Another example of an overworked muscle is the upper rectus abdominis (“six pack”).

One of its partners, the transverse abdominis, is typically ignored. Again, not only do transverse abdominis machines not exist, but overuse of machines will actually lead to weakening of this muscle due to lack of use.

Moreover, the greater the imbalance between rectus strength and transverse abdominis strength, the greater your chance of low back pain. Ab machines only worsen this imbalance.

We also tend to ignore some muscles that need to be stretched (if you’re stretching at all) and sometimes stretch muscles that we don’t need to stretch.

At best, you are wasting your time with unnecessary stretches and redundant exercises.

At worst, you are exacerbating muscle imbalances that can lead to joint dysfunction, pain and chronic injury.

Since we all have to deal with the constant gravitational pull of the earth, we all have naturally occurring musculoskeletal imbalances that are caused by how muscles are designed to work.

In simple terms, there are two basic types of muscles. Tonic muscles tend to become shortened if we do not specifically stretch them.

Phasic muscles tend to become elongated (too long is as bad as too short) and weak.

Tonic muscles are basically designed to work to maintain posture and tend to work most of the time.

For example, the psoas, the major hip flexor, works constantly while you’re standing. The upper trapezius, where you may feel tightness or “knots” in your neck and shoulder area, works whenever you move your arm.

Phasic muscles, on the other hand, tend to become weak if not specifically strengthened.

Our muscles never work in isolation; they function in groups often termed force couples that must be balanced in all three planes of motion.

If one muscle is too tight, it dominates the force couple and disrupts the natural movement of the joint.

On the other hand, a muscle that is too weak will not do its share of work. This also disrupts the natural movement of the joint and overworks the muscles that act as assistants in the movement.

A prime example is the gluteus medius, the muscle that brings your leg out to the side, commonly and mistakenly referred to as the “outer thigh.”

When this muscle becomes weak, the piriformis – often implicated in “sciatica” – and the tensor fascia latae – often implicated in pain on the outside of the knee – become overworked.

Tonic muscles tend to become facilitated, that is, they work even when they are not supposed to be working. In addition, even when you are trying to work other muscles, facilitated muscles will try to take over.

Thus, you will never get rid of a muscle imbalance if you do not stretch and relax the tightened muscles before you try to strengthen the weakened muscles.

For example, if you do not stretch your hip flexors (psoas) and back extensors (spinal erectors) before you work your deep abdominal muscles, you may not get the full strengthening effect of your ab exercises.

The short, tight, overworked muscles will “intercept” the nervous system signals from the weakened, inhibited muscles.

This is a common reason some people feel strain in the low back while doing ab exercises even if their form is perfect.

Just like a car with poor alignment, trouble – possibly severe – is imminent if the alignment and imbalances are not corrected.

In order to design a fitness program that’s right for you, it’s imperative that you know which muscles are which.

Muscles That
Tend To Tighten
Muscles That
Tend To Weaken
Upper Trapezius
(neck and shoulders)
Serratus Anterior (fingerlike muscles near armpit)
Levator Scapula
(neck to shoulder blade)
(between shoulder blades)
Short Cervical Extensors (back of neck) Middle and Lower Trapezius (mid-back)
Pectoralis Major (chest) Triceps
(back of arms)
Pectoralis Minor
(deep chest muscle)
Gluteus Maximus
Lumbar Erectors
(low back)
Gluteus Medius
(hip flexor)
Transverse Abdominis (deep abdominals)
Rectus Femoris
(one of the quadriceps)
Rectus Abdominis – lower segments (abs)
(deep hip muscle)
External and Internal Obliques (abs)
Short and long adductors
(inner thighs)
Vastus Medialis (inner/front of knee)
(back of legs)
Gastrocnemius (superficial calf muscle)
(deep calf muscle)

Remember, unaddressed muscle imbalances will lead to joint dysfunction and pain.

A musculoskeletal assessment and subsequent, logically based program of stretching the right muscles and strengthening the right muscles in the right order will lessen these naturally occurring imbalances and lead you to a better functioning – and more attractive – body.


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About Stephen Holt

Literally millions of readers of magazines like Shape, Fitness, Men's Fitness and Men's Health have made their exercise programs both more efficient and more effective with the help of Stephen Holt.

For his contributions to the knowledge base in the fitness industry, Stephen was named "Personal Trainer of the Year" by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in 2003 and "Expert of the Year" by AllExperts.com in 1999.


  1. Robert Henry says:

    Thanks for your knowledge about our body Steven. I'm currently involved in learning as much as possible because I lost my brother to liver cancer recently. So your information was very helpful. I look forward to learning more from you in the future.

    Robert Henry

  2. Brett Cohen says:

    thanks for writing such a great article.

  3. This is a great article about stretching and strengthening.


  5. Here's the thing that gets me… it seems like a never-ending "battle" to keep your body "balanced." Doesn't seem to exist, especially with environmental and genetic factors that are out of our control.

    But sticking with the muscles mentioned in this post, 2 questions:
    1) The transverse abs are considered the "weight belt" of the spine, keeping it snug and secure. Yet what exercises can be done to hit this muscle? It's so deep that it's close to impossible.
    2) How do we know which muscles should be strengthened vs stretched? And what evidence is there?

    Definitely will say great post, made me re-think the muscular system and that I should re-open my kinesiology book.


  6. Zee Ogress says:

    Hey another kinesiology nerd, yay! For the transverse abs, forget crunches or even twist crunches: instead, turn over into a plank position. Hold the plank for as long as you can, then experiment. Raise one leg up, hold, put the food down. Bend a knee to the side, bring it across your midsection to touch the opposite elbow, then open to bring the knee to the same side elbow. Switch legs. Repeat as many times as you can. Do side planks. Then do side planks with a raised leg. Any good yoga classes offers these deep core moves, btw. Also try one legged pushups. Enjoy! 😀

  7. Kim Parker says:

    Very helpful article! Thanks

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