Spinal Health 101: Why Balancing Strength and Flexibility is Huge

The Importance of Balancing Strength and Flexibility

At any given moment, your body is working to maintain a very delicate balance between the strength and flexibility of its many parts.

What happens when this balance is disrupted? You guessed it.

Tension, tightness, aches and pains, and countless other symptoms, both obvious and not-so-obvious, can make an appearance.

A Woman Working at Her Desk Places Her Hands on Her Lower Back and Stretches After Reading About Spinal Health and Balancing Strength and Flexibility on Her Computer
Spinal Health: Finding Physiological Balance

That’s a big part of why maintaining this balance is especially important when it comes to your spinal health, and that’s specifically what we’re going to dive into in this guide.

After all, when it comes to the spine, those not-so-obvious symptoms can be more common and lead to bigger issues down the road.

Let’s start by looking at the role of strength in spinal health.

The Role of Strength in Maintaining Spinal Health

The vertebral bones, muscles, and ligaments that make up the spinal column house one of the most important parts of the body: the spinal cord.

The spinal column also ensures that the nerves that exit at each spinal cord level are protected.

And when strength is discussed, most of us think of someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or someone who is physically strong.

A Young Male Athlete Smiles as He Prepares to Perform a Weight Lifting Exercise
Spinal Health: Physical and Functional Strength

We picture someone with big bulky muscles who regularly goes to the gym and lifts a ton of weight so they can be as strong as possible – they can lift the most weight, they can win the most wrestling matches, etc.

We immediately equate strength to physical strength rather than functional strength.

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When we’re talking about spinal health, strength is evaluated in terms of how well the supporting muscles of the spine function to stabilize the spinal column.

And bigger is not always better.

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Let’s take a closer look.

The Muscles That Stabilize the Spine

The primary muscles that offer stability to your spine vary depending on the vertebral level of the spine: neck (cervical), torso (thoracic), or lumbar (lower back).

For these muscles, remember, function is more important than size.

One of the primary muscle groups that stabilize the neck (cervical spine) is most commonly referred to as the “deep neck flexors.”

And they may be small but they are mighty!

These muscles play an important role in counteracting the tension placed on the neck (cervical spine) by the weight of the head.

A Male Sports Chiropractor Closely Examines the Deep Neck Flexor Muscles of a Patient as Part of a Spinal Health Evaluation
Spinal Health: Deep Neck Flexors

The deep neck flexors are made up of three different muscles that help maintain postural stability and bring the trunk to an upright posture after bending forward.

Working our way down towards the lower back, the erector spinae muscle group primarily stabilizes the torso (thoracic spine).

This muscle group also helps stabilize the lower back (lumbar spine) and the “core” muscles, which work together to support the lower back (lumbar spine) and pelvis.

The Bones That Support and Protect the Spine

When breaking down spinal health and strength, there’s another crucial component of the spine that should be highlighted: the bones – aka vertebrae.

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The vertebrae of the spinal column are the foundational cornerstones of spinal strength.

These bones serve to both protect the spinal cord and support the body’s weight above the pelvis.

Similar to the different muscles that support the spine, the structure and function of the bones found in each region of the spine differ slightly based on their location.

For instance, the bones in the neck (cervical spine) are designed to facilitate rotation of the head, and they also have unique places for nerves to exit safely that differ from those in the vertebrae in the torso (thoracic spine) and lower back (lumbar spine).

A Female Chiropractor Explains How Important the Vertebrae of the Spine are to a Patient's Spinal Health
Spinal Health: Vertebrae

The bones in the torso (thoracic spine) are slightly larger than those in the neck (cervical spine) and connect to ribs which protect our most vital organs.

The vertebrae in the lower back (lumbar spine) are larger still (the largest in the body) and bear the weight of the entire upper body.

Now that we’ve more thoroughly examined the role of strength in spinal health, let’s move on to flexibility.

How Flexibility Impacts Spinal Health

As noted previously, flexibility is equally as important to maintaining spinal health as strength.

In fact, the physiological factors that allow the body to maintain its flexibility are relatively the same as those which help it maintain its functional and physical strength.

Let’s break down the two most crucial factors that allow the body to move through a given full range of motion and to do so without issue.

The Relationship Between Muscle Tension and Flexibility

The first and perhaps most obvious is that the muscles that support any given movement must have low levels of tension to be flexible.

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Tension in the muscles causes the individual fibers to shorten, and, in that state, they are inherently less flexible.

A build-up of muscle tension can result from many things.

These can range from adaptations the body has made in response to sustained poor posture to muscle scarring following an injury to simple muscle spasms.

A Female Chiropractor Helps Her Patient Perform a Spinal Twist So She Can Begin to Evaluate the Patient's Spinal Health
Spinal Health: Muscle and Joint Imbalance

Tense, tight, and shortened muscles are not only uncomfortable, but they often contribute to a limited range of motion in nearby joints.

Joints that have a limited range of motion can lead to the development of imbalances in the supporting muscles.

What’s more, muscle and joint imbalances in one part of the body can lead to the development of similar imbalances in other parts of the body.

When you put all of that together, it’s relatively clear just how spinal health and flexibility could be negatively impacted if any of the spine’s stabilizing muscles become and remain tight.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the joints of the spine.

How Proper Joint Function Facilitates Flexibility

The second physiological factor that directly impacts flexibility is the proper function of the joints that live between the bones of the spine.

The bones in the spine (vertebrae) may be small, but they connect in many different places which also makes their function quite complex.

Consider this…

Each vertebral section of the spinal column – the neck (cervical spine), torso (thoracic spine), and lower back (lumbar spine) – can move in its directions and serve its purpose, and the entire vertebral column can also move collectively through greater ranges of motion.

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The degree to which the spine can move through a given range of motion is limited by the strength and flexibility of the muscles supporting the spine.

The spine’s ability to move well is also affected by the structural and functional health of the ligaments and intervertebral discs of the spine.

A Female Chiropractor Hold a 3D Anatomical Model of the Spine While Explaining How the Spine's Discs Impact Spinal Health
Spinal Health: Ligaments and Spinal Discs

The ligaments serve to provide further stability to the spine, and the discs provide necessary cushioning for the vertebrae.

Many of the same things that cause muscular tension can lead to a reduced range of motion within a joint by affecting these structures.

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One of the most common causes of muscular tension and joint dysfunction is injury.

When it comes to joint dysfunction, injuries can be sustained from improper movement patterns that “wear out” stabilizing ligaments over time or from poor spinal biomechanics related to muscular weakness that continuously puts unnecessary stress on an intervertebral disc.

Needless to say, maintaining proper function in the joints of the spine is a key part of maintaining and improving spinal health.

Now that we’ve covered the importance of both strength and flexibility, let’s dig into the what you should keep in mind to develop both at the same time.

Balancing Strength and Flexibility: Think Like a Chiropractor

So, what can you do to start actively balancing your strength and flexibility to improve your spinal health?

To fully understand this, it helps to first understand how to develop strength throughout the body without losing flexibility.

The origins of this concept come from top movements experts and are used by many chiropractic and movement-focused practitioners.

Let’s take another look at the joints and muscles of the body as they relate to spinal health.

Understanding the Body’s Kinetic Chain

The body’s joints can be assessed and organized based on their main function – i.e. whether they facilitate mobility or provide stability.

The ankle, hips, thoracic spine, shoulders, and wrist are classified as joints that facilitate mobility (mobile joints).

In contrast, the foot, knee, lumbar spine, cervical spine, and elbow are examples of joints that provide stability (stable joints).

When visualizing the kinetic chain of the body – that is, the interconnected chain of joints and muscles that work together to perform movements in the body – a repeating and alternating pattern of stability and mobility appears.

A Man Engages His Body's Kinetic Chain in Order to Perform a Spinal Health Exercise with a Focus on Balancing Strength and Flexibility
Spinal Health: The Kinetic Chain

This pattern is what provides humans the ability to carry out complex and dynamic movements, and the spine is as important a part of the kinetic chain movement concept as the rest of the body.

Imbalances can occur in or around any joint of the body, and simple injuries and sustained subpar movement patterns are some of the most common reasons normal patterns of stability and mobility in the joints can become disrupted.

Affected joints can become too flexible, they can become weak, adhesions can form – you name it.

When problems like these arise, the joint’s regular function is compromised.

If the impairment is significant enough, the affected joints may lose their capacity to sustain adequate mobility or stability.

Most people will then adopt an improper movement pattern to compensate when these imbalances occur.

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Compensatory movement patterns can leave a body more vulnerable to injury and the development of even more significant muscular imbalances over time.

There’s an obvious pattern / cycle here that can impact your spinal health!

Developing Strength, Flexibility, and Functional Ability

Maintaining an optimal balance of strength and flexibility in the spinal column can provide the foundation for maintaining that same balance throughout the joints in the rest of the body.

If the body is not moving well, the function, strength, and flexibility of the body’s muscles, joints, and other supporting structures can all be negatively impacted.

Now, let’s circle back to the question of developing strength without losing flexibility.

The same idea applies.

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When completing a given strengthening exercise, it’s imperative to ensure you’re both using proper form and moving through a full range of motion.

In doing so, you’re addressing function, flexibility, and strength while performing the exercise and protecting yourself from injury so you can continue to perform this and other exercises to help further develop each in the future.

And when problems do arise, it’s important to see a professional.

A Male Chiropractor Explains How Physio Tape Can Help in Balancing the Strength and Flexibility of a Woman's Shoulder Joint and Help to Improve Her Spinal Health
Spinal Health: Chiropractic Care

Chiropractors are experts in spinal health and ensuring that the body is functioning and moving optimally from the spine to and through the extremities.

Your local chiropractor can assess the joints in your entire body and determine if any areas are lacking in mobility or stability.

And, yes, they can also provide personalized and targeted exercises to help you strengthen areas that may be weak and stretch to improve flexibility in others.

So, focus on strength AND focus on flexibility and be well!

Remember, by improving the strength and flexibility of the muscles, joints, and other structures in your body and ensuring you’re doing so properly, you’re taking a big step in the right direction to improving and maintaining your spinal health.

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