Strong good… soft also good.

Are you fit and muscly? Try squeezing your bicep without ‘flexing’ it. Is it squashy, or rather ‘bouncy’? Which is preferable? Many people like the idea of being strong. It’s good to be strong, right?

I was thinking about this recently when working on quad strength to support my arthritic knees - not for marathons, just for moderate everyday use. I certainly love the idea of being sufficiently strong for healthy and normal function.

But how strong is strong enough? Is it better to keep building strength indefinitely?

In my early twenties, I briefly dated a man in his mid-thirties (shock horror – so old!) who had a pretty stressful job. I will never forget the first time I put a reciprocal arm around his back and shoulder; they felt like solid oak.

I was really taken aback, but (thinking in the way I did back then) I jumped to the immediate conclusion that this was something that must just happen to ‘older’ people. This idea seems ridiculous to me now; but there are many people who believe that strength is associated with hardness, and softness with weakness.

Now, as a well-trained Alexander teacher, I often have the privilege of feeling all kinds of people’s muscles and it’s a fascinating job.

Super-fit people in particular are often pretty oaky, and often are proud of it. You’d be forgiven for thinking that having arms like bags of rocks is good; but it’s not, really.

If a muscle, however big, strong and bulky, isn’t being employed for anything, it should be soft and giving to the touch. If it feels tough and dense, it’s being contracted. Why contract a muscle if you’re not using it? It costs energy, can get sore after a while, and may even lead to movement patterns that cause long term harm.

But you don’t have to be a major gym bunny or do Ironman Triathlons to overtax your muscles. The same applies to those little muscles in your neck when you’re sitting with your head forward of your body and your nose looking like it’s longing to touch the computer screen. Those little neck and back muscles might like to stop.

We humans seem particularly adept at overusing all kinds of unnecessary muscles. Alexander Technique lessons can help by challenging beliefs in things like rock-like strength which might be making life harder than it needs to be, and by helping us to be softer and more flexible. If you want to be strong, fantastic – but be a softie too…