Many organs adapt to their mechanical environment as a result of physiological change or disease. Cells are both the detectors and effectors of this process. Though many studies have been performed in vitro to investigate the mechanisms of detection and adaptation to mechanical strains, the cellular strains remain unknown and results from different stimulation techniques cannot be compared. By combining experimental determination of cell profiles and elasticities by atomic force microscopy with finite element modeling and computational fluid dynamics, we report the cellular strain distributions exerted by common whole-cell straining techniques and from micromanipulation techniques, hence enabling their comparison. Using data from our own analyses and experiments performed by others, we examine the threshold of activation for different signal transduction processes and the strain components that they may detect. We show that modulating cell elasticity, by increasing the F-actin content of the cytoskeleton, or cellular Poisson ratio are good strategies to resist fluid shear or hydrostatic pressure. We report that stray fluid flow in some substrate-stretch systems elicits significant cellular strains. In conclusion, this technique shows promise in furthering our understanding of the interplay among mechanical forces, strain detection, gene expression, and cellular adaptation in physiology and disease.