Weight Training And Flexibility- Being Strong Doesn’t Mean Being Inflexible

Flexibility and weight training

 

Weight Training And Flexibility- Being Strong Doesn’t Mean Being Inflexible.

Weight training can significantly increase your flexibility or severely diminish it depending on how you train. Unfortunately, most non lifters associate weight training with a lack of flexibility as one of the most common terms used to describe an individual who works out regularly with weights is ‘musclebound’. It’s a term that conjures up images of a robot like man or woman whose very muscles prevent them from doing even the most mundane of tasks without some degree of difficulty. Most of us have personally seen the caricatures fitting this description and the widespread abuse of anabolic steroids and other growth enhancing drugs by both professional and recreational lifters has gone a long way in reinforcing this stereotype in our collective consciousness as they are indeed out there and hard to ignore after you’ve seen them. However, like many stereotypes the image is based on the actions of the few, as most people who regularly engage in a weight training program will tend to be more flexible than the average untrained individual. In fact, a properly devised weight training program will always increase flexibility- even if no additional stretching is ever done.[1] It’s a hard concept for many to grasp, but the truth is that anyone who is inflexible or has bad posture in spite of lifting weights regularly is usually not training correctly. In this article we take a look at how flexibility can be reduced because of improper weight training protocols and or the use of performance enhancing drugs and we will also explore what you need to consider so that your own flexibility is not compromised by your weight training activities. Thanks as always for reading and do be sure to share this article with anyone who might find it to be of use.

Understanding Flexibility- More Is Not Necessarily Better

stretching for dancers

Dancers and other athletes often require a degree of flexibility beyond the normal range of the joint.

Flexibility itself is not as clear cut as some would have us believe. The idea that more is better is part of a rather modern penchant for attempting to enhance flexibility as much as possible- a pursuit that isn’t necessarily healthy nor natural as you should never try to increase flexibility beyond the normal range of the joint.[1] Doing so stretches connective tissue beyond their normal state- weakening the joint in the process and making it far more susceptible to injury. [1] Certain athletes and dancers are required to increase their flexibility beyond the normal range in order to perform what are very much extraordinary movements that the human body would not normally permit without specialized training. This degree of flexibility does come at a price and they usually are smart enough to perform strengthening exercises in those extreme ranges of motion to try to help protect the joint as much as possible in a compromised position.

We tend to think of muscle stiffness as being inherently detrimental, but there is a natural and supple level of tension that needs to be maintained for maximal strength and athletic performance. Our muscles are very much like rubber bands as they all pull to effect a contraction (some erroneously equate certain muscle groups as the ones that pull with others being the ones that push- but all muscles pull to effect movement of a load- they never push). Like a rubber band, if they are overly stretched and then subjected to a load- they are less likely to be able to pull the load and far more likely to tear because their overly stretched state makes them more susceptible to injury. The strongest rubber bands, however, like the strongest muscles, have a degree of stiffness that allows them to pull more load than one that is more ‘stretched out’ and thus a lesser likelihood of tearing under heavy loads. From a biomechanical point of view, if the natural stiffness in a muscle is reduced past a certain point, there will be a consequent reduction of potential force transmission between the muscle and skeletal system- which in turn will make the muscles weaker and reduce the amount of load that particular muscle is able to bear.[2]

 

Stretching Vs Weight Training- Do You Need Both To Be Flexible?

Stretching and weight lifting- do you need bothFlexibility is an important component of physical fitness.[3] However, like any component of fitness, optimum health comes from some degree of balance and flexibility is no different. The old idea that increasing flexibility will promote better athletic performance and reduce the incidence of injury[4,5] has been a notion long promoted by coaches and authoritative organizations alike, but in spite of a widespread acceptance of this theory, it has not stood up to the scrutiny of scientific review as an overwhelming body of research has continually failed to find any correlation between stretching and reduction of injury or increases in performance.[6,7,8,9] On the contrary, the practice of stretching before a workout has been shown to decrease maximal muscular force generation, reduce vertical jump performance, decrease running speeds and limit muscular strength endurance (that is the number of repetitions you can lift a specified weight).[3,4,5,6,7,9,20,23,24,25,26,27,31, acute] Reasons for these reductions in performance are not fully understood and theories range from possible reduction of blood flow to the muscle, to a reduction in the removal of metabolic waste products produced during exercise, to a possible alteration in muscle calcium levels- all of which can increase muscular fatigue and reduce contractual force. [12,2,36] More research is indeed needed in this field but it does cast a shadow on stretching as a universally required addition to a training program.

As much as many would like to believe- the act of stretching a muscle does not increase its overall strength. Some would swear that it does from personal experience- but the reality is that any increases in strength as a result of static stretching are simply a matter of increased neuromuscular coordination- which means that you learn to use your muscles better simply because you are using them more often. However, it doesn’t create truly significant increases in strength nor would it in anyone in reasonable shape to begin with. For muscles to get significantly stronger there must be some degree of progressive muscular overload (See my article How Muscles Get Bigger & Stronger) and this won’t occur with stretching exercises as there is no resistance save comparatively weak isometric contractions to hold bodyweight (which is almost always the same.) Thus in order to truly strengthen the muscles around a joint there must be some inclusion of resistance exercise.

 

Weight Training As A Form Of Stretching

As we mentioned earlier, all muscles pull to effect contraction. That said, the very act of executing any weight training exercise through a full range of motion at the joint is in and of itself a stretch. Stretching is not an action confined to realms outside of proper weight lifting as it is the very act of stretching the muscle during the eccentric or lowering phase of a weight training exercise that creates the most intramuscular damage and consequently stimulates growth and strength increases. To train a muscle is to stretch it and while static stretching can be detrimental to the joint if overdone, properly executed weight training exercises can not only bring about an increase in flexibility, but can also increase the strength and stability of the joint as a whole. Not to mention the added benefit of building lean muscle mass in the process- which is always welcome both cosmetically and physiologically. That being said, static stretching does have its use for those unable to move through full ranges of motion and as an exceptional aid to physical and mental relaxation- as the legions of yoga practitioners can attest. The point is that it can be overdone in the same way weight training can be overdone.

 

How Improper Weight Training Can Impair Flexibility And Affect Posture

 

Biceps curl and flexibility

If performed incorrectly even an exercise as simple as a barbell curl can negatively affect your flexibility.

As great as weight training can be to help increase flexibility- like anything else if done incorrectly it can be detrimental. The key is balance but most recreational trainers delve into their weight training seeking increases in strength and muscle mass or simply because they like the way they feel after a hard workout. Increasing flexibility is seldom a goal and their programs are not usually designed to with flexibility in mind- (notable exceptions being Olympic lifters who require tremendous agility and flexibility to be able to perform their lifts and for whom increasing flexibility is seen as an integral aspect of their training programs.) Impairing flexibility as a result of improper weight training is unfortunately far easier than most would think. For example, the biceps barbell curl- one of the most ubiquitous weight training exercises done by just about everyone walking over to the weight section of the gym can have its downsides in terms of impairing flexibility. Barbell curls are usually started with some degree of elbow flexion instead of having the elbow completely straight. It’s a perfectly natural way to perform the exercise as when your arm is completely straight the angle of pull by the biceps is considerably reduced- thus it’s much harder to start the exercise from that position, especially when heavy weights are in use. As your forearm gets closer to the horizontal position, the angle of pull changes and the biceps muscles can contract strongly, so it feels almost instinctive to start from that position. However, although it makes it easier to heavier weights with slightly bent arms, the biceps and the muscles of the elbow joint will not be fully stretched.

Now in order to attain maximum biceps development and strength, you need to work the muscles at their strongest points at some point to allow for maximal overload- but you shouldn’t train that way all the time. If the biceps muscles are only worked through their strongest range of motion, the consequent increases in muscle mass will result in a shortening of the muscle and the connective tissue as it adapts to contract through a smaller range of motion. This shortening of the muscles of the elbow joint creates the classic ‘bent arm action figure’ look you see in many individuals who train with weights. This is not by any means an inevitable consequence of weight training but a common example of what happens when you stick to the same routine and same method of executing an exercise without regards for how it will affect overall balance and flexibility over time. One simple way to avoid this problem with the biceps is to perform biceps curls in segments- upper range and lower ranges- and to vary your routine constantly with exercises that work the muscles from as many angles as possible while resisting the temptation to reduce range of motion at all times to work in that ‘comfort zone’ where the muscles are strongest. Sounds like a simple remedy, but as humans we tend to gravitate towards what we do best- and it’s hard even for seasoned trainers at times to resist the urge to keep executing exercises in a manner where they can lift as much weight as possible. Which is all the more reason why workouts should be planned with a long term approach to achieving your overall goals while minimizing any potential loss of flexibility or postural integrity. Having a plan that takes flexibility into consideration makes you more likely to do supplementary exercises that will ensure movement of the joint through a full range of motion- which in turn will increases flexibility.

Posture Problems From Weight Training

 

370118_sAnother common way that improper weight training can adversely affect posture and flexibility is the disproportionate use of exercises for the front of the body. Different cultures have different body parts that are treasured and associated with being in good shape. Back home in the islands it was all about having good legs and calves, while here in the United States the focus is on having a big chest and huge arms. We have already discussed how incorrect arm training can reduce flexibility but the problem can be even more profound when training the ever popular pectoral muscles is prioritized above all others. Most male recreational lifters train their chest and arms more than any other muscles- sometimes several times a week with hardly a thought to the opposing muscles of the upper back region- (which are not anywhere near as showy as the pectorals.) As a result, repetitive heavy chest exercises such as bench presses and flyes without an equal amount of work on the muscles of the upper back leads to a shortening of the muscles and connective tissue on the front side of the body. Those shortened muscles will inevitably pull the shoulder girdle forward and down if this imbalanced way of training is continued over time. Thus creating the classic sloping shoulders forward slouched musclebound look seen in many avid gym goers, bodybuilders (although the ones without an eye towards balanced overall muscle development never get very far), football players and other athletes whose activities revolve primarily around the use of the chest and frontal muscles of the body.

Bad Posture From Incorrect Abdominal Training

Slouching can also occur from incorrect abdominal training over time with some pretty standard exercises. Crunches are often perceived as a must for abdominal training and many gym goers do hundreds of crunches several times a week in the (mainly futile) hopes of attaining the much sought after six pack (which comes more from your diet than anything else- read my article Six Pack Abs- It’s Not What You Do- It’s What You Eat.) The problem with crunch type exercises is that you only work through a small range of 20 to 45 degrees depending on your strength and flexibility levels. It is also usually executed as an even shorter range movement- as most people don’t bring their head all the way back to the floor at the end of each repetition or return to the beginning position to fully stretch the abdominal muscles in rope or machine crunches. Range of motion tends to be reduced even more when intensity levels increase or when resistance is used as a smaller movement allows you to do more repetitions. Over time however, the muscles and connective tissue can shorten from working in this limited range. This shortening leads to an extra downward pulling force on the ribcage- which consequently pulls the chest and head forward creating a slouching look that is very bad for overall posture. Very often I have seen individuals with well-balanced anterior and posterior muscles yet have a bit of a forward slouch nonetheless and quite often excessive use of exercises that shorten the abdominal muscles are part of the problem. To counter such effects the answer isn’t to never do crunch type movements- but instead to vary the execution by doing them occasionally through a full range and by including other exercises that do stretch and work the abdominal muscles through a full range of motion such as hanging leg raises (See my article here on Why Hanging Leg Raises Are The Best Abdominal Exercise).

The Problem With The Pump
Another not so overt cause of bad posture and inflexibility associated with weight training is what is commonly referred to as ‘the pump.’ After an intense workout, there is some degree of residual muscle tightness from the increase in blood flow and because the nerves in the muscle worked continue to fire to such a degree that the muscle to does not relax completely. Anyone who has experienced a high intensity workout can attest to this feeling and for many, this feeling is the one of the main reasons why they train in the first place. That being said, it can have some negative consequences for those who train more often than they should. Although it doesn’t last indefinitely, the residual tension in the muscles after a hard workout keep the muscles in a slightly shortened state- (which is why you feel like a GI Joe action figure after a hard set.) For those who train almost every day in the quest to keep that ‘pumped’ and tense feeling, the continually shortened state can lead to a decrease in flexibility and the action figure look can become permanent. It’s one more reason to consider training less as the idea of being tense all the time doesn’t necessarily equate to increased muscle growth. (See my article on Why Training Less Helps Muscles Grow here.)

 

Anabolic Steroid Use and Flexibility Issues

 

Steroids and flexibility

Use of anabolic steroids can also negatively affect flexibility and overall posture.

Users of anabolic steroids and other growth enhancing drugs reportedly experience residual post exercise muscle tightness to a degree that is far more pronounced than in natural athletes and the sensation lasts far longer as well. Factors that put users at a higher risk for concurrent decreases in flexibility over time. Steroid use can also contribute to flexibility and posture issues as each muscle responds differently to growth stimulating drugs based on individual and genetically predetermined muscle cell densities and hormonal receptors. Simply put, if you have a genetic predisposition towards having a huge chest but a smaller upper back muscles, drug use could exacerbate disproportional strength and development and overpower the opposing muscles to create a slumped forward look more so than would have possibly occurred under natural conditions. There is a huge misconception that people who take growth enhancing drugs like steroids will develop proportionally if they just train correctly, but there are thousands of misshapen physiques (both male and female) that bear witness to the fact that this is not the case. If it was that simple, then everyone taking drugs and training more or less correctly would be able to compete successfully at the highest levels physique competitions with beautiful and harmoniously developed bodies and this simply isn’t the case. You can’t control how each muscle will individually respond with unnatural pharmaceutical intervention and it can creates muscle imbalances and postural problems that even the most extensive stretching programs cannot rectify. (An issue that conveniently never gets mentioned in the muscle magazines and websites that glorify drug use- but if you ever saw the difficulty the very men and women in the magazines have in being able to do something as simple as try to wash the back of their necks you would most certainly think twice about steroid use being glamorous in any way.)

 

That said, you can indeed increase your flexibility with weight training if you are aware of the very factors that can inhibit it. Here are some steps to consider at all times if you want to ensure maximum flexibility while training with weights:
Step 1.
Include Exercises That Describe A Full Range Motion In The Joint

Barbell curls usually start from a partial position with the elbows slightly bent- but for maximum flexibility you need to also perform a full range of motion movement at the joint.

Barbell curls usually start from a partial position with the elbows slightly bent- but for maximum flexibility you need to also perform a full range of motion movement at the joint.

Always include exercises in your weight training routine that describe a full range of motion in the joint. Partial range movements are exceptionally effective at increasing strength and muscle mass as they work the muscle through its strongest range (See my article here on Partial Rep Training), and should indeed be part of your training regime- but they should not be all that you do. You also need to perform full range movements if you do not wish to risk some flexibility impairment over time. For example, if you do partial range ¼ or ½ squats it might be a good idea to supplement them with full range plyometric vertical jumps or sissy squats. Basically any exercise that would describe a full range of motion in a safe manner at the knee joint. ‘Shortening type exercises’ like leg curls should be supplemented with ‘stretching type’ exercises like stiff leg deadlifts or good mornings, and biceps curls should be supplemented with seated incline dumbbell curls as they provide a far stronger stretch at the shoulder insertion and allow for full extension at the bottom of the movement.
Step 2.
Work each muscle group equally.

Improper weight training leads to an unbalanced physique

Improper weight training leads to an unbalanced physique

We all have favorite bodyparts or ones that we would like to see improve more than others- but the onus behind any weight training program should always be on muscle balance even if you are trying to specialize in a particular lift or activity. In so doing not only will you increase flexibility over time but you will also build a more harmonious physique-one with good posture and pleasingly overall muscular development. It helps also to take a page out of bodybuilding philosophy and think of the body as a whole- not a collection of parts- with the goal being to not have any one muscle group standing out- but rather a perfectly sculpted ideal where each muscle seems to flow into the other. Bodybuilding today may not be as popular as it was in years past, but the principles apply to everyone who weight trains nonetheless.

 

 

Step 3.
Vary Your Routine!

vary your weight training for flexibility

For optimal flexibility and a pleasing physique you must vary your routine.

Just as everyone tends to have favorite body parts to train we also tend to have favorite exercises as well. It is natural for us to gravitate towards the exercises we excel at – but an over reliance on the same weight training movements over and over will inevitably bring about muscular imbalances as muscles need to be worked from as many possible angles as possible though full ranges of movements to ensure not only optimum flexibility but complete overall development. That said, it’s critical to resist the comfort of doing the same exercises that you are good at over and over. Most gym goers do no more than 30 or 40 different exercises over the course a year- which is a huge mistake not just in terms of flexibility limitations but also in terms of attaining maximum strength and muscle development. Keep in mind that muscle growth and strength increases are responses to unaccustomed stimulation (see my article on How Muscles Get Bigger and Stronger) so a routine with the same exercises will be one that the body grows accustomed to over time. Thus creating a plateau of sorts as in terms of gains.
During my apprenticeship period as a personal trainer I was required to be able to demonstrate and explain in detail no less than 40 different exercises per muscle group- extensive training to say the least but a methodology that stays with me to this day. I personally never do the same workout twice, (and the same goes for my clients) as my exercise selections, combinations and ways of performing them will vary with every training session as muscle confusion is a key part of getting the most out of high intensity training and also to ensuring all round joint flexibility, stability, postural improvement and harmonious muscular development. There are literally thousands of weight training exercises and it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with all of them at some point if you really want to get the most out of your training and improve your flexibility as much as possible in the process.

 

 

Step 4.
Train To Be Able To Do The Exercises You Have Difficulty With

Train to increase flexibility

If you are unable to execute a full range of motion movement on a particular exercise you need to work towards being able to do it in good form by using supplementary exercises

This precept is one of the foundations of proper weight training as you need to be able to achieve and maintain a full range of motion in all of your joints and execution of the basic compound movements will ensure just that. As long as there is no underlying injury or condition where it is clinically recommended that you limit your range of motion, you should always strive to be able to perform the basic compound movements fully. For example, if you have difficulty performing a full squat correctly because of problems with your form, don’t abandon them for easier exercises that require less in the way of flexibility and overall muscle strength to execute. Instead recognize that a lack of flexibility and strength in the joints are signs that you need to work on correcting the problem with supplementary exercises. With a squat, for example, the key to a proper form is the ability to keep your heels planted on the floor at all times so your knees travel a natural path over your feet. This does require some degree of flexibility in the Achilles tendons and hamstring muscle groups and to develop that flexibility (if you don’t naturally have it) you would need to do exercises such as good mornings and full range of motion calf raises to strengthen those muscles and tendons while also stretching them. Such flexibility will not manifest itself overnight- but if you stick with it you will see improvements in your form over time and the increased potential range will mean added muscle development as well.

 

 

Step 5.
Learn Anatomy.

Learn anatomy

Without an understanding of anatomy, you will never be able to achieve maximal flexibility nor will you know which exercises to choose for optimal results.

Without an in-depth understanding of how our muscles work, it is impossible to select exercises that work them maximally and or stretch them fully to ensure overall flexibility. Take for example the hamstring muscle group- perhaps the most often muscle group injured by athletes who stretch and train them regularly. Exercises like lying and standing leg curls are often used to develop the hamstrings muscles, but as popular and convenient as these exercises may be- an understanding of the biomechanics behind them reveals that they cannot and do not work the hamstring muscles fully. Thus leaving them more prone to injury and limitations in flexibility if you only do machine work. In performing a hamstring curl (which most professionals would term a knee curl as it’s a far more accurate description), the emphasis is on the lower hamstring area, particularly the short head of the biceps femoris muscle which brings the lower limb in towards the knee. The upper hamstring muscles are not developed maximally from this movement as they are responsible for hip joint extension and contract relatively weakly to stabilize the lower hamstrings during a knee curl. The lower hamstring muscles such as the biceps femoris do not cross the hip joint and so to work the upper hamstrings directly and effectively you need to do exercises like deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts and good mornings where there is movement at the hip joint. Failure to take this into account will also limit flexibility as those exercises are key to stretching the hamstring muscles for maximum flexibility without weakening them.

It might sound a bit involved but unless you understand the workings of every muscle you train it is difficult if not impossible to know which exercises to choose for overall development and flexibility. Going over scholarly books and journals on physiology (not magazines as they are designed more for entertainment than education) may sound boring, but the increased overall results from better exercise selection certainly will not be! Do remember that every correctly performed weight training exercise is a stretch that allows the muscle to be worked in a manner that will increase flexibility and stability at the joint over time as long as you don’t overdo it and train smart!

 

 

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Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training. His training company in New York City is the 2 time winner of the Best of Manhattan Awards for 2013 & 2012. Learn more about his diet and training services here.

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