Flexibility refers to a joint’s range of motion or how freely you can move a joint through its complete range. If you’re more flexible, you have a greater range of motion relative to someone who’s less flexible. As a result, people might say you’re limber. Being more flexible, up to a point, lowers your risk for injury and give you an advantage when playing certain sports.
What determines how flexible you are? It depends partially on the structure of your ligaments, tendons, joints and muscles but also on your age and gender. Younger people are more flexible than older ones while women have a flexibility advantage over men. Plus, some people are born with connective tissue that’s more elastic. This gives their ligaments and tendons greater ability to stretch. The temperature of your muscles, tendons and ligaments also affects your flexibility. Warm muscles have greater range of motion and are less prone towards injury. That’s why a warm-up prior to lifting, to raise your body temperature, is so important.
You may have heard people say that resistance training makes you less flexible, especially if you lift heavy weights. They point out that large muscles are bulkier and less flexible. As you may have noticed, bodybuilders usually don’t have the flexibility of gymnasts or ballerinas. When you lift a weight, you’re shortening the muscle, but if you’re moving the muscle through its full range of motion using good form, shouldn’t it improve your flexibility? That’s exactly what some studies show.
Resistance Training and Flexibility
Researchers at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks assigned 25 healthy college students to one of three groups. One group took part in a strength training program for 12 weeks with exercises that worked their major muscle groups. The other took part in a stretching program, involving static stretches, while the third group did no exercise. The results? Resistance training was superior to stretching for improving hip flexibility and as good as stretching for increasing hamstring flexibility.
Another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2002 showed a 10-week resistance training program three times per week improved flexibility in older women, as confirmed by the sit-and-reach flexibility test. The women did no stretching prior to resistance training. A second group that did no training at all showed no improvements in the sit-and-reach test. In this study, resistance training alone improved flexibility.
The key to maintaining or even improving flexibility through resistance training is to use full range of motion for each exercise. When you squat, descent to at last parallel rather than doing a partial squat. How does resistance training enhance flexibility? One theory is it causes muscle fibers to produce new sarcomeres, which allows the muscle to lengthen more. Far from making you more inflexible, resistance training, performed properly, can actually make you MORE flexible.
If you think about it, some resistance exercises do an excellent job of lengthening muscles and making them more flexible. Examples are overhead triceps press, dumbbell flies, and Romanian deadlifts.
Why Flexibility is Important
Having joints that are flexible reduces your risk for injury, but there is a point where you can be TOO flexible. Ligaments and tendons that are overstretched or too lax don’t support joints as well. About one out of 20 people have ligaments that are lax enough to increase injury risk, a condition known as benign hypermobility syndrome.
If you have this condition, you could experience joint pain or swelling at night or after a workout and be at greater risk for dislocations, particularly of the shoulders and knees, and sprains. Resistance training is beneficial for this condition, because stronger muscles help protect joints. Joint hypermobility, due to laxity, often improves with age as joints become stiffer.
Other Ways to Improve Flexibility
Even though resistance training can improve your flexibility, if you do exercises through their full range of motion, a combination of stretching and resistance training is best. A flexibility program that focuses on stretching will complement your resistance training routine and help you get the most out of it by maximizing your range of motion. For example, if you have tight hamstrings or hip flexors, you can’t maximize the depth of squats or deadlifts and will be a greater risk for injury. Stretching is even more important if you spend the day behind a desk with your neck and shoulders hunched forward.
Other Tips for Becoming More Flexible
Stick with dynamic stretches prior to your workout and save static stretching for the cool-down. Dynamic stretches are movements that mimic the ones you do when you exercise. Examples are leg swings, walking lunges,
Structure your resistance training to your maximize flexibility by using full range of motion on each exercise. If you have trouble achieving full range of motion on resistance exercises like squats, drop the resistance so that you CAN do a full ROM squat and gradually work up to higher resistance.
If you’re more inflexible than average, add a yoga workout twice a week to your routine to help lengthen tight muscles. Massage is another technique that can help you become more flexible, and it’s a good stress reliever too. Massage, combined with stretching, can help you maximize flexibility and range of motion so you get the most out of your resistance workouts. How does massage offer benefits? When you knead your muscles, it increases circulation and delivery of nutrients and oxygen to tissues. It also helps relieve muscle tension.
A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise compared massage treatment on one leg with no treatment of the other. Each participant received three massages weekly for 10 weeks. At the end of the 10 weeks, the leg that was massaged gained four degrees of flexibility and was 13% stronger. Not bad!
The Bottom Line
Resistance training won’t necessarily make you less flexible. In fact, if you use good form and complete range of motion on each exercise, it may improve it. Nevertheless, it’s best to balance resistance training with flexibility training such as stretches, yoga and massage, especially if you have problems with muscle tightness. After resistance training, your muscles are in a shortened state due to the muscle pump, stretching helps to elongate them. So, don’t forget to stretch!
WebMD. “Resistance Training Improves Flexibility Too” June 4, 2010.
The Sports Injury Doctor. “Flexibility and weight-training: you can increase flexibility with weight-training, strength training and resistance training”
WebMD. “What is Benign Hypermobility Joint Syndrome?
IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “How To Handle The Hypermobile Client”
Health and Fitness Magazine. “Benefits Of Massage For Athletes”
Runner’s World. “Massage Q and A: Does It Work?”
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