How lifting weights can aid your flexibility

Date: 26/07/2018

How lifting weights can aid your flexibility

Are you doing yoga to become more flexible? With yoga the undisputed “go to” exercise form for anyone wanting to touch their toes, you might be surprised to know that other physical pursuits, such as weight lifting, can also help improve your flexibility, and, that conversely, the benefits of your yoga class can go well beyond being able to tie yourself up like a pretzel.

Sean Maloney, powerlifter and owner of Maloney Performance, a strength and conditioning business, explains why the adage that lifting weights makes you bulky, inflexible and ‘muscle-bound’ may be far from the truth and all the reasons why he does yoga. Clue; it’s not for his flexibility.

Why does weight lifting get such a bad rap?

When it comes to resistance training, it’s sadly no more than a case of guilt by association. First, you see the guys and girls lifting weights in the gym whilst they grunt and/or pose in the mirror. Second, you observe that said guy or girl can’t lift their arms above their head or bend over to touch their toes. Now you’ve put two and two together and decide that the tightness is all down to the weights…

So does lifting weights make you inflexible?

No. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When performed with a full range of motion, resistance training has been consistently proven as an effective way to increase flexibility.

The reason the people that you often see at the gym have so little mobility is most likely because they’re only training the muscles they can see in the mirror and not using full ranges of motion. If you don’t use your full range of motion, you’ll lose it and your muscles will become tight. It’s as simple as that.

Performed correctly, resistance training has actually been shown to give superior results to traditional static stretching in a number of instances. An 2011 study1 compared groups performing five weeks of resistance training (RT) vs static stretching (SS). The figures below give you a quick overview of the percentage improvements in flexibility, a ‘strong’ showing for the benefits of lifting weights!

So do we no longer need to stretch?

No, I’m not saying that you should never static stretch. It can most definitely improve flexibility. It’s also a great way to relax, unwind and make you feel good. However, the improvements we see in flexibility following static stretching aren’t related to any changes in the muscle. You’re not making it any longer in the ‘long’ run. You’re also not really changing any of the muscle fibres. All that changes is the body’s ability to tolerate being stretched.

Are yoga and static stretching the same thing?

No, yoga is great because most forms incorporate lots of ‘dynamic’ (as opposed to just static) stretches, e.g. where your muscles have to work to control movement through full ranges of motion. Think of poses like warrior 3/balancing stick or chair with a twist. I bet you feel your muscles working hard in those! Dynamic stretching results in longer lasting improvements when it comes to flexibility, so yoga should form an important part of your training to aid your flexibility.

What role does yoga play in your training regime?

Yoga at Sweat is a key aspect of my training programme but the reasons I prioritise it go beyond flexibility training. A big plus point for me is the heated studio as there are lots of purported benefits of passive heat stress. The dynamic nature of the yoga performed at Sweat gives me an opportunity to work on my breathing, mobility, proprioception and body-awareness. The classes also give me a chance to switch off and detach from thinking about other stuff, I use them as a kind of active meditation, which I don’t get from other forms of exercise.

How does resistance training improve flexibility?

It’s best to think of weight training as just dynamic stretching with resistance! By controlling the lowering portion of the exercise (called the ‘eccentric’ portion) under resistance, your  muscle fibres are producing force whilst being stretched. This has two main benefits. First, by getting stronger in these stretched positions, the body learns that it’s ‘safe’ to be there. The brain can be a little overprotective at times, so it won’t let you get into positions you can’t control. Second, you’ll actually increase the length of your muscle fascicles (these are little bunches of muscle fibres). This plays a big role in strengthening the muscle and protecting against injury. It’s the eccentric portion of the exercise that some people scrimp on which can lead them to be tight.

Could stretching ever be dangerous?

In some instances, static stretching can be a bad idea. Particularly if you’re doing it prior to training. If you give the body extra flexibility without teaching it how to control these new-found expanses, it’s a bit like trying to roller skate over marbles… it’s unlikely to end well! Also, if you stretch for too long (> 30 seconds)3  it’s likely to partially switch off your muscles and make your tendons less springy for short while. Not good news if you’re looking to run, jump or do anything sporty immediately afterwards.

Resistance training is more likely to protect you

We all know that stretching is good for reducing injury in the long term… right?… Well, a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine4 conducted an analysis of 25 studies and over 26,000 participants. They reported that stretching training reduced the risk of injury by an average of 4% but that resistance training reduced the risk by a whopping 69%! That’s a hell of a reason to get lifting!

What exercises to choose?

To resistance train effectively it’s vital you pick exercises that allow you to train safely within full ranges of motion. Good form should never be compromised. Here are some example exercises and the bits that they’ll help get more mobile:

  • Overhead squat – everything! (all types of squat are great though)
  • Romanian deadlift – hamstrings
  • Single leg calf raise – calves and ankles
  • Rear foot elevated split squat – hip flexors and quads
  • Plate pullover – lats and shoulders
  • Dumbbell fly – chest and shoulders

How to perform them?

  • A good starting point is to choose a resistance that allows you to perform 8-10 comfortable repetitions.
  • Control the lowering (eccentric) portion of the exercise over 3-4 seconds.
  • Hold the bottom, stretched position (under the full control of your muscles) for 2 seconds.
  • Lift the weight up (the concentric portion) over 1-2 seconds.
  • Don’t perform so many reps that you fail or lose form. Be sure to leave 2-3 reps ‘in the tank’ as a general rule.

So, there you have it. Lifting weights isn’t going to make you tight and muscle-bound. Do it right and it’ll leave you more flexible and much less likely to get injured.

About Sean

Dr. Sean Maloney PhD, ASCC

Sean has been a member at Sweat Studios since June 2016, practicing yoga to help his own endeavours in the sport of powerlifting. Sean runs his own strength and conditioning business, Maloney Performance, and is the founder of MK Powersports weightlifting club. Away from training, Sean holds a PhD in biomechanics and lectures in sports science at the University of Bedfordshire.

References:

  • Morton SK, Whitehead JR, Brinkert RH, et al. (2011). Resistance training vs. static stretching: Effects on flexibility and strength. J Strength Cond Res 25(12): 3391-3398.
  • Weppler CH and Magnusson SP. (2010). Increasing muscle extensibility: a matter of increasing length or modifying sensation? Phys Ther 90(3):438-449.
  • Kay AD and Blazevich AJ. (2012). Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: A systematic review. Med Sci Sports Exerc 44(1): 154-164.
  • Lauersen JB, Bertelsen DM and Andersen LB. (2014). The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br J Sports Med 48: 871-877.