Why Lifting Weights Makes You MORE Flexible!

So, my friends at Sweat Studios asked me to recently asked me to dispel some of the myths surrounding weight training and flexibility. If you’re in and about the Milton Keynes area, then I’d recommend checking out the hottest (quite literally!) yoga studio in town. Check out the link to the article on their site here and some of their great tips on yoga for beginners!

I’m sure we’ve all heard the adage that lifting weights makes you bulky, inflexible and ‘muscle-bound’. But is this reputation really deserved?

Why the 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 shoulders 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…

The true story

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. It’s actually been shown to give superior results to traditional static stretching in a number of instances! The reason our gym above fiends are tight is most likely because they’re only training the muscles they can see in the mirror and not using full ranges of motion.

Could it be better than stretching?

For example, a 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!

Strengthening the case

Another investigation looked to compare strengthening vs stretching interventions in dancers. Across a 6-week period, dancers performed either specific strengthening exercises, low intensity stretching (a stretch intensity perceived as 3 out of 10) or high-intensity stretching (an 8 out of 10 intensity). The improvements for both active (controlled by the dancer) and passive (assisted by somebody else) flexibility, seen below, again show an apparent superiority for strengthening.

What does stretching do?

Now, 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.3 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.

How does yoga work?

Yoga is great because most forms incorporate lots of ‘dynamic’ stretching – where your muscles have to work to control movement through full ranges of motion. Think of poses like warrior 3 or chair with a twist. I bet your feel your muscles working hard in those! Dynamic stretching results in longer lasting improvements when it comes to flexibility, so should form an important part of your training.

How does resistance training work?

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.

Could stretching be dangerous?

In some instances, static stretching is probably 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)4 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 Medicine5 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:

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.

A reformed character

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.

Quite simply, you can’t go wrong getting strong!

 

References:

  1. 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.
  2. Wyon MA, Smith A, and Koutedakis Y. (2013). A comparison of strength and stretch interventions on active and passive ranges of movement in dancers: a randomized controlled trial. J Strength Cond Res 27(11): 3053-3059.
  3. Weppler CH and Magnusson SP. (2010). Increasing muscle extensibility: a matter of increasing length or modifying sensation? Phys Ther 90(3):438-449.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
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