You Can Skip the Stretching and Still Get More Flexible
Strength training is a remarkably effective way to counteract stiffness.
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Static stretching has undergone a lot of criticism in recent years, mainly because it doesn’t do a lot of the things it’s supposed to. Most of the research out there shows that stretching has little effect on post-exercise muscle soreness, and doesn’t do much for injury prevention either.
Yet you've probably been told that stretching is vital when it comes to increasing your flexibility—that if you want to avoid becoming stiff and inflexible, you need to make the time to stretch. Or do you? While stretching is traditionally seen as the best way to increase your flexibility, it's not the only way to do it. In fact, there’s a very simple way to get more flexible without doing any stretching at all, and it doesn't involve adding anything to your workout. It may even save you time in the gym.
Strange as it might sound, simply lifting weights is a highly effective way to improve your flexibility. In some cases, it works just as well as static stretching. Dive into the research, and you’ll find plenty of evidence to show just how effective resistance training is for increasing your flexibility.
In one study, for instance, researchers looked at the effect of three months of resistance training on flexibility in a group of male athletes training to compete in the Brazilian National Judo Championships. Compared to a control group who did nothing but judo-specific training, lifting weights three times a week led to significant improvements in flexibility in the shoulders, trunk, and hips.
What’s more, the training program they used wasn’t anything complicated or fancy. All the men did was three sets of 10-12 reps of the bench press, lat pulldown, shoulder press and biceps curl for the upper body, along with the squat, leg press, leg extension, and leg curl for the lower body.
There’s more: Another study divided college-age volunteers into groups doing static stretching, resistance training, or nothing at all. The study measured flexibility at the knee, hip, and shoulder. After five weeks, static stretching fared no better than resistance training for improving flexibility.
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In fact, some participants in the strength training group showed a greater increase in flexibility than the stretching group. "There's an old notion that if you do resistance training, you have to stretch those muscles too," says James R. Whitehead, executive vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine and one of the study’s authors. "It's a hangover to the myth that muscles lose flexibility as they get bigger."
“The results suggest that carefully constructed, full-range resistance training regimens can improve flexibility as well as, or perhaps better than, typical static stretching regimens,” he adds.
What's more, the findings aren't specific to healthy, college-age men and women, or highly-trained athletes. Strength training has also been shown in various trials, such as this one and this one, to improve flexibility in elderly men and women in their late 60s and 70s.
More interesting still, the heavier the weight, the greater the increase in flexibility. In one six-month study, a group of men trained with weights that were 40, 60, or 80 percent of their one-rep max. Flexibility improved in a weight-dependent manner. That is, the men who trained with the heaviest weights were the ones who saw the greatest change in flexibility. Participants who trained with light weights did see an improvement in flexibility, but to a lesser extent than subjects in the medium and heavy groups.
Strength training, in other words, doesn’t make you muscle-bound, stiff, or inflexible. On the contrary, lifting weights through a full range of motion contributes to the development and maintenance of flexibility, all without the need for additional stretching. That means there’s little point in doing separate stretching sessions, since a well-designed training program should take every joint through its full range of movement.
The bottom line: Stretching isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, many beliefs about the benefits of stretching—from easing post-workout muscle soreness to reducing your risk of injury—lack strong evidence to support them. Yes, stretching does make you more flexible, but so does lifting weights. And it does so at the same time as making your muscles bigger and stronger.
That's not to say you should quit stretching altogether. The amount of time you spend stretching will depend very much on your individual circumstances, and the range of motion you need at a particular joint. Stretching may also make you feel good: Sometimes it’s nice to finish off a tough workout with a few stretches. And, much like scratching an itch, stretching out a “tight” muscle will often make you feel better.
But, for a lot of people, stretching is a bit of a chore—yet another thing to make time for. Something else to go on your “stuff I know I should be doing more of, but I’m not” list. You only want to be as flexible as you need to be. If you don’t need a certain range of motion, it’s a waste of time training for it. And spending less time on stretching gives you more workout time to devote to getting stronger.
Christian Finn is a UK-based personal trainer who holds a masters degree in exercise science.
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