“It’s a common myth that if you lift weights, your muscles, and range of motion, start to shorten,” says Dr. Lem Taylor, Associate Professor and Director of the Exercise Physiology program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. “That can happen, and it’s purposeful for some people, but the muscle has no desire to get shorter, so if you’re training correctly, it’s unlikely that flexibility will decrease, and it may actually improve.”
Yes — contrary to popular belief, proper strength training may actually improve flexibility and range of motion — you just have to get your strategy right. “It’s all about technique, proper form, and the utilization of a full range of motion,” Taylor says. “As long as you’re exercising through the length or range of motion that a specific joint should extend through, there’s not much evidence that implies flexibility will decrease.”
In fact, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that a five-week strength training regimen and a five-week static stretching regimen improved joint flexibility equally in the hamstrings, hips, and shoulders when compared to a control group. This is good news if you’re one of the many weekend warriors who skips stretching because it feels like a major time suck. “Most people’s goals aren’t based around flexibility — they want to get stronger, or lose weight. If they have a limited amount of time to exercise, they’ll get more bang for their buck by performing strength training exercises through a full range of motion,” Taylor says. Here’s how you do it:
When performing any exercise, always work through a full range of motion
Employ progressive overload techniques to make sure you’re challenging your body during each workout. According to Taylor, you can do this by adding resistance, altering the order of exercises, changing up set and rep schemes, or adjusting tempo or the length of rest between sets.
If you’re comfortable and have the experience and training, use free weights, such as dumbbells and barbells — these place greater stress on the core and require a balance and stabilization component at major joints
Think about gravity and its potential effects on joint flexibility. You don’t want to use gravity (or resistance) to push yourself past a full range of motion to the extent that it could cause pain or injury, but you can use the combination of resistance and gravity to work through your range of motion to the point where you feel a good stretch.
While maintaining or improving range of motion at every joint is important, it’s particularly important at the shoulders and hips — these highly complex joints play a role in practically all human movement from walking to reaching for a plate on a high shelf. Try the following exercises to work on range of motion through these joints.
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Deep Goblet Squats
Goblet squats are an excellent exercise to teach you proper squat form while working on lower body strength and hip mobility. Stand with your feet wider than hip-distance apart, your toes angled slightly outward. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your shoulders in both hands. Press your hips back and lower your glutes toward the ground, maintaining your weight in your heels. Keep your torso upright and tall. When your quads are at or below parallel with the ground, check to make sure your elbows are inside your knees to make sure you’re getting a deep stretch through your hips. You can even pause here, pressing your elbows against your inner thighs before pressing through your heels and extending your knees and hips to return to standing.
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Romanian deadlifts target the hamstrings and glutes by using a hip hinge followed by a hip extension. When performing the exercise correctly — hinging at the hips (pressing them back) as your torso tips forward toward the ground — the combination of resistance (the weight you’re lifting) and gravity (the downward movement), can lead to a nice stretch through the backs of your legs. When you feel the stretch, go ahead and reverse the movement, engaging your hamstrings and glutes to press your hips forward as you return to standing.