By Jonathan Thompson
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE) – and just about every other credible authority on the subject – physical fitness is the result of three main factors. Of course, most people consider endurance and strength when designing their programs. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to forget about the vital third aspect of fitness: flexibility.
Interestingly, this oversight is especially common among bodybuilders, powerlifters and other strength-centric athletes. Which is a real shame. Why? What makes flexibility training so important? Does it offer any particular benefits for the strength-trainers out there?
Pumped Into A Corner
In order to really appreciate the ways in which flexibility training can enhance your strength workouts, it’s important to be clear about the way that these two aspects interact. Much of the reason that strength athletes shy away from stretching is because they are under the impression that these two goals are mutually exclusive.
Fortunately, this is not true. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. From a purely mechanical standpoint, strength training may make stretching difficult for at least two reasons. First, increased muscles mass will, logically, limit the freedom of movement around a joint. Second, your muscles are likely to be sore and slightly swollen after a workout, which will also restrict their range of motion.
But there is also the fear that stretching – particularly of the static variety – can reduce your strength. Indeed, studies to this effect have gained a lot of attention over the past several years. Looking at a review of the research, though, presents a different view.
For the paper, published in 2012, 106 different studies were compared. In the end, the team did find that static stretching before performing strength-based exercises reduced performance in some instances. It’s important to note, that this only happened when the stretch was held for close to a minute – something most people don’t do. The reduction in strength only affected that particular workout.
Right, so there’s no reason for strength athletes to avoid flexibility training altogether. But, why should they actively include it in their routine?
Enhanced Blood Flow
As mentioned, freshly worked muscles tend to be sore, stiff and swollen. Besides just being a bit of a nuisance, this is sort of what your going for when you exercise. That soreness – called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) – is part of your body’s repair processes and is a sign that your muscles are getting stronger in response to your workout.
In order for that work to be done properly, your muscles have to have a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients. Any waste products also have to be removed. And all of this can only be accomplished with adequate blood flow.
Although the mechanism is not fully understood, there is scientific evidence to suggest that proper stretching can help to improve blood flow. According to a 2011 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, stretching can improve overall cardiovascular health significantly, allowing your heart to move more blood with each pump.
Improved Range of Motion
One of the key reasons that people stretch is to improve the range of motion and mobility of their joints. This has all sorts of practical benefits in daily life. In the weight room, this enhanced range of motion can also make or break your workouts.
Think about it this way: When you perform a squat, your depth and overall form depend largely on the mobility of your hips. Those same joints will also affect how well you can execute deadlifts and bent-over rows. Similarly, the range of motion in your shoulders will have a powerful influence on your bench and military press.
When your joints are flexible and mobile, you’ll have a much easier time performing complex lifts in a safe and efficient way.
Flexibility training, then, is a vital part of your complete fitness routine. By helping to increasing the range of motion in your muscles and joints, a simple stretching routine performed at the end of your lifts could enhance your ability to perform those very exercises.
Those extra couple of minutes could also improve your overall circulation, ensuring that your muscles have everything they need to fully recover from your workout.
About the Author:
Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist who has written extensively on health and fitness since 2009. Thompson is also the author of Weighted Vest Workouts and two science-fiction novels. Additionally, Jonathan has been able to apply his love of storytelling and journalism into the realm of film-making as the director and co-founder of Signal Film Company.