Flexibility for Strength Trainees and Bodybuildersby Lee Boyce, CPT on May 4, 2015
It’s been a while since I wrote for the Mountain Dog, and the real reason is because of what I see in the industry. I’m paid to write very frequently for various publications, and just as frequently, I turn down pitch offers. The true fact of the matter is, there’s only so much one can write about where fitness is concerned, and I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. If the information isn’t introductory and applicable to the general public (not an advanced lifting crowd like this one), then it’s more difficult to refresh the use of ideas, since there are fewer to choose from.
That’s why I wait so long to publish my thoughts on sophisticated training websites like mountaindogdiet, tnation, and so on – and it pays off. Because now, amid the instagramesque, dually egocentrically insecure, mid-set-texting, CrossFitesque oversaturated commercial industry of fitness and training, I’ve noted an important subject that is worth the attention of the advanced lifting crowd – and it often flies under the radar. It’s the subject of flexibility.
For the average joe, thinking of someone being “flexible” usually brings up the mental image of a lithe dancer who can effortlessly put her leg up over her head, or an acrobat who can fit into a 24X30” box and make it through customs. Unfortunately, I think that’s the very thinking that brings lifters into extremes. Allow me to explain.
Mo’ Muscle, Mo’ Problems
To those who are untrained, many bodybuilders are mistaken for football players. Strangely, however, I’ve never seen someone mistake a football player for a bodybuilder. The main reason is because football players actually look athletic. Like, athletes. Who play a sport. That’s not a knock against bodybuilders. It’s a testament to the fact that despite the fact many football players share the same circumference as many bodybuilders, they’re not as tight. Their muscles are in good condition, and they can freely move. Training strictly to build muscle without covering multiple planes of motion or improving movement ability will turn you into a bodybuilder who sprints like this:
…. And believe me – it’s not a good look.
But it’s hard to be huge, and still be flexible. To add to the problem, too many schools of thought on the topic of stretching take one of two extremes: that you should never do it as it’s a useless waste of time, or that you just can’t do enough of it, and instead should be stretching before, during and after workouts, and adding off-day yoga for added measure. I’m here to deliver the goods, from a neutralist point of view.
It’s all about Relativitiy
Seriously. In many cases, flexibility is overrated. I’m a strong believer that the flexibility (or inflexibility) of certain muscle groups shouldn’t be made into an issue unless they’re directly compared to the flexibility of other associated groups. Here’s an example. The hamstrings and glutes are muscles of the posterior chain that every average Joe tends to give plenty of attention. The truth of the matter is, their flexibility is often not an issue – and how they act on the pelvis is. Lower back, abdominals, and most importantly, hip flexors all attach to the pelvis just like the glutes and hams do. Continuously loosening the hamstrings’ tissue can cause forward momentum to the pelvis by way of a pair of tight hips. As a result, the hamstrings are pulled taut (long and tight), and the pelvis is allowed to remain anteriorly tilted. This can mean back and knee problems galore, and even translate to immobility of the shoulders. The lesson here is that both sides of the body shouldn’t be stretched evenly. Going through the motions may make you temporarily feel better, but won’t do much for your long term health or performance in the weight room. If one side is generally tighter than the other, stretching each side evenly will just maintain the same ratio of imbalance. Pay attention to that the next time you’re looking to improve flexibility. Your goals are different than those of a professional ballerina.
Light up the Antagonists
Like I said in a TNATION article I wrote a few years ago, inflexibility may only be half the issue. Looseness of the antagonistic muscle group can encourage tightness of the muscle in question. Looking at my hip flexor example from above, a pair of tight hip flexors can be jacked up because there’s no tightness (and/or strength) of the posterior tilters of the pelvis – the hamstrings and glutes – to balance things out on the other side. The same can be said regarding tight pecs and loose upper back musculature, or regarding tight calves and lose tibialis anteriors.
Flexibility or Mobility?
Many times, I’ve worked with clients who possess good enough flexibility in given muscle groups to come across as impressive, but then when it comes to performing compound movements like squats, lunges or deadlifts, they look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The difference between flexibility and mobility is that flexibility is examined from a one-muscle-at-a-time perspective. Mobility on the other hand, requires the relative harmony of several muscles acting on a joint at the same time in order to allow that joint to travel through a large, full range of motion. When it comes to big lifts, achieving the right positions is 75% mobility based. To use an example, consider a typical deadlift. In order to maintain a flat back through the lift, different muscles have to have control of the pelvis and its movement as the lift progresses. Without this in line, the deadlift turns into the risky, contraindicated exercise no one should do – as it’s often labeled.
Bodybuilders – There’s No Excuse for Being Immobile
I’m not a bodybuilder.
But I do believe that developing a foundation of strength and proper muscle balance is a key to a sustainably good physique and healthy body. In the case of bodybuilders, it’s a given that it’ll be harder to maintain or improve the flexibility of larger masses of muscle when compared to a slimmer frame. But that doesn’t mean your mobility has to go down the drain too. Plenty of bodybuilding protocols ask for advanced lifting methods that don’t utilize full ranges of motion in order to isolate certain muscle groups, or get a proper pump, or just to attain full muscle breakdown and exhaustion. Simply put, even when these methods are being employed, it doesn’t exempt you from performing basic mobility drills around your training sessions in order to keep on top of your body’s full range of motion.
Moreover, if you haven’t started off with a solid foundation, you’re selling yourself short right out of the gates. Despite the fact that such advanced lifting methods (like partial reps) exist, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least know how to train using good form, full ROM, and with your body’s performance in first mind. My favourite drills for mobility are:
- Cradle walks
- Spiderman Walks
- Shoulder Dislocates
Please note that the above are quite simplistic drills, and depending on the need, they may not be enough to improve mobility. It depends on the conditioning of each person specifically – I’m just listing what I’ve found personal success with.
Active vs. Passive Flexibility, and Loaded Stretches
One more important distinction when it comes to gauging your own flexibility is whether the stretch being administered is done actively or passively. An active stretch would use the antagonistic muscles to pull the muscle in question into a stretch (for example, stand up and spread your arms as far apart as you can. By doing this, you’re using your back muscles to actively stretch your chest muscles). A passive stretch allows for the assistance of a partner, force or object to make a given muscle stretch, and requires no antagonistic contractions (for example, stretching the chest muscles by placing one hand against a wall, and simply turning the body away from it. Due to the hand having a contact point, the back doesn’t have to do any work to increase the ROM at the shoulder joint). This is noteworthy because many bodybuilders will carry too much muscle tissue to get a full active stretch, even if their tissue quality is in good condition. There’s just nothing one can do if the quads get in the way of a full hamstring stretch, or if thick upper back tissue “blocks” the arms from spreading further apart in order to stretch the chest.
That’s where loaded stretches can come in handy. During training sessions, taking advantage of loaded stretches can improve muscle-specific flexibility that a muscle-bound lifter would otherwise sacrifice in the name of good form. In exercises like the dumbbell bench press, military press, and rear leg elevated split squat, adding a load to a set that’s being performed properly is a way to “ride the weights down” into a deeper stretch than you’d perform unloaded. To get an example of what I mean, check out the video below on Romanian deadlifts, where I cover it all.
As you see in the video, my hamstrings’ flexibility improved due to the load pulling them longer as I descended through the reps.
This article wouldn’t be complete without addressing the stretching naysayers.
There are indeed red flags and caveats with stretching when it comes to your workouts. The one you’ve most probably heard is that static stretching lowers a muscle’s strength and neurological involvement when it comes to work output. Although recent research suggests this is true, a simple tactic would be to static stretch antagonistic muscle groups between sets of an exercise, to use that principle to your advantage. Remember, stretching often stretches more than just the muscle belly. It also stretches the tendon, nerves, joint capsule and other connective tissue. Always know why you’re stretching, and what you’re trying to accomplish.
As a general rule of thumb, try to include dynamic movements preceding your workout, and finish things off with static stretching. If you feel you must static stretch a muscle you’re training, just wait a minute between the stretch and the exercise. That dulling of the nervous system won’t last forever.
There you have it – the most neutralist stretching article you’ve ever read, tailored towards guys who spend most of their time lifting weights. Always remember to choose your battles wisely when it comes to stretching individual muscles, and give mobility your priority. Of course, no one’s perfect – nor will they ever be. With that said, it’s not worth preoccupying yourself with 45 minutes of correctives or mobility work before you actually lift. I’m a believer that sometimes properly executed strength training can make muscle imbalances correct themselves, as general weakness was the problem. The moral of the story is that it helps to think critically. Educating yourself is the first step to success – and the next step is making sure you apply the knowledge when and where it best fits for you.
Lee Boyce is an internationally recognized fitness writer and strength coach based in Toronto, ON. His work is regularly featured in the industry’s largest publications, like Men’s Health, TNATION, Bodybuilding.com, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and more. Follow him on twitter www.twitter.com/coachleeboyce and on facebook www.facebook.com/lee.boyce.52. Be sure to visit his website www.leeboycetraining.com for his blog, more articles and media.