Think building muscle means being less stretchy? Think again

A common myth in weight training is that it makes you more stiff and less stretchy. But is it true? 

Look, we’ve all seen the weight lifters who have muscles like the Michelin Man and can barely lift their arms over their head. Perhaps that’s where the trope of big and strong muscles lacking flexibility comes from. But, as with many of the myths around strength training, there’s not much evidence to back up the fact that strength training decreases your range of motion. 

In fact, new research from the Journal of Strength and Resistance Training shows that professional powerlifters – who shift huge amounts of weight – had no reduced mobility and flexibility compared to recreational exercisers. That was true in their joints including shoulders, hips and knees.

So, we asked fitness trainers and members of the Strong Women Collective Emma Obayuvana and Alice Rose-Miller for their advice on how to keep both your strength and flexibility in tip top shape.

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Does building bigger muscles decrease flexibility?

“Building bigger muscles doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in flexibility, provided that resistance training is performed through a full range of motion,” explains Obayuvana. That means letting your muscles stretch to their end range while loaded – such as squatting to full depth. “We also need to ensure that we properly warm up in preparation for weight training with a mobility-based warm-up and stretch post-workout to ensure that our flexibility does not decrease.”

For Miller, it all depends on the lifter. “Olympic weight lifters require flexibility to enable them to be efficient whilst moving the barbell, so stretching is usually included in their programmes. But for someone isn’t actively incorporating stretching into their routines or rest days then the likelihood of them reducing their flexibility and getting injured is increased.” 

That’s because lifting weights, as with sitting down or static from long periods of time, can shorten the muscles. Stretching them out afterwards returns them to their normal length. 

Building bigger muscles doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in flexibility.

Is tightness after strength training linked to flexibility?

“Tightness post-weight training is down to tiny tears in muscle fibres that are a result of weight training and the stress those fibres undergo during training. That’s how our muscles grow and we get stronger, provided that balanced nutrition and ample recovery is present,” explains Obayuvana. 

These DOMS (or delayed-onset muscle soreness) usually occurs one to two days after resistance training, and can often be down to “the volume of exercises completed, or because you have been focusing on the eccentric phase of an exercise, whether you are flexible or not,” adds Miller. 

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Will stretching help maintain or increase flexibility after strength training? 

“It is important to stretch post-workout to ensure flexibility is maintained and muscles do not remain in a shortened state, as they end up in strength training,” says Obayuvana. “Stretching may not alleviate muscle soreness and tightness, but it will ensure that muscles remain mobile over time. My morning stretch routine is a good place to start when looking for post-workout stretches.”

Miller recommends “a combination of static stretching after sessions and weight training using your full range of motion to help increase your flexibility, and help you get to the bottom of those heavy squats.”

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