Flexibility in elite athletics is an amorphous thing—it can always improve and rarely gets the attention it deserves. Classical teaching suggests that strength training is at odds with one’s ability to be flexible, that using resistance builds muscle at the expense of range of motion. On the contrary, strength training and stretching work together to help expand an athlete’s range of motion. Here we look at how your weight room workouts can be compatible with your flexibility goals for your athletes.
Resistance training and flexibility are inextricably intertwined: an athlete cannot excel at one without the other in elite sports. Take the relatively simple movement during a barbell squat as an example. Sufficient range of motion is needed through the hip joint for full flexion on the way down and extension on the way up, not to mention flexibility and stability in the lumbar spine to support the weight of a barbell throughout. A study of resistance training and flexibility in elite judo athletes demonstrated a significant increase in range of motion in athletes who completed 12 weeks of resistance training compared to a control group1. This increase in mobility occurred in multiple planes of motion through the shoulder, trunk, and hips.
Why should strength coaches care about increasing their athletes’ range of motion in addition to building strength? Because both flexibility and stability prevent injury. Greater flexibility helps maintain proper technique, enabling athletes to reach the end range of exercises where the right muscles fire and the greatest gains are made. With stronger muscles, athletes can then perform more complex movements, building more strength and explosiveness.
Resistance training builds the strength, stability and power needed to perform, but also to protect joints during extreme athletic movements. The stronger one’s stabilizer muscles are (the small supporting cast of muscles around joints that contract at a moment’s notice to support the joint when it’s in an extreme position), the more control an athlete has in positions of full flexion, extension, rotation, etc.
To be maximally successful, strength training should be paired with dynamic stretching pre-workout and static stretching to lengthen muscles post-workout. In a study of collegiate athletics, trainers reported 28% of athletes are performing dynamic stretching prior to exercise, whereas 61% of athletes perform static stretching post-workout2. While the emphasis on static stretching post-workout is consistent with current research, athletes are under-utilizing the dynamic stretching prior to strength workouts. A few of the benefits of dynamic stretching include decreased resistance of muscles and joints which may reduce the risk of injury, increased blood flow to working muscles, and enhanced nerve conductivity (faster reflexes) 3.
Elite programs and coaches should focus on both strength training and flexibility exercises in the weight room with the understanding that they build upon each other. Visit the BridgeBlog to stay up to date on more strength and conditioning tips in training!
J Hum Kinet.2014 Apr 9;40:129-37. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2014-0015. Chronic effects of different resistance training exercise orders on flexibility in elite judo athletes. Saraiva AR1, Reis VM1, Costa PB2, Bentes CM3, Costa E Silva GV3, Novaes JS3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25031681
J Strength Cond Res.2015 Feb 14. PRE-AND POST-ACTIVITY STRETCHING PRACTICES OF COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC TRAINERS IN THE UNITED STATES. Popp JK1, Bellar D, Hoover DL, Craig BW, Leitzelar BN, Wanless EA, Judge LW http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25734784
Bishop D. Warm up I: potential mechanisms and the effects of passive warm up onexercise performance. Sports Med. 2003;33(6):439-5.