For decades, the misconception that lifting weights caused you to become stiff and inflexible dominated the fitness world. The myth was so pervasive that sports coaches often advised their athletes not to lift weights. Crazy, right? Now we know that the exact opposite is true. That’s right, in addition to helping you get bigger and stronger, lifting weights—when done through a full range of motion—can actually improve your flexibility. Ready to have your mind blown? Let’s break down how strength training can actually help you become more flexible—and what this means for the fayre of static stretching.
What Flexibility Really Means
Since it’s important to understand what flexibility is here, let’s quickly define it.
The degree of movement available at a joint is called the range of motion (ROM). Flexibility, therefore, can be defined as the ability to move muscles and joints through a complete, unrestricted ROM.
It’s important to note that the most flexible athlete is not always the strongest or most successful. That said, the ability to apply force over a greater ROM can be advantageous. Research shows using a full range of motion during resistance exercises leads to better strength and muscle gains.
How to Lift Weights to Improve Flexibility
Again, contrary to popular belief, lifting weights can improve flexibility and increase range of motion. Case in point: A 2011 study comparing resistance training and static stretching found that full ROM weight lifting improved flexibility just as effectively as static stretching. Of course, lifting weights has the added benefit of improving strength and muscle development, so it offers more bang for your time investment.
Another interesting study from Brazil found that sedentary women who participated in an eight-week resistance training routine not only improved their strength but made significant gains in flexibility, too.
The key to reaping flexibility benefits from strength training, of course, is to use proper technique and a full range of motion. When lifting weights through a full range of motion, you move the muscles, joints, and ligaments through their entire intended action under a load. This means that, unfortunately, half-squats don’t count. Lifting using a limited range of motion is unlikely to offer the same flexibility benefits.
5 Lifts That Improve Flexibility
If you want to get more flexible and increase your range of motion, make sure these five exercises are a part of your strength training routine.
The squat is one of the fundamental movement patterns in strength training. It incorporates nearly the entire muscular system while also stressing lower body flexibility. The squat helps improve hip, hamstring, quad, and ankle range of motion. The key is to go as low as possible while maintaining a neutral spine.
If it’s too challenging to move through a full range of motion during the barbell back squat, starting with a dumbbell goblet squat is a great alternative. Additionally, if you currently have limited hip or ankle flexibility, you can experiment with a wider squat stance, since that positioning doesn’t require as much ankle dorsiflexion.
2. Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is one of the best lifts out there for improving flexibility. The RDL places more emphasis on the hamstrings than a traditional deadlift and full range-of-motion reps require a lot of flexibility.
To perform the movement, push the hips back while maintaining a neutral spine. As you lower the bar (or dumbbells), you will feel a massive hamstring stretch. With RDLs, flexibility will dictate the range of motion. When you start to feel your lower back round, stop. Over time, work to get that weight lower and lower, until you can eventually bring it down to your mid-shin.
3. Chest Fly
At the bottom of the movement, when your arms are stretched out wide, the chest fly is a loaded stretch, so it is easy to see why it makes the list. Just keep in mind this is an exercise of finesse; you’ll want to avoid using too much weight, which turns the movement into a press and defeats the purpose.
To get the most out of the chest fly, use an arc motion, as if you’re hugging a big tree. Get a good stretch at the bottom and squeeze your chest hard at the top to reap the flexibility—and strength—benefits.
You can use dumbbells, cables, or a pec deck machine for chest flies here. Remember, check your ego and take it easy with the weight.
4. Dumbbell Pullover
Watch any video of Arnold Schwarzenegger training in the 1970s and you will likely see him performing dumbbell pullovers. Arnold loved these and said pullovers helped expand his ribcage due to the unique stretch at the bottom of the movement.
The pullover is an “old school” exercise that you don’t see done much anymore. It’s a shame this exercise fell out of favor because it’s a unique chest and back combo exercise that also works the serratus (a muscle along the side of your ribs). The pullover also deserves a spot on this list because, when done through a full ROM, it places a big stretch on the chest and lats, helping you to build flexibility and muscle in those areas.
The pullup is arguably the best bodyweight exercise out there for building muscle and strength. However, people often struggle to perform it using a full range of motion, often cutting reps short both at the bottom and top. To avoid this, make sure you start each rep in a hang with your arms fully locked out and pull yourself up until your chin rises above the bar. The bottom of this movement is where the lats and shoulders stretch.
In fact, hanging at the bottom of a pullup, also called a dead hang, is the simplest thing you can do to improve shoulder health. Gravity pulls the body down and away from the bar when you hang. Over time this can help open up the shoulder and increase the range of motion.
Although there is not a lot of clear evidence to support hanging from a pullup bar, the proposed mechanism for hanging is that it helps create space in the shoulder joint to avoid compression or impingement of tendons.
My advice? In addition to performing your pullups with a full ROM, hang on the bar as long as possible after your last set. You can use chalk or even lifting straps to help.
The Role That Static Stretching Plays in Flexibility
With all this talk about how lifting weights improves flexibility, it is easy to forget about stretching. However, I’m not here to tell you that you shouldn’t stretch; only that you might want to think twice about how you incorporate it into your routine.
It’s true that static stretching does reliably increase flexibility and range of motion—and, best of all, it’s easy to do! My preferred method for incorporating it is to do some low-intensity stretching after a training session. It can be an excellent cool-down activity. It’s also beneficial at night before bed to help you wind down.
Bottom line: Build your training around full-range-of-motion resistance training and supplement it with some light stretching as you like.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.