Developing an active and full range of motion (ROM) in our relationships between muscles and joints is vastly important for optimum performance. It not only allows for greater strength and power development, but it has been shown to limit injuries as well (1). So the question arises—what is the best way to produce and maintain a full ROM in our joint complexes?
Dr. Sam K. Morton at the Department of Physical Education, Exercise, Science, and Wellness at the University of North Dakota took the steps to answer this question. If proper resistance training is performed while maintaining a full ROM throughout the program, could it be as effective in maintaining muscular length as static stretching alone? The presumption behind this question has been “no” for many years. Strength and power training causes hypertrophy, and this will lead to greater muscular development, which will lead to an athlete being muscle bound. This idea can progress the notion that you have to stretch to keep from looking like a big ball of immovable muscle. There have been conflicting studies over the years that have looked at the wrong variables to answer this question definitively for all. In efforts to settle this dispute, three different groups of inactive volunteers were placed into three groups. One group was assigned to perform full ROM resistance training for five weeks. Another group was assigned to only do static stretching for five weeks (4). The final group was the control group who just sat around and did nothing.
What was done
The three groups needed to be judged evenly. In efforts to do this, they took pre-study measurements of hamstring extension, hip flexion and extension, shoulder extension, and power production of both the quads and hamstrings (4). The resistance training group was set up on a three-day routine that was packed with some favorites of any weightlifter. Day one consisted of four sets of back squats, pull-ups, bench presses, barbell good mornings, dumbbell shoulder presses, dumbbell walking lunges, curls to presses, and dumbbell pull-overs. Day two consisted of front squats, neutral grip chin-ups, dumbbell incline presses, Romanian deadlifts, Bradford presses, split squats, bent-over rows, and rock stars. Day three consisted of body weight lunges, push-ups, body weight good mornings, and chin-ups.
The static stretching group was told to perform one set of 30-second holds on the piriformis, standing quad stretches, groin stretches, knee to chest stretches, standing hamstring stretches, cross-legged hamstring stretches, and pectoral, deltoid, and triceps stretches three days a week. The stretches selected were chosen to mimic similar muscle groups that would be trained within the resistance training group. After the five-week period of training and/or stretching, the testers looked at the overall flexibility of the participants in the same areas tested prior to the intervention (4).
What was found
The overall purpose was to determine if resistance training was an adequate means of developing and maintaining total body flexibility. This proved to be exactly the case. When all the total ROM motions where collected, it was clear that the resistance training group and the static stretching group both had significantly improved ROM in their joints than the inactive group. The test results also displayed no significant advantage to doing static stretching. Both the resistance training group and the static stretching group had the same level of ROM improvements. One wasn’t superior to the other, and furthermore, they were more or less equivalent. If full ROM resistance training proved to have the same effects as static stretching, does this finally mean you don’t have to lay around for 30 minutes a day pulling muscles apart? Is this the final nail in the coffin for static stretching?
Hold up on that final death blow
This study, and a handful of others, did show no greater significance to doing extra static stretching in your workout routine over resistance training (2, 3). But this was a very short time frame to perform this test. Five weeks is only a blink in the eye of most serious weightlifters. It should also be noted that the group that did the study were mostly inactive. Any type of training would have had a major effect on their bodies. It’s very tempting to just call it a win and never hit the floor again to push down that knee that hasn’t been able to reach Indian style since second grade when you see the equal improvement in ROM compared to static stretching.
This isn’t exactly the full intent of this study though. If you have dysfunction, there is a need to help restore the body back to what should be normal movement. There isn’t any need to have to hold your breath when you go to scratch your back if you don’t have to. What this study wishes to show is that you don’t have to do extra work to stay mobile if you’re strict in your movements in the gym and take each and every rep through a full ROM. Half reps aren’t welcome if you want to walk up and down the stairs without pulling up on your pants leg to reach the next step. The preliminary nature of this research is promising. If other work is done looking at the same two variables over a longer period of time and with more seasoned lifters, the findings might provide that final nail needed to keep us lifting intelligently without having to throw in static stretching to help move.
Final ground on being muscle bound
“Mobility” and “powerlifter” aren’t normally words that you would see paired together. Natural thickening of the ligaments and tendons is a component of the sport. The body will adapt to address the demands and loads that are placed on its joints. Protection is the body’s main goal when you get “muscle bound.” The motion that is needed to live and perform daily tasks can be a struggle once this occurs. Static stretching can be a means to help restore some of the ROM that is lost when the demands of training create armor in your joint capsules. Taking steps before there is a need to restore mobility is really where this study shines. The intent to perform resistance training in a full ROM can inhibit the joint capsule hardening that can occur with improper lifting patterns. Years of abuse and limited ROM when strength training can lock you up and create a need for static stretching. Restoring ROM with strength training doesn’t have to mean squat ass to ankles. Lift and work to improve any limitations you may have. For instance, work to meet parallel when squatting under a load if you have tight hip flexors. Other studies have shown that weighted stretching can increase ROM in joints while under a load (5). The stereotype that weightlifting causes you to be muscle bound doesn’t have to exist. It is uninformed lifters performing limited ROM lifts that gives bearing to this saying. It is our responsibility as experienced lifters to take this information and pass it along to help make sure the next generations of lifters are strong and mobile. Live, learn, and pass on.
- Baechle TR, Earle RW (2008) Essentials of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Deschenes MR, Kraemer WJ (2002) Performance and physiologic adaptations to resistance training. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 81:S3–S16.
- Girouard CK, Hurley BF (1995) Does strength training inhibit gains in range of motion from flexibility training in older adults? Med Sci Sports Exerc 27:1444–49.
- Morton SK, Whitehead JR, et al (2011) Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength. J Strength Cond Res 25:3391–98.
- Swank AM, Funk DC, Durham MP, Roberts S (2003) Adding weights to stretching exercise increases passive range of motion for healthy elderly. J Strength Cond Res 17:374–78.