Movement is caused by the contraction of muscle fibers attached by the tendons on either side of a given joint (i.e. the elbow joint is flexed by contraction of the biceps muscle attached to bones of the upper and lower arm). In athletic weight training this is called dynamic or “active” ROM (range of motion), where the movement of the joint is caused by a muscular contraction. Active ROM, or athletic specific movement, is most effected by the force of the muscle contraction and the flexibility of the joint being moved.
How To Improve Your Strength and Flexibility?
In discussions of flexibility, people most often refer to their ability to stretch a muscle that is at rest. This is called static or “passive” ROM because the joint is being moved with assistance. The maximum static ROM achievable at any given joint in the human body is effected by the elastic properties of the muscle and tendons that attach across joint. It is these elastic properties that are most effected by flexibility training. Joint structures vary greatly between individuals and this has to be considered when assessing flexibility.
Research has shown that the greatest limiting factor of passive ROM in individual athletes is the structure of the joint itself and not the tissue connected to it. So, even after regular flexibility training there will be a limit as to how much movement the joint can achieve.
Does flexibility training improve performance?
There is a good deal of research into the effects of flexibility in “working muscles” that suggests that making muscle tissue more pliable can have a positive effect on performance. Under similar conditions, pliable muscle is more mechanically efficient and will fatigue at a slower rate than stiff muscle. Muscle that is tight tends to be more susceptible to cramping and muscle pulls.
Tight muscle can also expose a person to overuse injuries. While it has not been clinically proven that more flexible muscle has the capacity to produce more power it has been shown to hold up better under the stresses of exercise and is less susceptible to common soft tissue injuries that disrupt the training process and delay positive training effect.
Passive vs. Active ROM and Performance
Holding a passive stretch is a completely different motion than that caused by sports specific muscle contraction and repetitive joint movement. This makes passive ROM a less reliable measure of flexibility when related to athletic performance.
Active ROM relates to the force of an opposing muscle that is required to stretch a previously contracted (resting) muscle back to the ready position in a sports-specific movement. While increased passive ROM does improve mechanical efficiency and reduce the risk of injury it seems that increasing active ROM and not passive ROM has a greater impact on performance.
Improving active ROM
The principle of specificity applies to flexibility training just as it does with other components of training like speed, power and endurance. Any exercises intended to increase active flexibility need to be progressive, specific and similar to the movements of your sport/activity. The first thing to consider is the specific joint movement and muscle recruitment required for the activity.
Active ROM training for weight lifters
It is important to warm up at the beginning of every training session. Active ROM stretching requires the muscles to contract, which engages the energy systems that fuel the muscle and generates heat. In preparation for an intense workout, a warm up session using active ROM flexibility training would look something like this.
It is also important to address stiffness and flexibility in the upper body during active ROM training. The lumbar spine, upper back, neck shoulders, chest, arms and hands are all actively involved in weight training and need to be prepared for intense workouts.
The active ROM in all these areas can be increased using simple flex/extend and rotate movements. Gentle twisting of the torso and bending front/back and side/side at the waist will loosen the truck. Arm swings and shoulder dislocations with a broomstick or resistance band will loosen the upper back and shoulders. Don’t worry, the shoulder dislocation exercise won’t actually dislocate your shoulders. They are perfectly safe if you do them correctly. Just don’t rush the exercise and be persistent. Joining the hands behind the back will stretch the chest, front of the shoulders and biceps. The neck area can be stretched using gentle front/back and side/side movements. With any type of neck exercise great caution should be taken not to over extend the small muscles in the neck and upper spine.
What do other stretching exercises to improve flexibility look like?
Luckily for you, Vince Delmonte, author of the No 1 selling No Nonsense Muscle Building program, dedicates an entire chapter of his book to injury prevention using stretching and flexibility training. Vince views this type of training as an essential component for the intense “progressive overload” workouts you will embark on for gaining massive amounts of lean muscle mass.
ROM, flexibility and injury prevention
Stiffness and restricted ROM will increase the risk of soft tissue injury and joint strain. Flexibility requirements vary greatly between sports and it is important to identify these before developing a flexibility routine. For weight lifting the main concern is injury prevention. A lack of flexibility when lifting heavy weights can cause sever muscle strain and result in a painful and debilitating injury. Adequate flexibility in all of the major muscle groups being targeted is important to injury free weight training.
The best time for active stretching exercises
Contrary to popular belief, the best time to perform stretching exercises is after you have completed your workout. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence to suggest that stretching before working out lessens the risk of injury. A solid warm up before working out is more important then stretching. Stretching helps to maintain functional flexibility and correct muscle imbalances and other weaknesses. Correcting these weaknesses will ensure that you maximize your muscle building efforts as you are only as strong as your weakest link. For weight lifters, a workout routine should pay special attention to proper strengthening and stretching techniques for the major muscle groups you are training to ensure continued flexibility in the muscles and ROM in the joints.
Flexibility training is important to your health and muscle development. Choosing the proper methods and movements for a flexibility program for weight lifters is very important. It is not wise to pattern you’re stretching and flexibility training after what you see other weight lifters doing. You will need to do some personal assessment of your own flexibility and determine what areas need work and which exercises are most appropriate. Consulting a professional trainer at your local health club is a good place to start. They will take you through a flexibility assessment session and can prescribe an appropriate stretching program based on your goals. If you approach flexibility training with a good plan you will be able to improve your performance and prevent unnecessary injury.