Do you ever wonder how gymnasts and ballet dancers become so flexible and mobile? It’s not from a robust stretching routine. They don’t spend hours a day, reaching for their toes and pulling the arms across their bodies. They may throw the occasional stretch into a warm-up or cool down but that is not the key to their mobility prowess.
So, how do they achieve superior flexibility and mobility?
Gymnasts and ballet dancers constantly challenge their bodies and develop adaptations through repetitive movements. It is no different than other physical adaptations in our body. If you lift weights, your muscles grow and your nervous system efficiency improves, leading to greater strength. If you run long distances, your cardiovascular capacity enhances.
If you often move in extreme ranges of motion, you become more flexible and mobile.
The key is the extreme part. If you lift a five-pound dumbbell every day, your strength gains will be minimal. If you run at a slow pace in your neighborhood only, don’t expect to PR your next marathon.
But, let’s say you aren’t a gymnast or ballet dancer (most of us aren’t), how do you improve flexibility without stretching?
Resistance training through your full range of motion.
Strength training vs. stretching
In April of 2021, a systematic review — a research study that compiles themes from the current body of evidence — assessed the effects of strength training and stretching on improving flexibility.
The review included 11 research trials, which all differed significantly. Some compared healthy and unhealthy populations while others compared sedentary and active people. The stretching protocols differed as well, with some focusing on static stretching and others focusing on dynamic stretching (such as leg swings). Each trial consisted of different volumes and frequencies — which matters greatly, as I will show with the science behind stretching later.
Despite the differences, the themes and pooled data provided a clear picture: strength training is as effective as stretching for improving flexibility.
Yes, I said as effective. You may read that and determine stretching is still an effective tool for improving flexibility and mobility. Note, I separated those two words. Mobility is often viewed as dynamic (squat depth) while flexibility is static (sit and reach test in school). The review used the term range of motion which can be either (hip range during a squat or sit-and-reach test)
When we take a step back and look at more data on static stretching for improving flexibility, the results aren’t great. Furthermore, improvements may not be important.
Flexibility vs. Mobility
Dr. James Nuzzo sums up his view on using flexibility as a major component of physical fitness in his 2020 paper aptly titled “The Case for Retiring Flexibility as a Major Component of Physical Fitness”. He wrote:
“Flexibility has been researched for over 100 years. Its track record is unimpressive, particularly when viewed in light of other components of physical fitness. Flexibility lacks predictive and concurrent validity value with meaningful health and performance outcomes. Consequently, it should be retired as a major component of fitness”
Some may view this as harsh, but he came to this conclusion after assessing over 300 studies on the topic. Even for the studies that show a benefit in performance or injury prevention, the effect sizes are small, and the study designs are weak.
Note, he is not saying flexibility is useless, rather, he is saying flexibility should not be considered a major component of physical fitness. This has been a common misconception of the paper.
If you want to be more flexible for tests such as the sit and reach or for activities such as yoga, then static stretching may be beneficial. The stretches should be task-specific though. Standing and reaching for your toes will not improve warrior two pose as the demands differ.
This brings us back to the value of strength training.
Mobility and strength are linked
Strength training is not restricted to the weight room. The gymnast rings routine is one of the most impressive feats of stretch in sports, yet no barbells are involved in building that strength. If you want to get good at performing on the rings then you have to train on the rings. The same is true for calisthenics, yoga, pilates, and other activities that require a combination of strength and mobility.
Now, let’s look at the other end of the strength training continuum.
Powerlifting and weightlifting all have challenging mobility demands but with extreme weights on a barbell. While athletes may use mobility bands as part of a cooldown or warmup, they are not static stretching throughout the day. In fact, some research suggests static stretching may impair strength and power, although this research is often overblown.
A powerlifter may not be able to touch their toes with knees locked but they can squat ass-to-grass with 800 pounds on their back, does that mean they lack mobility?
Keep in mind, weight training does not guarantee universal flexibility. Traditional bodybuilding and recreational lifting have been shown to reduce shoulder mobility. Why? Again, it’s about the demand on the body.
When you lift weights, what range do you work through? If your overhead work is primarily inclined press and dumbbell overhead press, it is unlikely you will have great shoulder mobility. If you only squat to parallel or focus on the Smith Machine and leg press, you will struggle with full-depth squats.
Is this a problem? Only if you want to achieve those extreme ranges of motion. However, it’s not just the motion you routinely adopt that matters, the load applied matters too.
Here are a few examples of exercises you can do to improve your mobility, but if there is a specific task you want to improve, such as a deep squat or pike press, you need to perform that task. You also need to perform it in the same environment.
When you are assessing mobility, you need to consider the environment and situation. Let’s use the overhead squat in the images below as an example.
The image on the left is how most people look when performing an overhead squat without weight. Once a load is added, our ability to brace and place tension through the bar allows for improved mechanics. Even some Olympic athletes have similar differences when comparing loaded and unloaded overhead squats.
You will find your mobility improves when external resistance is added. Even mechanics improve provided you are not maxing out and hitting fatigue. Whether it is a complex movement like a power clean or a full-depth squat, adding resistance improves the quality of movement.
If you want to improve flexibility, consider the reason why. If it is for general health, flexibility isn’t going to do much for you. If it is for a specific task — yoga poses, squat depth, weightlifting — then you need to perform the specific task many times for your body to adapt.
Strength training isn’t only about getting big and strong. Strength training teaches our body how to move, builds resilience, improves cardiovascular and metabolic health, increases bone mineral density, and helps us adapt to the physical demands of life.
At the end of the day, if you want to simply become more flexible for a specific movement (finally getting a Presidential physical fitness score), then stretch often and stretch aggressively. If you want to become more mobile, then you need to perform the tasks you want to become more mobile with.