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Recently, I was listening to a personal trainer talking to a gym member about “gains”. He was sharing how strength endurance, stability and mobility training will only hamper your “gains.” He is correct, from his point of view anyway. His idea of “gains” is one thing and one thing only; muscle growth from your workout. This is fine as long as you are talking to someone with that specific goal. In this day of functional training, crossfit and kettlebells, more and more people are judging their results based on performance, how they feel, posture and lifting capability and capacity. While many people may also think the bigger the muscles, the better the performance will be, this is undoubtedly false.

Your muscles can restrict force just as much as they can generate it.

If your goal is to be able to move your body and the various objects of all shapes, weights and sizes that you move and interact with every day, there is much more to it than muscle mass. Keep in mind that motor patterns, core strength, posture, corrective exercises and endurance all have an effect on your functional strength as well. However, they aren’t what I want to talk about today. Today my focus is on flexibility and how it applies to strength.

For every muscle or muscle group creating a movement in any given direction, there is another muscle or muscle group that makes the opposite motion occur. For this reason, your muscle’s ability to relax is just as important as your muscle’s ability to contract. In my experience, the inability to relax the reciprocating muscle group in any given lift is the most common reason people cannot function to their true potential.

Motor patterns can be learned quickly, muscle mass can be gained, but it’s functionally pointless if the mobility isn’t sufficient to allow the motion to occur. Sometimes the motion can occur, but does it only under great resistance by the opposing muscles. This greatly diminishes lifting capacity. Additionally, tight muscles are constantly under a degree of autogenic inhibition, especially when lifting. The turning off of a muscle or muscle group puts stress on the tendon due to tightness during any given motion. Autogenic inhibition is an involuntary response that inhibits the muscle as a self defense mechanism to protect from tears and strains.

If you gauge your gains by how much you can lift, instead of how big your muscles are, then you will need to be as flexible as you are powerful.

Yoga can work wonders to help increase flexibility. However, I recommend one on one sessions rather than group classes for anyone with excessive muscle tightness. While yoga is a wonderful practice, cookie-cutter workouts of any description are not appropriate as a corrective strategy. Learning your own body and working as a unique individual is a must if you wish to develop proper mobility.

It’s also extremely important to teach your nervous system strength within a range of motion. Relaxing your muscles and lengthening them is excellent but that stretching will do little to improve your functional strength if you don’t use that range of motion in your strength training. This is also an excellent way to prevent hyperflexibility which can also cause joint distress and functional issues.

Remember, your tightness isn’t in the muscle, it’s in the nervous system. Your primary job is to teach your nervous system that your muscle has strength within a range of motion, so it will relax and allow the muscles to do their job.

If you are able to, moving under the weight is a great to teach strength within a range of motion. This points to exercises such as the turkish get up, overhead squat and windmill for all over flexibility. The reason I say if you are able is because you must have a certain degree of shoulder mobility already present in order to lift weight overhead safely. If you are able to lock your elbow with your arm straight up in the air, it’s a sign you are ready to use this method.

In my opinion, moving under weight will improve your functional ability and all of your lifts in the gym faster than anything else. My personal favorite exercise is the heavy kettlebell dead snatch and I know if I want to be able to improve I should perform lots of turkish getups.

Thanks for reading and enjoy building your strength!

Peter Hirsh