Walk into the gym with me. When you step in and look around, what do you see? Do you see everyone doing the same exercise for biceps? Or do you see many different variations of bicep exercises? You see the latter. Why is that? Why doesn’t everyone workout the biceps with simply a dumbbell bicep curl? The answer is simple- we all want optimal muscle growth.
In order to grow those guns and build those buns, you’ve got to strengthen your muscles through varying ranges of motion. Range of motion means the full distance of movement around a joint or the number of degrees a joint moves. Let’s take a look at the knee joint, for example. The knee goes from fully straight (~0 degrees of knee extension) to fully bent (~120-145 degrees of knee flexion). If you are limited in knee flexion (bending) then when you squat, you may be limited in how far you can squat down. If you are limited in knee extension (straightening) then when you use the leg extension machine, you may be limited with how far you can kick the leg up. The result? You are unable to strengthen through a full range of motion, which means decreased gains baby. Countless studies have proven that strengthening through a full range of motion is superior to strengthening in only a partial range of motion because they stimulate growth over the entire muscle’s length. 1,2,3
How can you improve range of motion? Stretch and practice. Will this work every time? No, because we are all unique and have a case-by-case basis. But for the general population, stretching can improve your range of motion at each joint.
The point I am trying to make: The better your range of motion and flexibility are, the better your strength gains will be. Moving through a full range of motion leads to superior strength benefits and muscle growth.
In today’s article, I am going to share with you the basics of stretching. Plus, I’ll give many examples as to how having good flexibility will allow you to strengthen within a larger range of motion: therefore allowing you to see more muscle growth and improved physique changes.
Stretching is easy to do, yet not enough people do it. Maybe because we are all “too busy” or maybe because we think it’s too girly. The fact is, stretching can not only prevent injuries but it can also improve your muscle gains. Even the biggest bodybuilder in the world will benefit from stretching. What do I give every physical therapy patient that walks in my door? Stretches. I encourage you to get on board and make stretching a part of your daily routine.
In order to stretch a muscle correctly, you must hold all stretches at least thirty seconds. What stretching does is it increases your neural tolerance, allows the muscle to reach a greater range of motion, and increases muscle length. It is best to stretch after a workout when your muscles are already warmed up. You do not want to stretch a cold muscle as you risk injuring yourself. So go on a daily walk, a run, or get your strengthening workout in for the day. Then immediately afterwards, spend 5-10 minutes stretching. If you do any stretching prior to being warmed up, it should be dynamic stretching. Stretch each major muscle group. You will feel better afterwards, possibly prevent injury, and gain range of motion. If you’re not sure how to stretch, I share one stretch for each major muscle group below. If you’d like more ideas, download my Limber Ebook which shares the top 100 yoga-based stretches! (See Related: Limber 100)
Now I want to share six examples that demonstrate how poor flexibility can hinder your strength potential.
Example #1 Hamstring Strengthening
When we want to strengthen the hamstrings, we can strengthen them in a lengthened range, mid-range, or shortened range.
1A) Good Mornings are an exercise to strengthen the hamstrings in a lengthened range. With a barbell on your back, you hinge forward at the hips while keeping the legs straight. Doing so requires good hamstring flexibility. So if you are not flexible in the hamstrings, you will only be able to hinge forward a few inches, compared to how far I can go in the video below. The result? Less gains.
A stretch that mimics this movement: Standing hamstring stretch
1B) Prone Leg Curls are an exercise to strengthen the hamstrings in a shortened range. Lying on your stomach and curling the feet up toward your bottom is the action. Doing so requires good quadricep flexibility. So if you are not flexible in the quadriceps (thighs), you will only be able to curl the legs up part of the way, compared to how far I can do in the video below. The result? Less gains.
A stretch that mimics this movement: Prone quadricep stretch
Example #2 Tricep Strengthening
When we want to strengthen the triceps, we can strengthen them in a lengthened range, mid-range, or shortened range.
2A) Seated Barbell French Press is an exercise to strengthen the triceps in a lengthened range. Sitting with a barbell overhead, you lower the weight to achieve a stretch of the triceps and then press back up. Doing so requires good tricep (and back) flexibility. So if you are not flexible in the triceps, you will only be able to lower the barbell a few inches, compared to how far I can go in the video below. The result? Less gains.
A stretch that mimics this movement: Tricep stretch
2B) Tricep Presses are an exercise to strengthen the triceps in a shortened range. Hold a cable with your elbow behind your torso, start at a 90 degree elbow bend, and press your hand back. Doing so requires good bicep flexibility because you want to achieve shoulder extension too. So if you are not flexible in the biceps, you will not be able to extend at the shoulder and elbow enough to straighten the arm while keeping the humerus behind your torso. The result? Less gains.
A stretch that mimics this movement: Standing wall bicep stretch
Example #3 Bicep Strengthening
When we want to strengthen the biceps, we can strengthen them in a lengthened range, mid-range, or shortened range.
3A) Incline Dumbbell Curls are an exercise to strengthen the biceps in a lengthened range. Sitting on an incline bench with dumbbells in hand, you start with your elbows behind you and arms straight. Then you curl the weights up with palms up. So if you are not flexible in the biceps, you will not be able to get into the right starting position with your elbows behind your body. Which means you’d be doing the exercise in more of a mid-range than lengthened. The result? Less gains.
A stretch that mimics this movement: Incline bench bicep stretch
3B) Kneeling Cable Shortened Bicep Curls are an exercise to strengthen the biceps in a shortened range. Kneeling with a bar in your hands and elbows overhead, you simply curl the hands toward the shoulders. Doing so requires good tricep (and back) flexibility. So if you are not flexible in the triceps, you will not be able to get the elbows up high enough to achieve a fully shortened bicep position. The result? Less gains.
A stretch that mimics this movement: Tricep stretch
Strengthen to your Full Potential
Is it starting to become redundant yet? I can take every muscle and give you several examples as to how having poor flexibility will hinder your ability to strengthen a muscle to its full potential. With poor flexibility, you will end up strengthening every muscle in the mid-range or partial range ONLY. That will get you average results. But if you want better results and want to break through a plateau, give this stretching thing a shot. Guys and girls- everyone can benefit from stretching.
Let’s put this to practice now. When you walk into the gym, get an active and dynamic warm-up in first. Then start your strength training program, which should include strengthening each muscle in a full range of motion. Start with some full range of motion exercises and then isolate more with partial range of motion exercises in the shortened range, mid-range, and lengthened range. You may feel weaker and have to decrease how much weight you use for the shortened and lengthened range exercises, so check your ego at the door. But it will improve with practice. Finally, finish with cardio, if desired, and then 5-10 minutes of stretching. (See Related: Active Warm-up)
1. Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness. Pinto RS, Gomes N, Radaelli R, Botton CE, Brown LE, Bottaro M.J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug; 26(8):2140-5.
2. Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance. Hartmann H, Wirth K, Klusemann M, Dalic J, Matuschek C, Schmidtbleicher D. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec; 26(12):3243-61.
3. Impact of range of motion during ecologically valid resistance training protocols on muscle size, subcutaneous fat, and strength. McMahon GE, Morse CI, Burden A, Winwood K, Onambélé GL. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jan; 28(1):245-55.
Stephanie Dorworth is the Founder of Beautiful to the Core. She is a Doctor of physical therapy, Pilates instructor, Internationally published fitness model, and Freelance health & fitness writer. She is passionate about empowering other women to lift heavy, practice flexible dieting, and love their bodies.