Popular belief holds strength and flexibility to be almost diametrically opposed to each other. Many think that strength makes people “musclebound” and inflexible, while stretching improves flexibility but decreases strength.
In fact, stretching does decrease strength, but only temporarily — there’s no reason that you can’t do it after lifting. And weight training, as it turns out, can actually increase flexibility when performed with a full range of motion.
As a matter of fact, one of the best ways to build flexibility involves using weights. It’s called loaded stretching, and it allows you to stretch further than you’d normally be able to by using a weight to pull yourself into the stretch.
How to Perform Loaded Stretches
Simply put, pick a regular stretch, and hold a weight to pull yourself into it. The weight should be fairly light — while it needs to be heavy enough to pull you into the stretch, it should be light enough that you get pulled into the stretch over the course of a few seconds, rather than instantly.
And of course, you need to be able to lift the weight back up to get out of the stretch, even after the stretch has weakened you somewhat.
When performed correctly, you’ll often find that the weight initially pulls you a little ways into the stretch, then you encounter resistance and stop moving for a bit. After a few seconds, your muscles relax and you sink another inch or two into the stretch.
Loaded stretches usually put you into the position that you’d be in at the bottom of a certain resistance training movement. For instance, the chest stretch is basically the bottom of a dumbbell chest press, while the hamstring stretch is the bottom of a Romanian deadlift. As such, you can easily combine a loaded stretch with the corresponding resistance training movement.
However, because stretching acutely reduces strength, you should only do it after the end of a set. Don’t try to do a short-loaded stretch at the bottom of each rep; just do one long one at the end of each set.
You’ll also want to keep the stretch pretty short on every set before the last, saving the longest and deepest stretch for the last set of a given exercise. You’ll need to take a bit of extra rest to let your muscles recover from the stretch before subsequent sets.
Finally, because you need to have the strength to lift the weight one last time after a loaded stretch is completed, they are best done with a weight that you can lift for at least six reps, and not after training to failure (unless you have a spotter).
1. Dumbbell Chest Stretch (Chest Press or Fly)
The dumbbell chest stretch is performed as an extension of the bottom of the range of movement of a dumbbell chest press. It stretches the side of the pectoralis major, allowing you to move your arms further behind your torso. It’s ideal for people who have trouble performing chest exercises — particularly dumbbell chest presses or deficit pushups — with a full range of motion.
Lay on a bench and hold the dumbbells as if at the bottom of a dumbbell chest press — or simply do this after the last rep of a set of dumbbell chest presses. Make sure to keep your forearms vertical, such that the dumbbells remain directly above your elbows. Allow the weight to gradually push your arms lower, and hold for 15-30 seconds.
A variation of this can be performed with lighter weights held out to the side, as in the bottom of a dumbbell pec fly. This provides a slightly different (and somewhat weaker) chest stretch, but has the benefit of also stretching the biceps.
2. Dumbbell or Barbell Shoulder Stretch (Pullover)
This stretch is also performed lying on a bench, with either a pair of light dumbbells or a light barbell. In my experience, most people find it more comfortable with dumbbells. However, using a barbell allows this to be performed at the end of a set of pullovers.
In this case, stretch the arms out over the head as if doing a shoulder press or pullover. As with the chest press, allow the weight to push your hands down for 15-30 seconds.
This stretch targets the anterior deltoid. It’s important for people who find that they can’t stretch their arms over and slightly behind their head. If your shoulder presses end up looking more like incline chest presses, this one’s for you.
3. Dumbbell Swiss Ball Shoulder and Ab Stretch (Ball Myotatic Ab Crunches)
This is the same thing as the last stretch, just performed while bent backwards over a large exercise ball — always with dumbbells. Due to the angle involved, the shoulder stretch ends up being a little weaker. However, bending backwards over an exercise ball allows it to stretch your rectus abdominus (front abs) as well. It can also be added to the end of a set of ball myotatic crunches.
Make sure that the ball is large enough that you can bend backwards over it, and stretch your arms out behind/over your head, without your hands touching the ground. This stretch won’t work for some very tall people, as they can’t find a ball big enough.
4. Barbell Hamstring Stretch (Romanian Deadlift)
This one’s dead simple — the classic standing toe touch stretch, just with a light barbell in your hands to pull you further down. It’s good for anyone who can’t touch their toes. Make sure to maintain proper form, and avoid rounding your back.
This can be added to the end of a set of Romanian deadlifts or done on its own. If you find that the barbell touches the floor, perform it from a deficit, standing on a stool or block to allow the barbell to dip below your feet.
5. Doorway Chest or Shoulder Stretch
An easier variation of the chest and shoulder stretches that you can do almost anywhere, this stretch requires only a standard-sized doorway and your own bodyweight.
Stand in front of the doorway and rest your arms against the wall to either side as in a chest press or chest fly, or overhead as in a shoulder press (or even somewhere in between, as in an incline press).
Now let yourself fall forward so that your head and chest go slightly through the doorway, allowing yourself to feel the stretch in your chest, shoulders, and biceps. You can adjust the intensity of this stretch based on where you stand — the further back your feet are from the doorway, the more you’ll be leaning forward and the “heavier” you’ll be.
The big advantage to this stretch though, is that it can be done many times throughout the day, not unlike grease the groove style training. And since it’s separate from your workouts, the temporary strength reduction caused by stretching isn’t an issue.