Although most exercisers, and even arm-chair exercise “experts,” acknowledge that strength training exercises are an effective way to build strength in muscle and bone, relatively few members of these groups believe that these exercises also increase our flexibility. Novices in strength training are usually so preoccupied with learning good technique and proper breathing that they do not think much about the flexibility aspect of the exercises they are performing. And without any real proof, sideline critics of progressive strength training frequently claim that it causes a loss of flexibility, that it makes us stiff, awkward, and “muscle-bound.”
In contrast to these groups, however, there is another group of exercisers-thoughtful intermediate and advanced trainees-who have learned that performing strength training exercises with great concentration enables them to enhance their flexibility significantly. Consider the following example to illustrate this point.
In your right hand, grasp a soft rubber ball about the size of a baseball. Slowly curl your fingers around the ball and squeeze it tightly. Next, uncurl your fingers until the ball returns to full size. Now squeeze the ball again.
The foregoing is an exercise often given to people recovering from a hand injury or from a stroke. It is also performed by people who simply want to develop a stronger grip. Nearly everyone will agree that this exercise will increase the strength of the flexor muscles of the palm and fingers. Few, however, would claim this exercise also increases substantially the flexibility of those muscles.
Now, let’s try to perform this exercise a little differently, a little more thoughtfully.
Once again, take the rubber ball in your right hand. Instead of squeezing the ball first, as you did before, hold it straight out in front of you at arm’s length (elbow straight) and at shoulder height. Next, with the ball resting in the hollow of your palm, straighten your fingers and thumb and spread them as far apart as you can. This is what an advanced strength trainee calls “the fully stretched position.” Pause momentarily. If you concentrate, you will feel a stretching sensation in the muscles and tendons of your palm and fingers, and even in the webbed skin between each finger.
Pretty cool, huh? But that is just the beginning!
Now, with the finger pads of your left hand feel the muscles and tendons on the back of your right hand. You will be delighted to feel fairly strong contractions of these muscles, the extensors of the right hand and fingers. Next, keeping your left hand in the same place, slowly curl the fingers of your right hand and squeeze the ball as you did before. Once again you will feel the flexor muscles of your fingers and hand contract powerfully, although through a much greater range of motion than on your first squeeze.
But even this is not all!
As you squeezed the ball tightly with your right hand, with the fingertips of your left hand you felt a stretch in the tendons and muscles on the back of your right hand.
After a momentary pause in the fully gripped position, slowly uncurl your fingers, straightening and spreading them as much as you can until the flexor muscles feel fully stretched again. You have now performed one complete repetition of this exercise at an advanced level. You have not only contracted powerfully the flexor muscles of your right palm and fingers, you have stretched these muscles fully as well. Simultaneously, you have contracted and stretched the extensor muscles on the back of your right hand. You have transformed a simple grip strength exercise into dynamic challenge that enhances your flexibility as well.
If you perform this exercise for ten repetitions in each hand every other day for two weeks, you will be amazed that, in this brief span of time, you will not only have much greater grip strength but also, much better flexibility in your hands as well.
The principle of strength training illustrated by the simple exercise above is applicable to virtually all major muscle groups of the human body. If you stretch fully the target muscles of each exercise before you contract them, pause briefly, then contract them powerfully, pause briefly again, stretch them fully once more, and pause briefly again before initiating the next repetition, you will experience an incredible increase in your flexibility as well as your strength.
Every strength exercise is a flexibility exercise, ….if you perform that exercise slowly, thoughtfully, and through a full range of motion. Now you know why the mantra of Strength for Life®Health & Fitness Center is:
“Every millimeter of movement of every repetition of every exercise is an opportunity for personal artistic expression”