Strength train for flexibility

The strategy: eccentric exercises 

A recent review suggests slowing down on the eccentric phase of a lift (like while extending the arm during a bicep curl or dropping into a squat) improves flexibility in the working muscles. Increasing time under tension during this portion, when the muscle is actually lengthened, is critical for range of motion, Fournier says. If a muscle is weak when lengthening, the nervous system will try to prevent injury by limiting how freely it can stretch.

How to do it: Perform the concentric segment of heavy lifts over one second and the eccentric part over four to eight seconds, Fournier says. If you have to stop before reaching the true end point of an exercise (for example, before your quads are parallel to the ground in a squat), consider doing 10 extra slow eccentric reps with a lighter load before going heavy. Research suggests this can improve mobility in the reps that follow. 

Only do this type of tempo work once per week per muscle group. The practice can cause more muscular stress, microscopic damage, and post-workout soreness than your typical one-second-up, one-second-down lifts do.  

The strategy: core work 

Lower-body tightness, particularly in the hamstrings, often has nothing to do with the legs. Instead, this issue stems from a weak core, which causes a forward tilt in the pelvis and pulls the hamstrings long and taught like a rubber band, says Fournier. (If someone has a large arch in their lower back, a pelvic tilt and weak core are likely to blame.) 

If your hamstrings chronically rest in that state, they won’t stretch any further. As a result, you won’t be able to touch your toes or lower properly during snatches or cleans. 

How to do it: Every day, perform at least one core exercise such as dead bugs and hollow body holds. Both require you to contract, or engage, the transverse abs. These innermost core muscles return the pelvis to neutral, allowing the hamstrings to rest at ease and increasing your range of motion, Fournier says.

Once you learn to find this pelvic position, maintain it during hamstring-focused exercises like deadlifts, snatches, and cleans. “If you’ve only been able to perform Romanian deadlifts in the past, try lowering to blocks or a power rack’s safety bars, and eventually the floor,” he says. Over time, you’ll be able to lower to the floor without rounding your back.

The strategy: 1.5 reps 

This technique involves performing an exercise through part of your range of motion, then again through your full range, one right after the other. The full-range technique can improve flexibility in the hamstrings, hips, and shoulders just as well as stretching does, according to research from the University of North Dakota. 

But that extra half rep increases how much time you spend with your working muscles at their longest, where they tend to be weak, for even greater benefit, Fournier says. This will also help you stretch deeply without risking injury. 

How to do it: You can perform 1.5 reps with any exercise. Take the barbell bench press, for example. To perform sets of 1.5 reps, lower the bar to your chest, press up halfway (just past the sticking point where the move feels the most difficult) then immediately lower the weight down again. From there, press up completely to return to start. That’s 1.5 reps. 

Always lighten the load or do fewer total reps than you’d normally do when using this technique. Incorporate it into your routine once per week per muscle group to get the most benefits.

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