Strength Training Works as Well as Stretching for Flexibility, Study Shows

It’s time to let the myth of the muscle-bound bodybuilder die. While there’s certainly an element of truth, you shouldn’t worry about strength training limiting your flexibility. Quite the opposite, in fact.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of nearly a dozen academic papers, totaling over 400 participants, have shown that lifting weights works just as well for improving flexibility as stretching.

[Related: Best Muscle Recovery Supplements]

We’re going to break down the details of the study and give you some actionable advice for getting swole and flexy — without having to roll around on an exercise mat for an hour a day.

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, consulting with a trusted medical professional is always a good idea. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

What the Study Says

The paper was originally published in 2021 in the journal Healthcare and is titled “Strength Training vs. Stretching for Improving Range of Motion: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”, (1) authored by Afonso & colleagues.

Afonso et al. collected existing studies that met the following eligibility criteria:

“Humans of any condition”

Strength training interventions

Stretching effects on range of motion

Supervised, randomized controlled trials (RCTs)

They collected 11 separate studies observing 452 participants in total. After analyzing the data, the authors concluded, “Strength training and stretching were not different in their effects on range of motion.”


Before we draw our conclusions and suggest how you can action this information, let’s glance at some of the study’s limitations. Per the authors themselves, this meta-analysis suffered from:

Not separating data according to sex or age group.

A “predominance” of studies on female subjects.

“Predominance of assessments of hip range of motion,” and little data on other joints.

A lack of data on dose-response relationships and how they can impact flexibility.

Noteworthy: Many studies involve mostly male participants, especially if those experiments concern resistance training protocols. However, on average, women tend to be more flexible than men, which may have colored the collective data. (2)

How It Works

Exercising a muscle with weights does not necessarily make that tissue “tighter.” Eccentric exercise, or lengthening a muscle against resistance, is physiologically similar to when you hold a long stretch, while the extra load encourages tissue remodeling and long-term adaptations.

In short, performing free weight or machine exercises with weight stretches your muscles, too.

A 2022 meta-analysis on eccentric strength training (think sitting down into a deep squat) noted “strong flexibility enhancements” from strength training with long, pronounced eccentric movement. (3)

What You Should Do

Afonso & colleagues also remarked that strength training “had a few advantages in relation to stretching” — particularly with respect to saving time in the gym. You can kill two birds with one stone by performing certain compound exercises that naturally stretch the tissues around your major joints.

Action Item: Modify your exercise tempo such that you spend 5 to 10 seconds lowering the weight. This will accumulate much time under tension and improve your flexibility while potentially enhancing muscle growth. (4)

[Opinion: Why Long-Length Partial Reps Are Overrated for Bodybuilding]

We love exercises that accomplish more than one thing at a time, such as increasing strength while building muscle and increasing flexibility. Here are a handful of our favorite moves that should help improve your mobility:

Romanian Deadlift

Overhead Squat

Split Squat

Dumbbell Pullover

Chest Flye

It’s important to remember that almost any exercise — bodyweight or otherwise — can help you with your flexibility. We like these moves because they’re accessible and well-suited to progressive overload, the driving mechanism behind long-term progress.

Your Takeaways

All told, don’t sleep on strength training. Hitting the weights has long been the province of muscle-minded bodybuilders, and there’s no better way to get big and strong than working with the barbell.

But the benefits of lifting weights don’t stop there. Don’t be afraid to hit the iron; with proper technique, you should be more flexible in no time.

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Afonso J, Ramirez-Campillo R, Moscão J, Rocha T, Zacca R, Martins A, Milheiro AA, Ferreira J, Sarmento H, Clemente FM. Strength Training versus Stretching for Improving Range of Motion: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Healthcare (Basel). 2021 Apr 7;9(4):427. doi: 10.3390/healthcare9040427. PMID: 33917036; PMCID: PMC8067745.

Yu S, Lin L, Liang H, Lin M, Deng W, Zhan X, Fu X, Liu C. Gender difference in effects of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on flexibility and stiffness of hamstring muscle. Front Physiol. 2022 Jul 22;13:918176. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2022.918176. PMID: 35941935; PMCID: PMC9355829.

Vetter S, Schleichardt A, Köhler HP, Witt M. The Effects of Eccentric Strength Training on Flexibility and Strength in Healthy Samples and Laboratory Settings: A Systematic Review. Front Physiol. 2022 Apr 25;13:873370. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2022.873370. PMID: 35574461; PMCID: PMC9100951.

Wolf, Milo & Androulakis-Korakakis, Patroklos & Fisher, James & Schoenfeld, Brad & Steele, James & Wolf, M & Steele,. (2023). Partial Vs Full Range of Motion Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. 3. 10.47206/ijsc.v3i1.182.

Featured Image: Reshetnikov_art / Shutterstock

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