Do bigger muscles make stretching harder?

Is it true that bigger and bulkier muscles make getting flexible very hard?

It’s easy to see why you may ask this question if you been walked into the weights room of your local gym.

You will see some big guys who look very tense and stiff… not to mention that the massive muscles around their joints are literally getting in the way of their limbs being able to move more freely than those of their skinnier counterparts.

Yes it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lot of strength training that you see in modern day gyms makes people tighter. This is true for a number of different reasons.

The first is that most people in these settings engage in bodybuilding methods and aim to increase their muscles’ time under tension to stimulate muscular growth. There is nothing wrong with this practice… if one realises they need to offset the length and tension discrepancies they have created in their muscles as a side effect.

You’ll also see some powerlifters from time to time who are also quite tight. Their type of training is designed around frequently producing whole body tension in order to lift the extremely heavy loads that they do.

To add to the tension, powerlifting is also performed in ranges of motion that are not the greatest, but will allow the greatest amount of load to be lifted. A great example of this is the powerlifting style bench press:

Above: Powerlifting style bench press

Above: Standard bodybuilding style bench press

In the powerlifting bench press, the range of motion is significantly shortened to enable the bar to travel less (and thus the weight and therefore tension to be increased).

Bodybuilders and powerlifters tend to be large in body size by implication. Although bodybuilding style training generally has greater ranges of motion than exercises performed in powerlifting style training, this increased muscular range is counterstruck by the bodybuilder’s increased muscular size that carries it’s own increased drawbacks when it comes to making the muscles supple and less tense.

In fact, research by Chleboun et al. and Magnusson et al. (1997) showed that the bigger the muscles are around a joint, the greater the level of passive resistance to movements throughout the particular muscles’ range of motion.

What does this mean? In plain speak, this means that there is a natural tendency for larger muscles to resist against elongating and stretching.

Are more muscular people doomed for eternal rigidity?

Although some of the previous training methods (an many more!) can cause muscular tightness and a loss of flexibility, there are definitely measures brawnier people can take to unravel the length and tension discrepancies their training and muscular development naturally cause.

Continuous movements, such as dynamic stretches or strength exercises performed throughout a full range of motion (ROM) has been shown to lower the passive resistance of the muscles involved.  (McNair et al. 2001; McNair and Stanley 1996; Wilson et al. 1992).

One study showed resistance training of calf muscles performed at an intensity of 70% of the 1 Rep Max for 5 sets of 10 reps over 8 weeks without stretching, increased passive resistance in ROM within the muscles of its subjects. However, adding static stretching to the regime, avoided this increase in the subjects when it was incorporated (Kubo et al. 2002a).

Although most strength exercises are tension-producing, isometric strength exercises where there is no noticeable change in the muscles’ length while under tension (e.g. wall sits, planks etc) can really increase passive resistance in the muscles (i.e. make them tighter). This is especially true for fast twitch muscle groups that are not made for endurance, such as the hamstrings.

Studies testing the impact of isometric exercises on the hamstrings showed a remarkable increase in the hamstring’s passive resistance throughout ROM when this muscle group was trained isometrically – even when done together with passive static stretches (Klinge et al. 1997).

Isometrics are great for building strength (and often muscle too), but if overused, they can really tighten up the working areas. To minimise the effects of this type of exercise, it’s wise not to make isometrics a considerable part (or the sole modality) of a training plan.

Instead, use a variety of methods and modalities that stretch and strengthen the body throughout a full range of motion. This will not only help your body function better, it will also lower the stiffness of muscle-tendon unit and avoid potential overuse injuries (Wilson et al. 1992).

As you can now see, having bigger muscles can definitely make stretching harder. However, this does not make flexibility progress impossible.

In fact, there are a number of people who are both muscular and flexible at the same time because they give adequate attention to practicing both their strength and flexibility training:

Being muscular and flexible is not a special gift you need to possess, it is actually quite simple – the amount of time you stretch increases with the level of tension-producing activity you do.

For even maintenance levels of flexibility, it is recommended that an equal portion of time is spent on tension reducing practises (e.g. stretching) to balance out the tension producing activities (e.g. gym, running, etc).

How would this look in practical terms? Well let’s say that you spend five hours per week in the gym, that means that you need to do 5 hours of stretching to maintain your muscular length end tension levels (and even more than this to improve your tissue quality and flexibility range of motion).

Also, working through the fullest range of motion possible with your exercises will go a long way to improving your muscular tension levels – Olympic weightlifting with its deep squatting and overhead range of motion requirements is a great example of this:

After all, not all of us want to look and be like skinny yoga girls. You can train your body to be bigger, stronger, fitter and faster – just keep in mind though, that these aspirations need to be accommodated by an adequate amount of flexibility work to not only maintain range of motion and functionality but to improve recovery between the bouts of the other exercises modalities that you want to participate in.

Bigger muscles might be harder to stretch but they are also harder to produce in the first place. If you give your flexibility training the same focus and intent, you will indeed be both muscular and flexible.

If you’re serious and ready right now to get your flexibility up to speed with the rest of your training, then simply fill out your details below to see if you qualify for our Flexibility Fast-track Program. One of our expert coaches will get in touch with you and show you what is possible for your body:

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