I saw a video recently, it was of a bodybuilder being unable to pull a sticker off of his upper back. It was a good laugh, but it got me thinking, can bodybuilding affect flexibility? Hopefully, this article will help to uncover the truth.
Bodybuilding should improve flexibility for most people, as it involves a lot of exercises that stretch and lengthen the muscles. However, once your muscles achieve a certain size, it could impact your mobility. Bodybuilders such as Kai Greene remain incredibly flexible despite their bulk.
In this article, I will take a look at the difference between flexibility and mobility. I will discuss bodybuilders with incredible flexibility. And I will explain why some bodybuilders suffer from poor flexibility/mobility. I also look at ways to train for bodybuilding as well as flexibility.
It feels like I start every bodybuilding article with this exact same disclaimer. Bodybuilding is a form of training, which is followed by people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. This means that your stereotypical view of what a bodybuilder looks like is not representative of all bodybuilders.
That image of the incredibly bulky bodybuilder, with lats so wide they can’t touch their upper back represents just a small fraction of bodybuilders. Even then, there are many very bulky bodybuilders who still maintain incredible flexibility.
Check out this video of Kai Greene winning the 2016 Arnold Classic, mostly thanks to this incredible posing routine. This isn’t even the most flexibility Kai has demonstrated, but it is a great example of athleticism and flexibility from one of the most successful bodybuilders of the 21st century.
If Kai Greene can maintain such incredible flexibility while also building large muscles, then this proves that bodybuilding should not affect flexibility. For anyone who has moved from a sedentary lifestyle to a bodybuilding lifestyle, they can expect an increase in flexibility, as well as an increase in mobility.
Bodybuilding evolved from traditional strongman competitions at the beginning of the 20th century. Strongmen were less focused on physique and more focused on entertainment. Producing feats of strength and athleticism.
Eugene Sandow, known as the godfather of bodybuilding (who’s name and likeness are used for the Mr Olympia trophy). Was a strongman who first developed bodybuilding. The first competition was held in London in 1901 and involved wrestling, gymnastics, and many other examples of athleticism (and flexibility).
What’s this all got to do with modern day bodybuilding? My point is that bodybuilding came from strongmen competitions and was linked with gymnastics. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the two practices would have been considered similar.
For some unknown reason, male gymnastics is now seen as less of a manly pursuit, and as such male gymnasts are dismissed as “nothing like bodybuilders”. But look at the natural physique of an Olympic gymnast and compare it to a natural bodybuilder. Their physiques are very similar.
Check out the size of Arthur Zanetti, who won Gold at London 2012 in the Men’s Rings competition. Bear in mind that Zanetti would have to be completely natural as drug testing is huge in athletics and gymnastics.
There are very few natural bodybuilders who would have more muscle mass than Zanetti, yet obviously, his flexibility is unparalleled. Proving that reaching your max potential for muscle mass without steroids should have no impact on flexibility or mobility.
Natural bodybuilders who have poor flexibility are either not training properly. Or they were born with certain characteristics that made flexibility more difficult to achieve.
Most bodybuilding fans will have watched the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron. The program that helped Arnold Schwarzenegger become a household name. The program starts with a scene of Arnold and his longtime friend and adversary Franco Columbu learning poses in a ballet class.
For a long time, I believed that this scene was set up for the documentary. Many scenes in Pumping Iron were faked or stage-managed, either by the producers or by Arnold himself. But apparently, ballet was a real part of Arnold’s training for Mr Olympia.
This video shows that even as far back as the 70s, increasing flexibility has been important in bodybuilding. The reason? To improve posing success, and help increase chances of winning a bodybuilding competition.
Of course, some could argue that the need for ballet proves that bodybuilding can negatively affect flexibility. Hopefully, I’ve managed to convince you so far that this is not the case.
Flexibility and mobility are often wrongly conflated. Though it is possible to have poor flexibility and poor mobility, they are not the same thing. I really don’t want to spend too much time talking about the differences, because that is a whole article on its own. So I’ll give you a rough guide:
“is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to lengthen passively through a range of motion” (Southside Physiotherapy‘s excellent definition).
“the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion” (Southside Physiotherapy definition)
As you can see, flexibility and mobility are terms used to describe a muscle or muscle group. Or a single joint. They are not supposed to be used to describe a person. You may have terrible hamstring flexibility, but if all your other muscles are flexible, then is it right to describe you as inflexible?
A man with a damaged right shoulder will have poor mobility in that shoulder, but the rest of him may be absolutely fine. Do you classify him as immobile? Probably not.
Personally, I think that if a person has flexibility issues in multiple muscles or muscle groups, then they are inflexible. If someone has mobility issues in multiple joints then they have mobility issues. If it is just one area of the body that is affected, then that is another matter. Particularly if it can be dealt with through exercise or physio.
There are several explanations of why some bodybuilders have poor mobility. Some reasons are genetic, some reasons are down to poor training, and some reasons are due to bad luck. Here is a list of common reasons:
Most successful bodybuilders are quite short compared to other athletes. Phil Heath is 5 foot 9 inches tall. Jay Cutler is 5 foot 8 inches tall. Dexter Jackson is only 5 foot 5. But their muscles are massively outsized compared to a regular person. This has an impact on mobility.
The bodybuilder failing to take a sticker off his upper back that I linked to at the top of the article struggled because his lats were so wide and his arms quite short. He may not have any real mobility issues caused by injury, but it’s just what happens when you get very large muscles and have short arms.
Most bodybuilders base their workouts around traditional movements such as bench press, lat pulldown, bent over row, and shoulder press. This makes a lot of sense as these are large compound movements that will provide huge muscle gains. But this may lead to them neglecting exercises that can improve posture or mobility. This will not apply to all bodybuilders, but definitely some. Using a seated hamstring curl machine instead of performing Romanian deadlifts may help you train the hamstrings more, but it won’t be as good for improving ROM.
At the age of 36, most professional athletes will have suffered from some serious injury at least a couple of times. This can lead to mobility issues. The constant training at high intensities from the ages of 15 to 36 has an impact.
It’s the same for bodybuilders, except that a bodybuilding career is often just getting started at 36 years of age! Bodybuilding also involves more training, usually thanks to anabolic steroids helping with recovery. Even with an illegal advantage from PEDs, the muscles and joints are still being put through hell on a daily basis. Is it so surprising then that bodybuilders have poor ROM after years of training through injuries and overtraining?
This last “reason” isn’t really a reason at all. The truth is that most bodybuilders have an excellent range of motion, it’s just that the narrative is that they don’t. People see that video of the bodybuilder not being able to touch his upper back and laugh. But they are less likely to watch Kai Greene doing the splits, or Schwarzenegger pirouetting.
There are a few ways to improve your flexibility as a bodybuilder, this will have many advantages. Better flexibility means less injury risk, a better ROM for each exercise (more muscle fibre recruitment), and an improved ability to pose. Here are several ways to improve your flexibility:
Obviously, bodybuilders use free weights all the time. But they also tend to focus on resistance machines. Preferring the leg press to the barbell squat, the leg curl to the Romanian deadlift, or the shoulder press machine to the overhead press. This is all understandable, as it allows you to perform more reps with a heavier weight. But free weight exercises can help to train your muscles more naturally. Allowing a greater range of motion, and improving flexibility.
The face pull is a superb exercise for improving upper back and shoulder mobility, but it’s just here as an example. Find exercises that improve mobility and strengthen the smaller muscles of the upper back and shoulders to improve your overall mobility and flexibility.
Rear delt flyes, resistance band assisted exercises, and some forms of active stretching can also help to improve your flexibility and to pre-hab you against injury. Though no exercise can guarantee and injury-free existence.
Adding a weekly yoga class (or online session) into your week may seem crazy for a bodybuilder. But there are so many benefits. There are the physical benefits of improving your flexibility and increasing mobility. But you have also got to think about the mental benefits.
Bodybuilding is a stressful lifestyle. Everything is done at extremes. You don’t gently exercise, you crush it, you don’t eat breakfast, you bulk. And you don’t take a daily multivitamin, you take Animal Pak. There are overtraining, injury, stress, anxiety, possibly even body dysmorphia and disordered eating.
A yoga session can help you to meditate, to breathe slowly, to focus on positive imagery, and it can often help you to relax and lower your stress levels. I once sat in on a yoga class (technically I was overseeing the gym). At the end of the session, I was pretty much asleep!
PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, and it is a form of stretching that I used to use on my clients a lot. The idea is that you get someone to help you stretch by applying pressure and then relaxing.
For example; Lie on your back with one leg straight up in the air. Your partner will hold your ankle, and with their other hand ensure that your leg is fully straight. Depending on your hamstring flexibility, your leg may be straight up in the air, or at an angle that is closer to the floor. The better your flexibility the more vertical the leg.
You hold this position for 30 seconds, then you push your ankle hard against your partner’s hand, trying to push your leg down towards the ground. They will try to prevent this, and there will be a lot of muscular tension for those 30 seconds. Once the 30 seconds stop, you will remove all pressure (but keep your leg straight). Your partner will then be able to push your leg back a little bit further than before. You then hold that stretch for a further 30 seconds.
Over time, your hamstring flexibility will improve. I’ve seen amazing results with this. I once had a client who could barely get their foot off the floor because their hamstring flexibility was so poor. But after a couple of months, they were able to stick their leg vertically up in the air while lying down.
It’s not just hamstrings though, PNF stretching works with shoulders, chest, quads, glutes, most muscles. Just make sure that your partner knows what they are doing. It’s not amazingly dangerous when done incorrectly. It’s just likely to be ineffective.
This last one is a bit of a controversial one. Many fitness experts disagree about whether foam rollers can actually improve flexibility. Some studies find small improvements while others finding none. Personally, I think that the benefits of foam rollers are largely overstated. They won’t prevent DOMS, they won’t prevent injury, and they may not even improve flexibility.
But they can lessen post-exercise soreness (different to DOMS), they can improve mobility in the short term, and they may improve flexibility. Just don’t waste 30 minutes of gym time on them. Use them on your rest day.
Firstly, I would say that it is important to change your mindset when it comes to bodybuilding and flexibility. Following bodybuilding properly should not lead to a loss of flexibility. In fact, many people should see an improvement.
Long term bodybuilding could lead to a reduction in mobility and your ROM may decline for certain exercises. But this is to be expected of any form of sports training at a high level. Risk can be lowered by focusing on flexibility in the same way you would focus on nutrition, sleep, or strength building.
Can bodybuilding affect flexibility? Possibly, but that effect could be either positive or negative. It all depends on the individual bodybuilder and how they decide to train.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.