We've probably all heard the notion that weight training will make you muscle-bound and stiff--but that's a myth. Sure, some people who have large muscles are not very limber, but that's because they spend most of their time making their muscles bigger and do nothing to improve their flexibility.
A good weight-training routine improves both your strength and your flexibility. A key factor is that you train each muscle group through its entire range of motion, organizing your routine to work all the muscles surrounding a particular joint. For instance, it's best to train the front, sides and back of your shoulders in the same session. Above all, you must not forget to stretch. That way you can lengthen the tightened muscle while it is still warm and pliable. You can stretch between sets or at the completion of your routine. Take care to stretch specific muscles you just worked.
So building a strong upper body, with a developed chest and well-defined shoulders, doesn't mean you have to compromise any of your flexibility in that area. Just make sure that along with your incline presses or shoulder raises you also perform these two simple stretching moves.
Place the palms of your hands against a flat wall about shoulder height and shoulder width apart. Your fingers should point up. Bend forward at your hips and walk your feet away from the wall until your ankles are directly below your hips. Your feet should be hip-width apart.
On an exhale, begin moving your upper body parallel to the floor. Once you feel a slight stretch across your chest, press firmly into your hands. Keep your elbows straight and try to rotate your tricep muscles (the muscles in the backs of your upper arm) to face the ground. This small movement brings the stretch deeper into your shoulders and helps to release any tension held in your neck. Remember to keep your abdominals pulled in toward your spine, and don't allow your rib cage to protrude.
Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds, relaxing and breathing. Repeat two more times.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Place your hands about 18 inches behind you, with your fingers pointed away from your body. Exhale, slide your buttocks forward and bend one leg, placing that foot on the floor for balance.
As you inhale, spread your fingers, press down against your hands and lift your chest forward, away from your hands. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as much as you can without letting your shoulders lift up toward your ears.
Hold this stretch for 15 to 30 seconds while you continue to breathe deeply. Focus on feeling an expanded chest and a lengthening in the front of your shoulders. Repeat two more times.
These stretches are easy to do yet very effective. They can be a quick release if you feel tension in your neck and shoulders after exercising, and they can be a refreshing way to start your day. Since these simple moves open up the whole area across your chest, upper arms and back, don't be surprised if your breathing and posture improve almost immediately.
Karen Voight can be reached at kvoight firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears the first Monday of the month. Joan Voight, a San Francisco journalist, contributed to this column.