There are two different ways that we can measure our flexibility in any joint: active flexibility and passive flexibility. It is important to know the difference between them and how to use them to achieve your flexibility goals.
Active flexibility is the amount that we can use our own muscles to move into an end range position.
So if I want to lengthen my hamstrings and the back of my leg, my active flexibility would be the amount that I could use my hip flexors to bring my leg closer to my body without touching it.
Active flexibility is the measurement of the shortened muscles’ ability to contract when it gets very short, which can be very challenging at first. Often active stretching doesn’t feel like a traditional stretch, it feels more like a strength exercise. Most of us aren’t used to strengthening our joints at our end range.
Active flexibility is essential for building strength and flexibility together, and keeping our joints stable. It’s important for addressing alignment, and correcting muscle imbalances that could be causing chronic tightness. It is also valuable for preventing injuries and making sure that our flexibility is helpful and useful for our chosen activities.
Passive flexibility is the amount that we can move into an end range with help from an external force, whether it’s pulling with a strap, pushing from a coach, or gravity pressing us to the floor as it does in a split.
To find my passive flexibility in my hamstrings/back of the leg, I would pull gently on my leg with my hands or a yoga strap, or have a knowledgeable coach push the leg into a deeper stretch.
Passive flexibility means that the resting length of your muscles and connective tissues is longer, and that your nervous system is comfortable with a larger range of motion. Passive stretching will increase those two factors and facilitate a feeling of relaxation and decreased pain.
Finding the Balance
It is very important to find the proper balance between active and passive stretching for your body and your goals. Passive stretching is often over-emphasized because it is better-known. Too much passive stretching can create unstable joints, less useful flexibility, and possibly injury, especially in hypermobile people.
If you are experiencing joint pain, difficulty with strength movements, or you are struggling to make any progress in your flexibility quest you may not be doing enough active stretching.
If there is a very big difference between your active and passive flexibility in any particular joint, incorporate more active exercises to decrease that difference. You will always have more passive flexibility than active flexibility, but it is our goal to minimize the difference in order to ensure the health of our joints and prevent injury. FaB courses and Video on Demand service offer a variety of workouts combining the many approaches to stretching for optimal results.
Important Factoids about Active vs Passive Flexibility
1. Don’t let the name fool you, passive flexibility isn’t all about relaxation. When you are in a passive stretch you still need to engage your supporting muscles to hold your form. It is extremely rare that you want to be completely relaxed in a stretch as this can compromise your joint alignment and you may miss the tightest muscles that really need the stretch.
2. When it comes to passive stretching, more pressure does not mean more progress. Unless you are extremely muscled you don’t want to be pushing super hard on your stretches. Light to medium pressure is sufficient in almost all cases and more pressure can just cause tears and strains.
3. One of the reasons that active flexibility is so important is that the limiting factor in our flexibility isn’t always the muscle that’s stretching. Sometimes it’s the muscle that’s shortening. So that tightness in bringing your leg to your chest may be the result of hip flexors that don’t want to get shorter! If that is the case, contracting those muscles in an active stretch can be immensely helpful.
4. Active and passive stretching don’t have to be done separately, they can be combined. Play with alternating between the two, adding an active component to a passive stretch, and using movement in your stretches. For lots of ideas on how to do that check out our classes and video library.
Read more about the benefits of different varieties of stretching in this blog post, and check out the video below for all you visual learners who want to see these concepts in action.