Tag: passive flexibility

What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Flexibility?

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

Active flexibility is the amount that we can use our own muscles to move into an end range position.

Active Flexibility Illustration

The active range is how far you can move into a stretch using your own muscles

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

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.

Drawing showing that passive flexibility is greater than active flexibility

Passive flexibility, using help to stretch, will almost always be greater than active flexibility.



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.

Happy Bendings!


Stretching for Adults Part 3: Safely Building Useful Flexibility


In my experience, adults who would like to become more flexible excel when we approach our training with a devotion to the process rather than as a slave to the results.

The ideal approach to training flexibility is to use a variety of stretching techniques. Because an over emphasis on passive stretching can leave gaps in your development it is important to have other options. If you are encountering obstacles—pain, injury, poor alignment, weakness, feeling stuck—it may be time to try a new approach. The more tools you have at your disposal the better prepared you are to respond to your body’s needs as it opens up and changes.

All three of the common problems experienced by adults during flexibility training (discussed in Part 2 of the series) occur because passive stretching does not build strength, it only lengthens. Often we think of building flexibility and building strength as two different, even exclusive processes. The truth is that our flexibility in a given area can be hampered by weakness in the joints and muscles around it. Sometimes a muscle is tight because it is weak, and therefore feels like it has to be constantly contracted to do its job. These weaknesses can even be present in someone who is ripped and very strong in other ways. Building the strength that will help with flexibility requires specific techniques.


Methods to Safely Increase Flexibility in Adults

Active Stretching

Stretching a muscle or muscles by using the opposing muscle group. This means using your own strength to open a joint, for instance by lifting your leg and holding it in place, moving your arm back until you feel the stretch, or lifting into a cobra with no hands. Active stretching is extremely important in developing usable flexibility and in unlocking chronically tight joints. It works to stabilize loose joints and correct muscle imbalances. The greater the difference between your passive flexibility and your active flexibility the greater your risk of injury, the more pain you have during stretching, and the longer it takes to warm up. Active stretching is also effective for very muscular bodies that find it difficult to “relax” into a stretch.

Resistance Stretching

Placing the muscle in a passive stretch and resisting the stretch by contracting the stretched muscle for short (3-5 second) intervals and relaxing in between. This builds strength in the muscle at the full range of motion and may help the muscle to relax and lengthen more than it would with passive static stretching. It is useful for muscles that are chronically tight and weak and need both strength and length. It is best not to do more than three reps of contractions since this can exhaust the muscle and make it more prone to injury, but done correctly it can help to provide strength through the full range of motion.

Dynamic Stretching*

Controlled movement in and out of the stretch, for instance leg lifts, arm circles, flexing and pointing the foot, etc. Proper dynamic stretching means that you are in control of your body at all times, you could freeze if you wanted to, but you keep the body moving as a means of facilitating relaxation, developing strength and control, identifying improper alignment, and building body awareness. This is essential training for anyone who wants to use their flexibility in movement (dancers, martial artists, circus performers, etc) or as a warm up and injury prevention for any athletic activity. It is also very useful when working with a muscle that is full of fear and strenuously resists stretching. Moving in and out of the stretch will allow the muscle to gradually feel safer and relax.

Used in combination with passive static stretching these three methods can be employed for any muscle group to design the perfect workout for your body. Together they can help to stabilize the joints, build strength, and comfort the nervous system, problems not addressed when overly relying on passive stretching.

All four methods have the same goal: to allow the muscles to relax and lengthen with support, creating a body that is supple, strong, and under your control. They all work a little differently, and it requires an intimate, loving, and communicative relationship with your body to know which method will get those cranky muscles to loosen their grip and learn new behaviors.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula for the exact ratios between these methods because every body is different, plus your needs will vary depending on what you want to do with your flexibility. A body builder will need a very different set of exercises than a ballerina or a basketball player or an aerialist. A process of patient, careful experimentation will yield new discoveries.

In my experience, adults who would like to become more flexible excel when we approach our training with a devotion to the process rather than as a slave to the results. The desire to achieve a particular goal as fast as possible may deliver a speedy change but it will not give you safe, sustainable, useable results. Taking the time to feel your body, learn a variety of methods, and find techniques that work for you will yield lasting and satisfying flexibility.

Happy Bendings!

This short series is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on the vast subject of flexibility and stretching science but a brief overview. It should not be considered a training manual or medical advice; if you are experiencing pain or injury from your training please consult a medical professional. I encourage bendy people everywhere to learn all you can about your body, how it works, and the various approaches to flexibility fitness. The more we know about how we work, the more efficient our training can be. Please stay in touch!

* Dynamic stretching must be distinguished from ballistic stretching which uses momentum to force the body into a greater range of motion (fast kicks past your comfortable range of motion, bouncing in a stretch, etc). Ballistic stretching should be approached with caution as it has a high risk factor for injury.