What’s the Difference Between Passive and Active Stretching?

Passive and active stretching are two ways an athlete can actively work to improve their mobility. Each type of stretch can be beneficial in certain circumstances, and using each will often depend on the scenario an athlete find themselves in.

For people who like to work out often, but constantly find themselves sitting down and hunched over computers/phones, then there should be some level of mobility work in a weekly routine. In this article, we’ll quickly break down passive and active stretching and when to use each.

Passive Stretching

The act of passive stretching entails the use of an external force on a relaxed muscle to produce a stretch. This external force could be multiple things such as: your bodyweight, a strap, another person, some form of leverage, and gravity. An athlete will not contract or utilize their musculature in a passive stretch, and gives full control to the external force.

A passive stretch requires very little energy, and is often performed when the main goal is to improve one’s flexibility, as a passive stretch will typically allow for an improvement in range of motion past one’s comfort level. The external force is helping to push, or assist one’s limb into a degree of motion they wouldn’t be able to accomplish without it.

Benefits of Passive Stretching

Passive stretching can be beneficial when an athlete’s goal is to improve their flexibility past the point of where they can comfortably put themselves without external force. Since they’re allowing an external force to stretch them while relaxed, then typically an athlete can push a little further, as opposed to them performing an active stretch on themselves. Additionally, you may see some forms of passive stretching used in different mobility assessments.

[Should weightlifters perform static stretching? Check out what this author says.]

For athletes looking to improve their flexibility, then post-workout is often the best time to use passive stretching. The muscle will be warmed-up and chances of over stretching a tight or cold muscle will be lessened. In addition, before bed can be a useful time to perform passive stretches, as there’s less chance of injuring oneself due to a possibly over stretched muscle soon after exerting force, as sleeping is a completely inactive part of the day.

Examples: A friend stretching your hamstring, performing a doorway stretch, and doing a pigeon on an incline bench.

Active Stretching

Opposite to its counterpart, active stretching relies solely on the athlete and doesn’t involve an external force. An active stretch requires the athlete to actively stretch their joint with the creation of a stretch produced from opposing muscle groups. Remember, this style of stretch requires the athlete to produce force to stretch a muscle, as opposed to being relaxed like in passive stretching.

Active stretching is good for stretching a joint through its current range of motion under the power of one’s own muscles. This style stretch requires an athlete’s energy, and this is a characteristic that should be considered when performing them around a workout.

Benefits of Active Stretching

One of the main benefits of active stretching is that carries (relatively) fewer risks than passive stretching. Since there’s no external force, and a stretch is performed completely under one’s own power, then there’s less chance of over-stretching. In addition, this style stretch can be a useful tool when you’ve been inactive for hours on end.

For example, let’s say you sat all day and just stood up, and you notice your calves are tight. As opposed to going straight to a stair and possibly overstretching a cold calve muyscle, you’ll actively stretch within your current range of motion through the use of the anterior muscles on the leg. It’s a safer means of doing so, and you’re simultaneously warming-up the lower limb, win win.

The last scenario I’ve found active stretching to be useful is after waking up in the morning. It’s useful in this scenario because it eases the body into natural ranges of motion, requires energy without exerting too much too quick, and it’s a decent way to start mobilizing stiff joints.

Examples: Sitting and actively stretching the calve (contract anterior shin muscles), and opening the chest by extending the arms out to the side and creating a stretch by flexing the back musculature.

Final Word

These are only two means of stretching, and keep in mind, we didn’t reference static or dynamic, which are two stretches most often associated with workouts. Passive and active stretching are useful for improving flexibility and mobility. Both style stretches will help athletes achieve different ranges of motion.

One thing to note, passive stretching can be slightly more dangerous for athletes when there’s lack of attention to one’s flexibility limits.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @petrihalonen Instagram page.