Active vs Passive Flexibility - What's the difference & why does it matter?

Updated: Aug 21, 2021


Do you ever stare at flexy pole queens like Felix Cane, Bendy Kate, Maddie Sparkle and Amy Hazel and drool over their beautiful lines in incredible tricks like Spatchcocks, Bird of Paradise, Rainbow Marchenkos…? And then simply wonder how do I just get that Jade split line at least FLAT?

Well me too! So, I am putting my pole physio brain on to talk about how to get the lines of our dreams, all whilst reducing risk of injury.

DEFINITIONS

Before we start, let’s get some definitions down pat! We often hear people use the words flexibility, mobility, and range of motion interchangeably. However, while they are closely related, it’s important to understand the differences.

So to start, what is range of motion (ROM)?

This is how much a joint can move from one position to another. For example, when you measure your hip flexion ROM, you measure the angle from its neutral position (standing or lying flat) to where you can flex that hip to.


Now when you add the word ‘passive’ and ‘active’ range of motion (shortened to PROM and AROM respectively), it allows you to have a more specific picture of not only how much a joint can move, but what is the force enabling the change in position.

Passive Range of motion (PROM) is how much your joint can change position with the help of an external force. In the case above, your hip flexion PROM angle would be measured from your neutral position to where an external force (like your own hand or a physio) can push it to. This is usually the furthest the joint will go.

Active range of motion (AROM) on the other hand, is how much your joint can change position when the agonist muscle (main mover of the joint) contracts and the antagonist muscle (opposite muscle) relaxes. Using the same example, your hip flexion AROM would be indicative of your hip flexor (agonist muscle) strength as well as your hamstring’s (antagonist muscle) ability to relax.

Now that you understand that, let’s start delving into this topic by understanding the important differences between active and passive flexibility.


Then what is Flexibility?

Flexibility is essentially one’s ability to change their joint’s position/range of motion.

Passive Flexibility

Passive flexibility is known as the range of motion that you are able to achieve with assistance from external pressure. For example: Sitting in your front splits on the floor will demonstrate your passive flexibility as you are able to sit in this range of motion with the assistance of gravity.

Now take your front split and try to do it standing! Are you able to achieve the same range? Most people cannot, and this is where active flexibility comes in.


Active Flexibility

Active flexibility is the range of motion that you can achieve ‘actively’ by using your muscle strength. In this case, you are able to demonstrate your active flexibility in a standing front split as it is the active version of the floor front split.

Oh lordy, I hope this isn’t taking your brain too much effort to wrap around! Because can you guess what stretching is then?

Stretching is the method or technique that we use to help improve our body’s ability to achieve a desired range of motion (flexibility). I’m sure as you’ve guessed that this can be split up into passive stretching and active stretching too.

Mini Recap:

  • Range of motion = amount of change to a joint’s position

  • Flexibility = the ability to change a joint’s position to a desired position either actively or passively

  • Stretching = a method or technique used to improve your flexibility. Active or passive techniques can be employed to stretch a muscle/joint



With me still? Great! Let’s keep going with these definitions…


Maddie Sparkles passively stretching

Passive Stretching

Passive stretching is when we stretch our muscles into its range of motion with assistance from external mechanical forces such as gravity, hands, straps etc, but other creative methods have been used along the way!

Remember those days when you saw those wicked stretch contraptions that dancers used to help them stretch further into the splits?

Well check out the flexy queen of spreadies Maddie Sparkle using one in the photo here! That middle split is simply stunning!

Active Stretching

Active stretching involves activating or strengthening a muscle group with the aim to achieve length. This usually involves isometric and eccentric strengthening techniques.

Isometric strengthening is when you tense and hold the muscle you are aiming to stretch. Let’s say you are aiming to lengthen your hamstrings using this technique- you can lie on your back and flex your hip with a straight knee (your hamstring should be feeling stretched in this position). With your hands around your calf on hamstring, push energy away from your torso into your hands without moving anywhere and HOLD! This is an example of an isometric hamstring stretch.

Eccentric strengthening on the other hand, is when you are contracting the muscle you are aiming to stretch at length. Using the hamstring example above, a tippy bird or single leg dead-lift (with and without weight) is a good example. While hinging your hips to its maximum range you are stretching the hamstring (the muscle aimed to be stretched is at length). You will then contract it at this maximum length to extend your hips and stand tall. Eccentric stretching with load is therefore done with increased weight or resistance.

Should I use active or passive stretching techniques to improve my flexibility quicker?

We know through limited evidence that passive stretching can help to lengthen muscles when held for several minutes at a time, completed at moderate to high intensity and performed consistently for weeks for tissue adaptations to occur (Freitas & Mil-Homens, 2015).

But is this the safest and most effective way to stretch?

The answer to this is that there is not one more effective way to stretch but rather stretching should include a combination of passive & active style stretching. Like anything when pushed too quickly passive stretching can be associated with a higher risk of injury from muscle fibre deformation. A common injury I see associated with overloading passive stretching is a proximal hamstring tendinopathy.

How do we reduce risk of injury during our flexibility training?

This risk of injury with stretching training can be reduced through the following ways:

  • utilising correct stretch technique

  • guidance from a good mobility/flexibility coach

  • strengthening these muscles in these lengthened positions

So whilst passive stretching is a great way to improve flex, we at The Pole Physio place a heavy focus on strengthening these muscles and owning your range. The stronger you are into range, the more comfortable your body will feel place in positions of greater stretch.

DID YOU KNOW? After years and years of ballet dancers sitting in passive stretches, the Australian Ballet’s Sue Mayes (The Australian Ballet’s Principal Physiotherapist) ceased this practice, instead shifting towards STRENGTHENING for flexibility. Following extensive research on ankle and calf injuries in ballet dancers, Mayes found that these injuries were closely related to poor calf endurance. As a result, a calf strengthening program was introduced which ultimately reduced ankle injuries and calf tears. Are we surprised? During training, these incredible women aim for 25 single-leg calf raises! How many can YOU do?

Stress-strain Curve - Understanding Stretching Injuries

To understand the difference between active and passive stretching in greater detail, we can simplify a stress-strain curve (used in physics) to understand the effect of load (active or passive stretching) on deformation (stretch of muscle fibres).

The curve below shows the deformation that a muscle fibre goes through when vulnerable to stress and strain. It goes through an elastic region, plastic region and at extremely high stress and strain, it will fracture (fail).


If stress and strain is applied to reach the elastic region, the muscle fibre is able to recoil to its previous shape; this occurs when you are stretching actively. Beyond the plastic region, the muscle fibres are now distended and cannot recoil to its previous shape - this often occurs in passive stretching and our body is usually able to adapt to these changes.

However, if pushed too far, the muscle becomes so distended it reaches ‘fracture’, where injury ultimately occurs. *Cue that hamstring tear* - ouch!



So instead of repeated passive stretching to improve flexibility, we encourage a combination, with a primary focus on isometric strengthening and strengthening under length (eccentric strengthening) with a gradual increase in load over time, and finishing a flex session with 2-3 short held (30-60 second) static passive stretches to help you achieve the flexy goals of your dreams.



How to reduce stretching injuries with active flexibility

I’m sure there’s been a point where you’ve wondered why you could do a beautiful front split (passive flexibility) on the floor but your jade (active flexibility) somehow still looks like a V (*points at self*). Don’t fret, it’s quite common to have a difference between your passive range of motion (PROM) and active range of motion (AROM). However, just be wary that the greater the difference, the more susceptible you are to injury when performing or stretching at that passive range.

Why is there greater risk? Well, if you think about it, training your active flexibility is safe because YOU are your own limiting factor. This means you will never go beyond what you are capable of. In contrast, there are risks associated with passive stretching because you can usually get more range of motion when assisted by an external force. This means that you can push too far and deform muscle tissue if you’re not careful. Thus, the larger the difference between your active and passive range of motion, the greater risk of “pushing too far” because you simply don’t have the muscle strength to support your joint and connective tissue at that range.


So how do you get that dreamy jade split line?

  1. Passive range available in your front leg hamstring and back leg hip flexor/quad. This can be achieved by active stretching (isometric and eccentric strengthening of the hamstrings and hip flexor) and some passive stretching

  2. Active range in your back leg glutes (to extend the hip) and quads (to extend the knees) to be able to drive that leg closest to its passive range. This can be achieved by glute and quad strengthening.

Take home messages from today

By incorporating strengthening in our flexibility training, we reduce the risk of injury and instead get much closer to those beautiful, stronger and flexier lines on the pole. This is because:

  1. Strengthening will provide the passive structures (joints and ligaments) the support they need when you are putting yourself into extreme ranges like a split.

  2. You will less likely strain or injure your muscle because you won’t be overloading them beyond their elastic region.

  3. Finally, it will allow you to close the gap between your PROM and AROM - making that floor split line transferable to a jade split on the pole.

 

Are you feeling limited in your active or passive flexibility?

Online telehealth appointments can be booked with the Pole Physio via our ‘Book Online’ page that can be found here. Assessment and tailored rehabilitation are provided in accordance with best practice and evidence-based treatment to help you unleash your 'poletential'.

Until next time, train safe.

The Pole Physio

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