Why Stretching Alone Isn’t Good Enough: The Difference Between Passive Flexibility And Active Mobility
It is common to see people doing a few minutes of stretching before or after their physical activity of choice. Whether it’s running, biking, working out, or a sport, most of us feel the need to grab a foot to stretch our quads, throw a leg up on a chair to stretch our hamstrings, or even roll for a few minutes on a foam roller. Stretching is often seen as the answer to many things that ail us in the body: sore muscles, stiffness or tightness, injuries, etc.
However, is stretching actually beneficial?
The Reality of Injury and Stretching
The truth is, although stretching is certainly one part of injury prevention and health, passive flexibility does not improve our ability to control or stabilize our joints.
In fact, we’re usually weakest at our outer ranges of motion (where we’re trying to stretch into), and for this reason, it can also be where we have a greater risk for being injured. Think about how your leg is positioned when you catch an edge skiing or when you slip on the ice and your leg flies way out the side.
It’s not usually when we’re in the strong mid-ranges of our joints (think the “ready position”). Just because we can do the splits doesn’t mean that we can control our legs with any sort of strength in that position.
A Simple Test to Know the Difference Between Active vs. Passive Flexibility
Let’s first test the passive flexibility of your hamstrings.
Sit on the ground and have your legs straight. Fold forward.
How far can you bend forward?
Now it’s time to measure your active range.
Stand or sit nice and tall. Now try to lift a straight leg up to your nose without leaning backward.
How much of a difference is there between your passive range and your active range, and how strong do you feel?
The truth is, in order to try to mitigate injury effectively, we need flexibility AND active mobility.
To recap, active mobility can be defined as the ability to move our joints through their range of motion through active effort. This active mobility requires both flexibility and strength.
Another Reason for Tight Muscles
Contrary to popular belief, muscles that are tight, like the upper traps in the neck and the hip flexors, are actually often weak in addition to being tight.
More and more we’re learning that by strengthening these “tight” muscles as well as the opposing muscles (think hip flexors AND glutes!), the brain will build neural connections and will learn how to properly contract and relax these areas.
Once you teach the brain to properly control a joint, it may let go of the holding pattern that was in place to stabilize these weak areas, and the chronic muscle tightness will ease off.
Building Active Mobility
So how do we build our active mobility?
Essentially it requires lifting any of our limbs into their end ranges and building strength at those end ranges.
Think of any stretch that you do, and try to pull your limb into the stretch without using the floor or your hand to do it.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Hip flexors: Standing tall, lift one straight leg to the front as high as you can without leaning backward and without rounding in your back (you may feel cramping in your quad—that’s ok, just breathe through it!).
Hold for 5-10 seconds and lower. Now lift it to the side, then to the back. Repeat.
Hamstrings: Standing tall, lift your heel toward your bum (like a quad stretch position without using your hand). Try to keep your knees level.
Hold for 5-10 seconds and lower. Repeat.
Shoulders and shoulder blades: Lie face down on the floor, arms straight overhead. Without lifting your head or trunk, squeeze your shoulder blades back to your spine, and lift straight arms off the ground.
Hold 5-10 seconds in the “I” position. Repeat in at “Y” position, a “T” position, and with arms down by your sides.
Are You Noticing Some Gaps With Your Flexibility?
As physiotherapists we are highly trained healthcare professionals who help people prevent injury in addition to treating acute and chronic injuries. And we’d love to help!
Book an appointment with one of Innovation Physical Therapy’s experienced physiotherapists by calling one of our 6 clinics located throughout Edmonton and Sherwood Park including Riverbend, Meadowlark, Belvedere, Namao, Sherwood Park or our newest clinic in West Henday.