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 running, biking, working out, or a sport, most of us 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 the answer to many things that ail us in the body: sore muscles, stiffness or tightness, injuries, etc. 


However, is stretching beneficial? 

The Reality of Injury and Stretching

Although stretching is undoubtedly part of injury prevention and health, passive flexibility does not improve our ability to control or stabilize our joints. 


We’re usually weakest at our outer ranges of motion (where we’re trying to stretch into). For this reason, it can also be where we have a greater risk of being injured. Think about how your leg gets positioned when you catch an edge skiing or 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 ready position). Just because we can do the splits doesn’t mean we can control our legs with any strength in that position. 

runners stretching their hamstrings
woman stretching touching her toys

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 to your nose without leaning backward. 


How much difference is there between your passive and active range, and how strong do you feel?


The truth is, to try to mitigate injury effectively, we need flexibility AND active mobility. 


Active mobility is 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, tight muscles like the upper traps in the neck and the hip flexors are often weak in addition to being tight. 


We’re learning that by strengthening these “tight” muscles and the opposing muscles (hip flexors AND glutes), the brain will build neural connections and learn how to contract and relax these areas properly. 


Once you teach the brain to control a joint properly, it may let go of the holding pattern 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 you do and try to pull your limb into the stretch without using the floor or your hand. 


Here are a few ideas to get you started: 


  • Hip flexors: Standing tall, lift one straight leg to the front as high as possible without leaning backward or rounding in your back (you may feel cramping in your quad—that’s ok, 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 a “Y” position, a “T” position, and with arms down by your sides.
  •  The “I” Position
  •  The “Y” Position
  •  The “T” Position

Are You Noticing Some Gaps with Your Flexibility?

As physiotherapists, we are highly trained healthcare professionals who help people prevent injury and treat acute and chronic injuries. And we’d love to help! 

Please book an appointment with one of Innovation Physical Therapy’s experienced physiotherapists by calling one of our clinics in Edmonton, including RiverbendBelvedereNamao, or our newest clinic in Southgate Centre.