What’s the Difference Between Passive and Active Stretching?


Woman stretching in a studio.

It’s no secret that stretching is good for you, but there’s a difference between passive and active stretching and each type brings its own array of health-boosting benefits.

Whether you stretch first thing in the morning, use it as a dynamic warm-up before your workouts, a recovery tool after an intense exercise, or as a way to unwind before bed, you might benefit better from different types of stretching in each of these instances. Here’s what you need to know.

Table of Contents

Passive Stretching
    Examples of Passive Stretching
Active Stretching
    Examples of Active Stretching

Passive Stretching

Woman stretching on a ledge in a park.

Passive stretching is a type of stretching that includes holding positions for longer periods of time. You can either do it without any props or help further intensify the stretch by using blocks, straps, bolsters, or another accessory.

Holding positions for longer than at least a minute helps you relax into the stretch, helping the muscle fibers elongate naturally. Sometimes you have gravity working with you to help you increase your flexibility and other times it’s more about improving the blood flow in a certain area and allowing it to relax and open up.

In addition to helping improve your flexibility and increasing your range of motion, passive stretching may even aid in building muscle and improving the overall function of your muscle fibers. Passive stretching can also help you relax and activate your rest and digest mode, sending signals to your nervous system that it’s time to rest and relax.

Examples of Passive Stretching

Woman doing legs up the wall pose in front of a lake.

Some of the best examples of passive stretching can easily be done by everyone, whether you’re new to stretching or someone who can’t imagine ending their day without their stretching routine.

  1. Legs up the Wall

A simple passive stretch that starts by laying down on your back and bringing your hips as close to the wall as possible. Lift your legs up vertically on the wall and relax your spine. Let your arms fall by your sides and relax your head and neck. Breathe deeply and feel how your body relaxes with each passing exhale. Your lower back should be resting flat on the floor, allowing your spine to fully decompress. Stay for at least five minutes.

2. Pigeon Pose

Woman doing a pigeon pose in front of a castle.

One of the best passive stretches for your hamstrings and hips, the pigeon pose provides many benefits when being held for a longer period of time. Start in a plank position and bring your right knee under your chest, diagonally to the right. Relax your hips on the floor, so that your left hip touches your right heel. Bring your upper body over your legs and relax your head. Ensure both hips are aligned and that one isn’t dropping lower than the other. Stay for at least two full minutes and breathe into your stretch.

3. Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold

Woman doing a wide legged forward fold.

Start in a standing position and separate your stance so that it’s double your hip width. Open your arms to the side and take a big inhale. On your exhale, hinge at the hips and slowly start folding over your legs with your spine straight. Place your palms on the floor right in between your feet and relax your upper body. Let your upper body hang over your legs, feeling gravity pull you down and create space in between your vertebrae. Stay for at least a minute but try to aim for two.

Active Stretching

Woman doing upward facing dog on a tree trunk in front of the sea.

Active stretching, on the other hand, is the usual type of stretching everyone always teaches you to perform after your workouts or even as dynamic options to include in your warm-up. They include lengthening and also tensing muscles to improve flexibility, strengthen tendons and connective tissues, and increase mobility.

While passive stretching only focuses on relaxation and eliminates any resistance, active stretching uses resistance from opposing muscles to create the stretch. These muscles are called agonist and antagonist, and they use each other to elongate and strengthen muscle fibers. These stretches are held for 10-15 seconds and usually don’t include any props or external force.

Examples of Active Stretching

Some of the best examples of active stretching are probably known to you, but here are some tips to ensure you’re performing them properly.

  1. Runner’s Lunge
Woman doing a runner's lunge in front of a lake.

One of the most popular leg stretching exercises is the runner’s lunge. Start in a plank position and bring your right foot in between your palms. Push your foot firmly into the floor and stretch out your left leg, coming high on the ball of your left foot. Activate your left hamstring and lift the knee cap, feeling your entire spine elongate from the top of your head to your heel.

Push your palms into the floor and look straight ahead, sending your shoulders down and back, and opening your chest. Stay active in your stretch and use your inhales to elongate your spine, and your exhales to get deeper into the stretch. Stay for 10-15 seconds and then switch legs.

2. Upward Plank

Woman doing an upward plank in front of a lake.

A great way to stretch your front side body while being supported by your back, upward planks are an example of active stretching that improves the flexibility of your chest, hip flexors, shoulders, and abdomen.

Start in a seated position, legs straight in front of you. Place your palms behind your seat, fingers facing forward. Bend your knees slightly and use the power from your palms and feet to push yourself away from the floor and lift your hips up. Inhale and stretch all the way from your head to your feet and stay for 10-15 seconds. If you want to further increase your active stretch, lift one knee at a time.

3. Side Lunge Stretch

Woman stretching in side lunge

Stretching in a low, side lunge opens your hips and helps improve your range of motion. Start in a standing position and separate your stance a lot, double your hip width. Inhale and on your exhale, bend your left knee and bring your hips all the way down into a squat. Keep your right leg straight and quadriceps active.

Stay here for at least 10-15 seconds before switching sides. Ensure your bent knee is staying open throughout your active stretch and actively try to prevent it from caving in. Breathe deeply and feel your hip opening with each exhale.

Now that you know the difference between passive and active stretching, start with this combination of passive stretching exercises for tired legs and really feel the benefits of holding poses for a longer period of time.

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