Passive vs. Active Range of Motion
With more and more people interested in mobility training, Functional Range Conditioning and Kinstretch, I wanted to dive into a concept that directly relates to mobility, strength and joint health; which is range of motion, specifically, passive and active range of motion.
There’s a lot of confusion around the difference between the two but understanding how these work together is the key to increasing flexibility, making strength gains (especially if you’ve been struggling with plateaus), relieving pain, and reducing the risk of injury.
So what is passive and active range of motion? And why does it matter? I’ll dive into these concepts with plenty of examples so you can see and feel the difference for yourself. My hope is that you not only understand these concepts, but more importantly, that you can apply what you learn here to your current routine with more efficiency and lasting results.
WHAT IS RANGE OF MOTION?
Range of motion (ROM), is the full movement potential of a joint, aka, how far it can move. It really is that simple.
How far can you move your finger back and forth? Or How far can you lift your arm up overhead? That's how much range of motion, or how far those joints can move. Make sense?
There are two types of range of motion. Passive and active.
Passive Range of Motion
Passive range of motion is when you move with help from an external force like gravity, a stretch strap, or someone physically stretching you. Oftentimes with passive range, you’re getting a stretch but no muscular contraction or motor control is necessary to perform the movement…hence the word, passive.
Here are a few examples to try:
Lay down on your back, and use a stretch strap to pull one leg back toward your chest giving you a big stretch in your hamstrings. The external (passive) force is the stretch strap.
The classic quadriceps stretch, where you grab on your foot and bring it up toward your backside, getting a stretch in the front of the leg. The external (passive) force is your hand that grabs and pulls on your foot.
You can think of flexibility as the measurement for your passive range of motion. The more flexible you are, the more passive range you have.
Active Range of Motion
Now, let's look at active range of motion. This is where you have a muscular contraction of the tissues producing the movement without any assistance. Your body is relying on strength and control to get you into each position.
We’ll use the examples of the stretches above, but now we’ll do them actively. I'd highly recommend following along with the passive examples above and then comparing them to the active ones below. You'll see why soon.
Lay on your back and lift your straight leg toward your chest without assistance and see how far you get. The active range of motion here is produced by the hip flexor and quad muscles contracting and pulling your leg up.
Standing, slowly bend your knee so the foot rises back toward your butt. Don’t use your hand for assistance. The active range of motion here is contracting the hamstring muscles to pull your foot up to your butt without any outside help.
You can think of control as the measurement for your active range of motion. The more movement you can control, the more active range you have.
Is your brain ready to explode or are you still with me? Just remember, with passive range of motion, you feel a stretch. With active range of motion you feel a contraction.
FEEL THE DIFFERENCE?
If you followed along with the examples above, you probably noticed that you didn't get anywhere near the same range of motion with the active movements as you did with the passive ones. That’s totally normal, in fact, you’re always going to have more passive range than active range. It’ll never be the other way around. The issue arises when that gap between passive and active is too big.
THE GAP THAT CAN LEAD TO PROBLEMS
The issue arises when that gap between passive and active is too big.
This difference tells us a story about our risk of pain, injury, or training plateaus. You can think of this gap as an area of instability because there’s no control or strength in all of this extra passive range. And it matters because if you’re moving in space (and possibly under load), without control or support, you’re asking for trouble.
We wonder why we “randomly” get hurt doing the simplest of tasks or hit a wall in our training when we’ve been consistent…it's because there’s all passive range, but not active.
The two most common scenarios we see in this gap are:
Example 1: You have a ton of passive range but don’t have enough active range.
Have you ever been in a yoga class and seen someone who’s Down Dog is the envy of every yogi in the room? Like, how did they get their arms past their head like that? This is a passive stretch where the weight of their upper body is pulling them down into deep shoulder flexion.
It’s pretty impressive however, if they stand up and try to put their arms overhead and can’t get them in line with their ears, this demonstrates a lack of active range of motion and is where you see that gap between too much passive and not enough active.
You might be thinking, “Ok, so what?”. The issues start when that same person jumps up to a pull-up bar, loading an uncontrollable range of motion with their body weight. The tissues and even the joints aren’t prepared to handle this. But the body will figure out a way and will start to compensate by using other joints to help accomplish the task. This will eventually result in aches, pain, and injuries.
Example #2: You don’t have enough passive AND active range to get into a position.
Being inflexible and not having strength or control is a recipe for disaster but it’s something we often ignore, especially when it comes to strength training. In my earlier years of lifting I was totally guilty of not having enough passive and active range to get into lifts like the squat.
The issue is, if we can't perfectly get into the position of the lift unloaded, then how can our tissue and joints be expected to handle it loaded? Without passive AND active range of motion, other parts of the body have to step in and this leads down the road to ouchies and being stuck under the bar.
As “Meathead Matt”, I couldn’t even get down in a body weight squat with my knees bent to 90 degrees but I didn’t care. What I thought mattered was when I got 135+ lbs on the bar because that weight forced my depth down nice and low with “Drop It Like It’s Hot” on repeat in my head. Can I just say…this is horrible! I’ll chalk it up to being young and dumb but “Mobility Matt” now knows better.
You can apply this same thought to the bench and dips. If you can’t “actively” extend your shoulder and now you add load, what do you think is going to happen? Nothing good, I can assure you.
HOW PASSIVE AND ACTIVE RANGE OF MOTION WORK TOGETHER
Ok get excited because I’m about to share the secret to increasing flexibility, breaking through training plateaus and relieving pain.
The reason so many experience issues even though they’ve been putting in the work, is because a lot of what we do is passive. What we need to do is:
Expand your passive range by getting into a stretch. This will give you more freedom of movement.
After the tissue is stretched, strengthen it with mobility training.
Are you having an "aha" moment yet? What you should be picking up on here is that passive and active range of motion work together, but what most of us are lacking is the active piece. Develop more active range of motion and you will see huge improvements in increased flexibility, relieved aches and pains, and strength gains.
HOW TO INCREASE PASSIVE AND ACTIVE RANGE OR MOTION
This is where mobility training comes in friends. The exercises we use are the tools to get you into that passive stretch and strengthen your end ranges to develop the active piece.
To help you get a jumpstart on the, I’ve put together 3 of my must-have mobility moves for free, that target the areas of the body I see the biggest need for improved passive and more importantly, active range of motion. They’re completely free so check them out and let me know how you did. Once you try them, you’ll see why they’re my all-time favorite.
ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor
Weck Method Qualified