Recently I have started to use the term 'supported stretching' instead of 'passive stretching' with my clients and students.
I want to be very clear. This isn't because there is something wrong with passive stretches or to avoid the stigma associated with the term. I replaced the word 'passive' because it doesn't accurately describe the practice or the intention behind this type of stretching. Let me start by addressing the underserved reputation of passive stretching.
- Passive stretching is not easier or less valuable than other types of stretching. It is not a waste of time. You are not weaker, less able or not serious about improving flexibility if you passive stretch.
- Passive stretches, just like other types of stretches, will increase your flexibility if you practice them consistently. There is no evidence that passive stretches are any less effective than other types of stretching.
- The vast majority of athletes, dancers and performers that require a greater than average range to participate in their chosen activity will include passive stretching in their training.
- To optimise your flexibility training, you should focus on what you find most challenging. If you find it hard to spend time in stretches or tolerate the discomfort of stretching, passive stretches are going to be particularly beneficial to you.
- Your flexibility goals should drive your training. If your goal is a passive position (e.g. splits on the floor), your training needs to include passive stretching.
Whether passive stretching should form a significant part of your flexibility training depends on your goals. I argue that passive stretching is a valuable part of all training to increase flexibility as it's a fantastic way of desensitising and learning to tolerate stretching inputs. Active stretches are great; especially if they support your goals; however, excluding passive stretching slows flexibility progress unnecessarily.
How valid is the term 'passive stretching' anyway?
We are never passive when we stretch. Unless we are unconscious, our nervous system will be maintaining muscle tone and reflexively resisting increased loading of our valuable tissues. Undoubtedly, when we are aware, despite trying to relax, we will avoid moving into unfamiliar deep ranges.
When we passive stretch, we are purposely trying to get deeper into range by minimising intentional resistance. Total relaxation of all muscle activity, even if possible, isn't the best way to achieve this. We do better engaging, both physically and consciously, in the task of stretching. Strategies such as activating antagonist muscles (opposite action), fidgeting, squeezing, wiggling, and shacking make it easier to get deeper into range, more comfortably, as they help us feel in control and safer.
Stretching is always active. In my mind, the term 'supported stretching' better reflects the practice and intention behind what are traditionally known as 'passive' stretches. 'Supported stretching' emphasises the use of external assistance (i.e. another person, the ground, or props that provide support) and engagement (physical, mental and emotional) to facilitate movement deeper into the range of targeted joints by minimising resistance (physical, mental and emotional).
As a physio and flexibility coach, I have found that my clients and students are less confused by the term 'supported stretching'. They are less likely to have negative associations with the stretch (e.g., thinking it's potentially dangerous because it's not active) or be worried that they are not doing it 'right' because they cannot relax. Ultimately when we are more confident and in control, we can stretch further.