Static/passive Stretching: Have We Been Doing it Wrong?

Static/passive Vs Active/dynamic stretching is a hot topic in the fitness industry. Coming from a dance and yoga background, I’ve always been fond of a good long passive stretch. However, in my recent research and interactions with other fitness/health professionals, I’ve realized that passive stretching isn’t always a good thing – and maybe not ever a good thing.

I’ve also come to terms with the fact that there really isn’t THAT much data out there to confirm either way, which leaves me feeling a little ‘left in the dark’.

What is static/passive stretching?

So, what is static/passive stretching? Static stretching is when you move a joint or limb beyond its active range of motion, holding it for a longer period of time (usually with an outside force). An example would be laying down and having a partner push your leg up farther than it would normally go to stretch hamstrings.

How does active stretching differ?

Active stretching involves lengthening the muscle through an eccentric contraction. An example would be laying down on your back and lifting one leg up straight until you feel a stretch (without a band or any props to assist), and not holding it for an extended period of time. Muscles in the front of the leg are concentrically contracting while your back of leg muscles (hamstrings) are eccentrically contracting which creates that yummy stretch feeling.

What does the research say?

So far in my research, I’ve found some data to show that passively stretching a muscle may only increase your bodies tolerance to the stretch as you hold it. Once you come out of the stretch, you haven’t actually increased your flexibility, just your tolerance of the stretch during that time.

I’ve also learned in different continuing education (CE) courses that static/passive stretching could actually leave your joints unstable and susceptible to injury. This is because the stretch often moves into the passive system (i.e ligaments, tendons) instead of targeting the belly of the muscle.

Stretching and my chronic pain

I’ve had chronic pain from an accident for almost 6 years now. I definitely know how good it can feel to stretch and pull into things. However, looking back, I realize that I never truly felt any real results or improvement from these exercises. I only ever felt continued chronic pain.

It wasn’t until I tried Pilates, which focuses primarily on muscle activation, joint mobilization, and active/dynamic stretching, that I really experienced any lasting results. This leads me to believe that static/passive stretching wasn’t ever good for me. It also makes me doubtful as to who it would be good for.

So what does this mean for me as a Pilates teacher?

Ultimately, I haven’t found any firm data to show that passive stretching has any real long-term benefit. This is not to say that I have ruled it out entirely, but for now I don’t really include much of it (if any) in my training – even though I know clients may LOVE the feeling.

The jury is still out on this one – but I’ll continue to revisit and reassess my position on this as I learn more down the road.

What do you guys think?

PS: Here is a video I thought was really informative and explained how to use eccentric muscle loading instead of static stretching:

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