“Passive range of motion” and “active range of motion” are two terms commonly used in fitness and rehabilitation circles. While they both involve improving a joint’s range of motion, the actual method of doing so differs.
If someone physically moves or stretches a part of your body, such as your leg, this is called passive range of motion. In this situation, a caregiver or physical therapist is there to assist with joint exercises if you find it hard or can’t make any effort.
In other words, if you can’t actively perform range-of-motion exercises, a partner can assist.
This is more commonly seen in the rehabilitation field. A physical therapist or a machine will work to increase a person’s range of motion (specifically involving the joint and ligaments) back to their pre-injury baseline.
Active range of motion, on the other hand, refers to moving a joint on your own by contracting your muscles.
“This type of range of motion is important because it’s most closely associated with our daily activities (walking to work, grabbing something from the pantry, or competing in a sporting competition),” explained Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab.
If you’re dealing with the aftermath of an injury to your shoulders, knees, hips, neck, or any other part of your body that’s home to a joint, then you know how easy it is for your range of motion to be affected.
That’s because the range of motion or the distance and direction a joint can move is often limited after experiencing trauma to that area.
To get a better idea of the impact on a particular joint, a doctor, physical therapist, athletic trainer, or other qualified health professional can measure the amount of movement in a joint or body part to see if there is a limited range of motion. This is typically done during a physical assessment after an injury or as part of a rehabilitation program.
If your range of motion is limited, you’ll benefit from spending some time performing a series of passive or active range-of-motion exercises. To get the injured area healthy again, a physical therapist will use this type of exercise as part of your overall treatment plan.
A personal trainer may use passive range-of-motion exercises during a training session to help you improve mobility and athletic performance.
Additionally, you may perform passive range-of-motion exercises as part of a partner-assisted stretching routine. This is commonly done in athletics, exercise classes, and group rehabilitation classes.
The best way to improve your range of motion, said Martinez, is through passive measures, because more force can be applied and held for longer. This allows for greater change over time.
That said, choosing the best method to improve your range of motion also depends on your goals.
According to Martinez, if your goal is to increase the function and range of motion of your joints specifically (generally post-injury), it’s best to work with a trained professional such as a physician or physical therapist.
And if your purpose is to increase the flexibility of your muscles, working with a trained professional who is knowledgeable in this field such as a personal trainer is key as well.
“Most commonly, this involves passive stretching where either a trained individual or an apparatus (stretch straps) helps to assist the stretching process,” Martinez explained.
In addition, active measures can improve range of motion. This is more commonly done as a dynamic warmup (stretching), in which you move your body in various positions to increase circulation and range of motion. Stretching is best done prior to an activity or exercise.
Some of the most common and safest passive range-of-motion exercises are related to stretching the surrounding muscles with the goal to increase muscle flexibility.
One way to do this according to Martinez is with a tool such as a stretching strap. This will help you hold a stretch for a more sustained period of time.
However, having someone assist with the stretch is a more effective way to practice passive range-of-motion exercises.
“With these exercises, a trained professional moves your body into the stretch and holds it for you, with the intent to increase your muscle flexibility,” explained Martinez.
“This is superior for a few reasons,” he said.
First, the trained professional understands proper limits and knows how far to go. Second, they know how long to hold the stretch for. They’re also trained to know if it’s targeting the proper areas to achieve the most benefits.
With that in mind, here are three passive range-of-motion exercises that Martinez said you can do yourself or get assistance with from a professional educated in stretching techniques.
Shoulders: Doorway chest stretch
If a partner is assisting with this exercise, they will move your arms through the motion.
- Bend your elbow to 90 degrees and line your forearm in an upright position against a hallway or doorway opening.
- Lunge your torso forward, ultimately opening your chest up and creating a stretch.
Neck: Rotation stretch
This will stretch the levator scapulae, a muscle that is tight in many people and tends to cause discomfort in the neck and shoulder blade.
- While seated, rotate your nose toward your armpit.
- Use your hand to push the back of your head downward.
Legs: Piriformis stretch
Many people could benefit from increase hip flexibility, especially those experiencing lower back discomfort. This exercise, known also as the Pigeon pose, stretches a muscle in this area, the piriformis.
- Lay your leg in front of you in a bent position.
- Lean over your hips to stretch the piriformis.
For a partner-assisted stretch:
- Lie down on the floor or rehabilitation table.
- Instead of using your body weight, have your partner provide resistance by moving your leg through the passive range of motion.
Performing passive range-of-motion exercises post-injury can help keep your joints mobile and decrease the likelihood that you will have any long-term decrease in your overall range of motion.
This not only assists with the rehabilitation process, but also helps you have enough mobility to perform daily tasks and continue to participate in the activities you love to do.