Passive Range Of Motion & Active Range Of Motion: Why Your Mobility Depends On Both

What type of mobility do I need?

Do you know the difference between passive range of motion and active range of motion? And do you know why it’s vital that you have both in adequate quantities if you want to be mobile, injury-resistant, and strong?

Most people don’t know that there is more than one kind of range of motion (ROM), so don’t worry if that’s you…

By the end of this article, you’ll understand both kinds of range of motion, why it’s vital that you have both to an adequate degree, and be better equipped to work towards your goals with your body – from mobility to strength to injury resistance.


What is passive and active range of motion?

Passive range of motion is the degree of ROM you are able to access in your joint when an external force is directing the movement. Partner stretching, stretching straps, and gravity, are three things that can be used to go into passive range of motion.

passive ROM

Active range of motion is the degree of ROM you are able to access in your joint when the force is generated internally by you. The only way to tap into your active ROM is to contract the soft tissues of your body to move your limbs into greater or lesser joint angles.

active ROM

Problems and injuries are more likely to arise in two scenarios:

  • When there is a sizable gap between active ROM and passive ROM
  • When passive ROM is lacking

When you lack the passive ROM necessary for living your life and doing your activities, you’ll feel the aches and issues that arise from that.

You’ll either feel “very immobile and do fewer and fewer activities due to that”, or you’ll “feel immobile and try to force your way through it through some kind of compensatory strategy.”

Neither is a good option.

When you have adequate passive ROM, but have a large discrepancy between ‘how much passive ROM you have’ to ‘how much active ROM you have’, you essentially have adequate range, but your nervous system (NS) only has control over a very tiny portion of that range. Which is one way to set yourself up for an injury.passive and active rom gap

Remember, as Dr. Andreo Spina says so succinctly, “an injury occurs when the loads placed on the tissue exceeds the tissue’s capacity to handle them.”

To load tissues in positions they are not capable of controlling force in will always turn into an issue…

Either in the acute sense – like with an ankle that rolls into inversion and sprains.

Or, in a more repetitive movement strain/chronic sense – like with a low back that starts hurting because you continue walking and running despite missing the active ROM in your hip necessary to reach appropriate hip extension in your gait cycle. Or, like with your shoulder that starts hurting because you continue to practice handstands when you do not have enough active ROM to get your arms into shoulder flexion.

How much mobility do I need?

How much mobility is “enough”? How much ROM do you, personally, need to gain? Here’s a simple way I answer that question, though of course the answer can become much more complex if you wanted to make it so, though we’ll keep it very simple and usable for now…

You need enough mobility to do your daily activities – getting up out of a chair, sitting on the toilet, getting in your car, basic Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)

In addition, you need enough mobility to do the activities you’d like to pursue – doing a workout class, being a sprinter, hiking mountains, surfing, playing with your kids, doing jiu jitsu, etc.

In addition to that, gain another ten percent as a buffer zone. This is so that you can operate in your activities without being at your absolute ceiling for mobility just doing those activities. Having “just a bit more” mobility to access means you can get through those weird positions and movements that you just couldn’t have prepared for.

As an example, you need 180 degrees of shoulder flexion to get into a handstand. You better be able to get to 180 degrees with a fair degree of ease when unloaded. Because if you’re working intensely to get your arms over your head just standing upright, how much energy will you be wasting doing that during the actual handstand?

Speaking of handstands, if you want to build a better handstand, master handstand coach, Kirsty Grosart, and myself have created a program to help you do that. Learn about the Handstand Building Blocks program here.

In place of “do a handstand” you could substitute “be able to extend my wrists to near-90 degrees to be able to do a push-up”, or, “be able to flex my hips, knees, and ankles, to the appropriate degrees that I will need in the bottom of my squat.”

wrist extension

🔑 KEY POINT: To have the mobility to do your ADLs, your activities, and get your ten percent buffer, you need to have the passive ROM to get the tissues into position, and then you need to start building the active ROM so that the tissues can be loaded in those positions.

How do I improve my mobility?

Changing your mobility (and maintaining the mobility you have) requires that directional forces are regularly given to your tissues and joints, and that your nervous system learns how to contract the tissues in their middle and end-ranges of length.

While gaining passive ROM is important, the problem with only working on passive range of motion is that it does not allow the nervous system to learn valuable information about that position, such as, how to generate control, strength, and safety in that position.

Sitting in a straight-leg seated hamstring stretch where you reach for your toes may provide a mechanical change to the tissue length of your hamstrings and calves, but if your nervous system is not taught what to do with that tissue position, there is no real reason for your body to maintain or support the “stretched” hamstrings.

A well-executed approach to gaining mobility will:

  • Provide stimulus to the tissue that begins capturing the passive ROM and make it into usable ROM
  • Ensure that the current ROM is being accessed on a daily basis
  • Give regular stimulus to the nervous system, tissues, and joints, to expand the existing passive and active ROM further

For too long, mobility training was seen as just something you do as a warm-up before your real training. Or, it was haphazard in nature.

That no longer needs to be the case. We understand more about the nervous system and the human body every year that passes.

And at the time of writing this, we see incredibly favorable outcomes when you –

  • Use your current range of motion every day
  • Use neural control work to teach your nervous system how to control the new ranges of motion you’d like to access
  • Start strengthening your tissues to be able to handle those end-range positions that increased range of motion will bring.

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