Passive stretching is a type of static stretching that involves external force applied to the body part that is stretched. This can be done either with you holding a stretch by holding it with another body part or have another person provide the external force to help you stretch a little further. Although many people stretch as part of their routine before and after a workout, as well as many fitness websites offering different opinions about stretching, what does scientific evidence actually say about it?
Passive stretching vs. static stretching
Passive stretching, as the name implies, is where you stretch a muscle group by holding the stretch with another body part. For example, you can stretch your chest by placing your forearms against a doorway while standing and lean your body forward to stretch. Or you can stretch your chest by laying your back on a stability and lay your arms to your sides, allowing gravity to assist the stretch.
Another way to do passive stretching is if you have a workout partner who knows how to safely provide a stretch for you. Following the guideline for static stretching, you hold the stretch for about 20 to 30 seconds.
Unlike active stretching where you contract the muscle group that is an antagonist to the muscles you are stretching, the key to passive stretching is to have your body relaxed while you stretch.
Passive stretching vs. dynamic stretching
While passive stretching is like being a statue, dynamic stretching is moving a group of muscles and joints within your full range of motion repetitively, like an animated GIF.
For example, you can passively stretch your hamstrings by lying on the floor and holding the back of your knee or hamstring as you extend your knee to hold the stretch. In dynamic stretching, you could do a sagittal plane leg swing, where you stand and swing your leg forward like you are kicking, and then swing your leg back and bend your knee with a slight hip extension.
Passive stretching and athletic performance
The scientific literature has mixed suggestions about whether static stretching (passive or active) is beneficial or not to athletic performance. While some studies with specific groups of athletes suggest little to no benefits of static stretching to performance nor does static stretching reduce the risk of injuries, a 2015 systematic review published in NRC Research Press found that static stretching of various lower-body muscles for 60 seconds or longer—regardless of whether it is passive or active—lowers performance, such as speed and power development in sprinting.
The researchers, led by Dr. David G. Behm of Memorial University in St. John, Newfoundland, reviewed a few hundred studies that examined the acute effects of various types of stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and number of injuries.
Out of these studies, 52 of them examined how static stretching affects speed and power in jumping, sprinting, and throwing, and 76 studies examined how it affects strength (e.g. one-rep max, maximal voluntary contraction). Overall, there was a 1.3% reduction in power and speed and a 4.8% reduction in strength.
However, static stretches that last 60 seconds hardly affects performance (about a 1.1% decrease). The authors concluded that static stretching had “no overall effect on all-cause injury or overuse injuries, but there may be a benefit in reducing acute muscle injuries with running, sprinting, or other repetitive contractions.”
A 2019 review published in Frontiers in Physiology also found similar conclusions. It focused mostly on studies that examined the effects of static stretching on power and strength. The authors suggested that static stretching could be done before certain strength and power activities as long as the stretching duration of each exercise is less than 60 seconds, and it is incorporated with other types of warm-ups, such as dynamic stretching. For high-power sports (e.g. powerlifting, rugby), static stretching should be avoided.
“There is strong evidence suggesting that [static stretching] causes only trivial negative effects on subsequent strength and power performances if the accumulated duration per muscle group does not exceed 60 [seconds],” the authors wrote. “We should update previous statements on the harmful effects of [static stretching] on strength and power performances.”
Passive stretching exercises
Although the evidence indicates that static stretching, which includes passive stretching, has little benefits to athletic performance, you can still do it after you workout as a way to relax. Here are seven passive stretches that you can do to target the major muscle groups, and these are by no means the only stretches available. You may also repeat the stretches one to two times if you feel like doing so.
Back stretch with stability ball
Kneel on the floor with a stability ball in front of you. Place your hands on top of the ball like you are doing a karate chop. Push the ball forward slowly and lean your body toward the floor until your torso is about parallel to the floor. Shift your weight toward your hips slightly to increase the stretch if you want. Hold this position for about 20 to 30 seconds.
Chest stretch on stability ball
Lie on top of a stability with your feet flat on the floor and your legs bent. Rest your head on the ball and spread your arms to your sides. Let your arms hang and relax as you stretch your chest. Hold this position for about 20 to 30 seconds.
Doorway chest stretch
Stand at a doorway in a split stance position with one foot forward and the other back away from the center of your body. Place your forearms against the door jamb with your elbows bent about 90 degrees. Lean your body forward slightly as you shift your weight toward your front foot until you feel a stretch at your chest. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds. You may also do this with feet together or slightly apart—whichever you are comfortable.
Supine hamstrings stretch
Lie on the floor on your back and bend one of your knees toward your face. Hold the back of your hamstrings and extend your leg as much as you can until you feel a stretch. Flex your foot toward your face to get an extra stretch in your calves. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds.
Standing quadriceps stretch
Stand and bend one of your legs behind you as you grab your ankle or the top of the foot. With the opposite hand, hold onto a sturdy support (e.g. wall, chair, desk) for balance if needed. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds.
Supine adductor stretch
Lie on the floor on your back with your legs together. Bring the soles of your feet together and your heels as close to your groin as possible. You should feel a stretch in your inner thighs. Relax your body as you hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds.
Lateral neck stretch
Stand or sit and extend your right arm to your side with your right palm facing up. Tilt your head to your left and hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds. You may gently place your left hand by your right temple to increase the stretch along your neck.
Standing calf stretch (heel drop)
Stand with your feet slightly apart on the edge of a step or sturdy platform (e.g. aerobic steps). Use a wall or a sturdy object like a chair for balance. Lower your heels toward the floor until you feel a stretch in your calves. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds.
Conclusions about passive stretching
Since passive stretching falls under the category of static stretching, you can probably extrapolate some of the information in the research to your own workouts. To maximize your time, perhaps it is better to perform dynamic stretching and body weight warm-ups, like lunges and leg swings, before you lift or run. Save passive stretching after your workout or bedtime as a way to relax your body and mind.