Flexibility: Defined

Flexibility can be trained, in different ways.  Find out how best to train for your goals.

man on table being stretched

Flexibility isn’t one thing


As you’ll see in the sweet little graphic below, Flexibility isn’t one thing.  And also, it isn’t trained in one way.

Depending on your genetics, experiences, and goals, you might find that one way of thinking about and/or training flexibility, works better for you than another. For example, if you already practice a lot of one kind of flexibility training, but you haven’t seen the gains that you would like, you may want to consider another type of flexibility training.

In addition, this information is helpful when working with a personal trainer, coach, or therapistFor example, you might be thinking, “Why is my trainer asking me to do Horse Stance? I said I wanted more open hips, but this seems like a strengthening exercise?! Why aren’t we stretching?”

When you have a clear understanding of the terms in this article, you will communicate more clearly with your fitness professionals. You will also get get better search results if you are looking for flexibility programs online.


Flexibility is…


a joint’s ability to move to the end of its normal range.


In other words, how far a joint can flex, extend or rotate; also known as, Range of Motion. As we discussed in Mobility: Defined, the most important word in that sentence is, normal.”

What is normal for one person is not necessarily normal for someone else. Depending on body structure, injuries, etc., a  joint’s normal range is unique. Even within one body, normal range of motion can be very different from right side to left side. For example, the shoulder of your non-dominant hand probably has a greater range of motion, since your dominant side tends to be slightly more muscular.


4 Expressions of Flexibility

Before we dive further different ways of training flexibility, we need to define a few more terms:


1. Active Flexibility

For our purposes, we’ll say Active Flexibility involves the contraction of a muscle. Either, the muscle being stretched. Or conversely, the muscle who does the opposing job; the antagonist.

2. Passive Flexibility

Conversely, we’ll use Passive Flexibility to refer to a demand where the muscle is not contracted.

3. Static Flexibility

We’ll use the term Static to mean a joint is not in motion. So, the body could actually be moving slightly in a particular direction, ie. toward the ground in a gravity-driven stretch. But the joints are still.

4. Dynamic Flexibility

You can probably see where this is going… We’ll use Dynamic to mean a joint is in motion.

Whew! Does that take you back to middle school anatomy class, or what?!


How the parts work together

When we think about these four Expressions of Flexibility on two continuums, like this, we see four somewhat different ways of training flexibility emerge:

graphic about flexibility expressions

*Note: These are not 100% distinct – they are continuums and there are many places where the lines blur and the expressions overlap.

Examples of Flexibility Training 


1. Active Dynamic Flexibility

You might be familiar with a Long Stride Lunge: muscles are being asked to contract while the joints are in motion. Another good example is Vinyasa Yoga, where we are flowing from one pose to another continuously.


2. Active Static Flexibility

For example, in a Horse Stance Hold,  muscles are contracted to pull us deeper into the stretch, but the joints remain still. Ashtanga Yoga is an example of a training system where this is often true. Even though the series is punctuated with flows, the major poses are held for several breaths while muscles contract and pull us deeper into the stretch.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), or Contract-Relax stretching as it is sometimes called, is another expression of Active Static Flexibility because the muscle being stretched contracts while held in a stretch.


3. Passive Static Flexibility

Think of stretches where gravity does the work, muscles are relaxed, and the joints are still.  For example, lying in a Supine Twist stretch, or as in most of the poses of Yin Yoga.

Using a foam roller, therapy balls, or massage techniques are ways of increasing flexibility through Passive Static Expression – even though the body as a whole may be in motion, the joints around the muscle being stretched are not moving and the the muscles itself is being as to relax.


4. Passive Dynamic Flexibility

Again, we let gravity do the work, but allow the joints to move while the muscles stay relaxed, as in a Jefferson Curl or the way Thai Bodywork improves flexibility in the body.


The video linked below shows an Assisted Stretching session, in which we use both Passive Dynamic and Active Static Flexibility training.


We hope this article helps organize your understanding of flexibility and gives you some language to use when working with fitness professionals, when searching for inspiration online, or just for your own love of movement.

Again, if you are practicing only one kind of flexibility training, like Active Dynamic stretching, and not seeing the results you want, try another type of training…maybe go get a massage, or come see us for an Assisted Stretching session!


Find additional info in Mobility vs. Flexibility and more at our website.


Interested in experiencing Flexibility training for yourself?  Use the form below…

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