The Difference Between Active and Passive Mobility

I’m all about being able to do more. When I was first introduced to CrossFit, there was so much ‘more’ that I wanted to learn and do, but mobility was a huge hurdle for me - I could barely bend over and grab a barbell without bending my knees. Being a competitive person and wanting to keep up with and beat others at my gym, I did some research and learned that improving mobility is a great way to increase movement efficiency and go faster without technically getting stronger or more conditioned.

Since I was working hard and getting stronger and more conditioned anyway, then adding a bunch of stretching would benefit me, right? Well, random minor injury, tweak, and strain one after another, I can now say that gaining mobility isn’t as simple as ‘stretching’ everyday.

Your muscles have a length tension relationship that is understood by your brain, or central nervous system, which orients you in space and controls how forcefully they contract during movement. When you stretch, you change this relationship, so your brain has to accommodate these changes when you go back to moving and training. Stretching a lot in a short period can change this relationship dramatically, making it easy to pull a muscle or strain a tendon doing exercises that are usually very safe for you.

This has led many in the strength and conditioning industry to consider stretching before exercise dangerous.  By and large, I agree. If you are getting ready to move and be active, especially if that activity is going to be aggressive and powerful, then stretching is not the best idea. However, some go so far as to say that you should never  stretch, which  I believe is too generalized.

There are always two sides to a coin, and sometimes stretching is good. I am specifically referring to passive stretching here. Sitting in a stretched position while doing some deep breathing can work wonders for winding down at the end of the day. The best time to do passive stretching is in the evening or after training and to focus on an area of the body that you won’t be training the next day. So if you’re going to be running sprints in the morning, don’t work on your splits the night before. I have personally made this bonehead move multiple times, and have been rewarded with a purple hamstring to show for it.

To develop your flexibility, you should focus on active stretching, or active mobility.  Active mobility is simple - it is doing work in stretched positions. Rather than sitting in the ‘couch stretch’ for 2 minutes after your workout and wondering why your hips are still tight, you need to make active mobility part of your training just like strength work or aerobics. Train it consistently and train it hard.

Here’s an example for someone who struggles significantly with overhead squats. Place a bar on your shoulders and widen your hands as wide as necessary to press the bar overhead. I call this snatch press, or press behind the neck in snatch grip. The goal is to gradually work the hands in each workout until you are able to achieve an appropriate snatch grip. Once you can achieve a snatch press standing tall, then crouch down a couple of inches and do your presses here. Inch by inch, increase your depth as your mobility improves.

This is such a simple and effective method for increasing mobility. It works because it uses the muscles in the way they will need to work to perform your goal. So the length tension relationship is developed and perfected, rather than being thrown off and needing to be re-learned each training session. 

You should work on your mobility, with a progression like the snatch press described above, at minimum twice per week, and the sets should be as focused and challenging as you can make them. These sessions won’t create any WHOA! moments like spending 5 minutes with a rubber band pulling your muscles to twice their normal length, but the gains will be more permanent and add up over time. Just like you don’t go running once and expect to be able to run a marathon, your mobility must be understood the same way. It is a long term and gradual process that you must work on consistently to see progress.

This was only a single example of active mobility, but hopefully it shines some light on the concept of working in, or near, the desired position to develop your body’s capacity. And don’t forget, stretching is not bad, it is simply important that you identify your goals and are able to apply the right type of mobility work to the appropriate situation. Get to work on your active stretching, and in a year or two, no one will believe you used to have mobility problems.