Active Stretching

| June 26, 2013 | Reply

Active stretching is a type of stretching which is commonly practiced in static form (more info on static stretching here), and that is why you may often encounter the term static-active stretching, but it can also be undertaken in many other sorts too, most notably in dynamic form (more info on dynamic stretching here), thus being labeled as dynamic-active stretching. Active stretching is performed by stretching your muscles on your own forces, meaning that no external help is involved. Due to this feature, it is actually considered as a demanding way of flexing your muscles but, simultaneously, it is seen as a fairly effective way of increasing your flexibility and strengthening the targeted muscles (the antagonists, that is, the muscles of your body which are relaxed when an active stretch is performed – see below).

How Active Stretching Works

Performing an active stretch roughly adheres to the basic principle of assuming a position and actively contracting the “opposite” muscle (the agonist) of the muscle you want to stretch (the antagonist) without engaging any external force (such as a partner, a bar, your own body weight or gravity). In fact, when a stretch of that type is performed, the muscle which is going to be stretched (the antagonist) remains relaxed while the contracting, opposite muscle (the agonist) is in charge of creating and maintaining the stretch. The mechanism that makes that task possible lies in the cooperation of your muscle groups involved, creating an effect called reciprocal inhibition (since the antagonist is inhibited from contracting) and has to do with the relaxing of antagonist when the agonist is contracted. It may be relatively confusing to conceive it at first (and that’s why a certified instructor plays a vital role here), but once you get the grasp, your only restriction should be the considerable muscular force needed to actually trigger and hold the stretch.

Active Stretching Exercises

Bellow are presented a bunch of stretched performed in an active type – before you try these stretches you should carefully read our Stretching guide:

  • Starting from a standing position, bend your knee (moving your leg behind your body) by actively engaging the force of your hamstrings (the agonists); holding your leg there you, engaging no other power than the strength of the hamstrings, means that your quadriceps (more stretches for quadriceps can be found here) – now lengthened – is being stretched effectively, posing no resistance to resist the flexion; hold for no more than 20-25 seconds (besides, trying to maintain that stretch for more time is rather demanding, whereas there is no real reason to exceed that time cycle) without – as mentioned – engaging any outward force. Photo 1 is clearly showing an active and a passive version of the specific stretch!
  • Another example: Hold one arm up behind your head, bending your biceps (agonist) and pushing your upper arm backwards in order to stretch your triceps (antagonist).
  • Another well-known active stretch (which most individuals do instinctively on a regular basis): Place your arms onto your sides (or your knit the fingers of your hands behind your head) and use your mid-back muscles to push the arms backwards, thusly stretching your chest muscles (photo 2) . For other Chest Stretches click this.
  • The opposite of the above presented exercise: Extend your arms to the sides of your body (or just straighen your arms in front of your chest while loosely intertwining your fingers) using your pectoral muscles’ power to bring your arms slightly forward and thusly to stretch your back muscles (photo 3). For other back stretches click this.

As mentioned in our stretching guide, the recommended time for holding the aforementioned stretches in the active type should not exceed 20-25 seconds. Needless to say that all those examples can be performed in the passive type (photo 1 shows exactly that) and its variations (dynamic-passive or static-passive) as well as in all the other types (isometric, PNF etc.), depending on your particular goals and expectations!


The advantages of active stretching, when performed appropriately, are significant. Apart from the common benefits of all stretching types, this type of activity is especially efficient to

  • increase muscle tissue temperature (involving the joints and the surrounding tissue)
  • increase joint stability and strength, thus making the stretched areas less vulnerable to injuries
  • develop longer joints, which allow a greater ranger of motion
  • be safer and more harmless for the trainee

What To Consider

There are some more facts to consider when performing active stretching, though. A fundamental rule is to avoid swinging throughout the movement; instead, try to execute the stretch calmly and with good balance. Moreover, halt for a while when you feel great fatigue and stop completely if you experience pain. Of course, it would be tricky at first but as things progress, you will find out that you can carry out your active-stretch program with an adequate amount of stability and convenience. Yet, if you are a beginner in fitness and toning, it is certain that you will not be able to perform some of the stretches (mainly due to the lack of adequate muscle strength), so it would be better to initially abstain from that kind of activity. Finally, consult a physiotherapist if you have recently undergone an injury or if you encounter any sort of muscle issue.

Similarities With Other Stretching Types

Now that you know the basic principle of active stretching, you won’t be surprised if you encounter some of its in several forms of yoga or in active-isolated stretching, which is however a specialized form of active stretching.

Photos & Videos

Watch the photos and video below for a few examples on active stretching.

Quads active stretching

Photo 1 – Quadriceps Active/Passive Stretch

active chest stretch

Photo 2 – Active chest stretch

active back stretch

Photo 3 – Active back stretch

Our Opinion

Overall, active stretching is a truly interesting type of stretching which uses your own muscles’ power to deliver remarkable results in terms of long-term flexibility. It can also very well be combined with dynamic stretching so as to maximize the outcome and either altogether replace the traditional passive stretching or complement it in some cases. Nevertheless, active stretching sometimes calls for an average or superior level of fitness and strength to be correctly performed, therefore beginners are usually advised to avoid it, at least during their first steps. But once you get familiar with a program comprising of the traditional passive stretches, you are almost unconditionally free to move on to that particular type, upgrading your suppleness without running any major risk of injuries. Finally, it is essential to notice that you should always have in mind the general do’s and dont’s of stretching!



Category: Types of Stretching

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