What is Fascia? Active vs. Passive Stretching

There are many benefits to being flexible: having confidence in your body’s capabilities, experiencing less restrictive movements, and of course being able to show off impressive poses like the splits. However, for most people, stretching is not something that comes easily. Unless you joined a bendy sport as a kid (like dance or cheerleading or gymnastics) and stuck with it for years, it is difficult for adults to have the patience that is required for making flexibility gains. Another, seemingly simple, question is: what is the best way to stretch?

Stretching is less about your muscles and more about loosening fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue holding your body together, everything from muscles to organs to joints. If you have limited mobility and your body feels tight, it might actually be that your fascia has been neglected. Healthy fascia is loose and liquidy but if you do not move your body often enough or in enough variety, your fascia will thicken and compress around your muscles in a painful way.

A dancer engaged in an active middle split.
Photo by Budgeron Bach on Pexels.com

There are two ways to stretch: actively or passively. A great debate has occurred between active and passive stretching, so let’s define those terms. Active stretching is to actively engage your muscles during the stretch while passive stretching is to relax into a pose and let gravity over time push you deeper into the pose. There is a school of thought that aims to discredit passive stretching, which is unfair to the benefits of passive stretches. While active stretching uses your strength to deepen the pose and is a faster stretching technique than passive stretching, there are meditative benefits to maintaining a pose for minutes at a time. Your personal goals will determine which type of stretching is best for you.

One way to sum up a lot of frustration that comes with flexibility is the time required to see results, which can be best highlighted against strength building. Strength is quick to come but quick to go, with ‘quick’ being defined in terms of weeks. If you strength trained every day for one month, you would most likely see huge strides in muscle build; however, if you stopped strength training for as little as one month, you would see a massive drop in what your muscles were capable of. On the flip side, when looking at flexibility: flexibility is long to come but long to go, with ‘long’ being defined in terms of years. If you think of dancers and cheerleaders, they often spend their entire childhoods honing their craft, stretching their limbs from when they’re about 5 years old to 18. After 13 years of stretching, these athletes are often able to split and backbend for years after they stop training. For adults who want to train those skills from scratch, they often overlook the amount of time and dedication those young athletes committed to their skills and then get jealous of that apparent ease that is possible even when they stopped training.

Young children practicing their splits. Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

Understanding realistic expectations is essential for every physical practice. Mindsets can make or break a fitness routine.

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