Difference Between Passive Range of Motion and Active Range of Motion

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on February 18, 2024
4 min read

Range of motion (ROM) refers to how far you can move or stretch a part of your body, such as a joint or a muscle. It’s different for each of us. For example, some people can do complete splits, but others can’t: their joints aren’t loose and their muscles won’t lengthen as far.

You can improve your physical well-being and avoid injury if you’re aware of your ROM. ‌

Active Range of Motion (AROM). This is the space in which you move a part of your body by using your muscles. You make the effort without outside help. For example, lifting your arms above your head to stretch the muscles happens within your active range of motion.

Passive Range of Motion (PROM). This is the space in which a part of your body can move when someone or something is creating the movement, such as a massage or physical therapist. You're not the one engaging the muscles you would normally use to start the movement and do the work.

‌There is a middle category for range of motion in which someone helps you move. Assisted active range of motion(AAROM) often happens in physical therapy, when you need to build up flexibility or strength in a particular body part.

For example, you sit down and lift your leg up in front of you as far as you can. Another person, often a physical therapist, helps you stretch your leg more than you’d be able to if you flexed your own muscles.

‌You can do range-of-motion exercises to hold onto your flexibility and mobility. If you are stiff or see that you can’t stretch as far as you used to, ROM exercises may help you regain what you’ve lost. Over time, they may even give you a better range of motion.

PROM exercises are especially beneficial when a situation such as a stroke or an accident has left you bedridden or wheelchair-bound. If you are unable to move, medical professionals will move your muscles and bend your joints for you on a daily basis, working you toward potential recovery. They may even teach your family members how to help you.

With AROM exercises, you strengthen your muscles when you actively engage them in movement. This is good for your overall health and improves your mobility over time.

You can improve your active range of motion by holding movements or stretches for at least 30 seconds. By doing this, you build strength in the muscles needed for a particular movement. Keep in mind that you want to do a variety of range-of-motion exercises that challenge your entire body and not a single muscle group alone.

As an example of AAROM exercise, if you break your ankle, you must stop moving that part of your body as it heals.

Once your ankle heals and is ready to bear weight, you may still find it hard to move. That’s because you’ve lost range of motion due to the lack of use. You may lift your foot up and press it down, but it only goes so far. 

A physical therapist can apply pressure to your foot to move it just a little more than your body allows. This stretches the muscle and joint, increasing the range of motion.‌

Cons of Passive Range of Motion. When you’re not in control of a movement, there’s a greater chance of injury. Another person can’t tell what your limit is and may move a muscle or joint farther than it is able to go. 

Stretching a little beyond your limit is good for increasing your range of motion. But pushing too far may lead to a muscle tear or damage to a joint.‌

This is a risk in AAROM as well. No one should push you to the point of pain. 

There may be instances of movement where you only use your muscle in a single way. If you keep repeating a particular motion without changing up how you use your muscle, you may limit your range of motion.

For example, if you work out in a gym and complete a series of exercises that work your biceps, you strengthen those muscles. If you continue to focus on this muscle group without adding in motions that work your triceps, on the back of your arms, you may limit the range of motion in your arms.

Keep in mind that no range of motion exercise should cause you pain. Listen to your body and stop when you reach your limits. Stretching too far while using passive or active range of motion may cause damage.‌