Active Isolated Stretching

During the past 10 years, Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) has assumed an increasingly prominent role in my private practice. Not only is it the most effective stretching technique I’ve ever come across, but this technique is helping me to resolve client problems that have not responded to other strategies.

I had heard about this stretching technique years ago, but it wasn’t until early in 2008 that I experienced it first-hand. I was attending a bodywork conference at the Pura Vida Resort in Costa Rica where Aaron Mattes, originator of Active Isolated Stretching, was a guest teacher.

When Aaron first got up to speak before the group, his commanding presence immediately filled the room. A bespectacled, grey-haired giant in his sixties, it wasn’t only his 6’ 6” stature and huge gesturing hands that got my attention. His intense passion for the work, for its potential to help people, simply poured out of him.

No doubt he had given this introductory talk a thousand times during his nearly 40 year career, but he spoke like a man who’d just recently discovered something wonderful and new and profoundly beneficial to humankind. Soon I would understand his enthusiasm.


Active Isolated Stretching: The Basics

In summary, this is what Aaron shared with us in his opening remarks:

For many years, a static stretch of up to 60 seconds or longer has been the gold standard of stretching. But research has clearly shown that a static stretch of 5 seconds or longer stimulates what’s known as the protective stretch reflex. This reflex results in an antagonistic muscle contraction, an undesirable response when attempting to stretch soft tissue.

Many of us have felt the truth of this protective response. The muscle you’re stretching aches, your body trembles, and you fight to keep the stretch going. But still the “no pain, no gain” credo persists in our minds and we continue to try to force our bodies to do something they’re not designed to do.

In order to optimally stretch both muscle and fascia you must insure that you’re not triggering the protective stretch reflex. How do you do that? By performing a repeated stretch held no longer than 2 seconds.

Also, by having the client actively move rather than be passive, you take advantage of a very helpful neurological law, the law of reciprocal inhibition.

Law of Reciprocal Inhibition
When contraction of a muscle is stimulated, there is a simultaneous inhibition of its antagonist. This phenomenon is essential for coordinated movement.


Around the room you saw heads nodding and faces lit up with excited recognition. We were all thinking the same thing: all that just makes common sense.


Aaron Demonstrating Active Isolated Stretching

Aaron then proceeded to demonstrate on a woman, a participant, who’d been having terrible trouble with her neck and shoulder, and had also had a history of migraines. She reported having had lots of different types of massage and chiropractic with little lasting success.

Very gently Aaron tested her neck range of motion and then shoulder range of motion. There was barely any movement. He then began to move her right arm, instructing her to open it as wide as possible. It didn’t go far but at the end of its range of motion, he eased the limb into subtle stretch, just for a second or so, then returned the limb to its starting position.

That movement was repeated about 10 times and with each repetition we watched her range, so limited when she began, extend further and further. She reported being entirely comfortable and there was no appearance of strain. Aaron didn’t force anything but still her range of motion kept improving. It was like watching muscle tissue simply melt. By the time ten repetitions had been completed, the woman was exclaiming, It hasn’t stretched that far in... years!

Aaron performed several more stretches in this manner for her shoulder and then her neck, and the same thing occurred. Movement was created where there had been none.

“It’s not magic,” Aaron assured us. “It basic physiology.”


My Experience Using Active Isolated Stretching

It may not be magic but as I said at the start of this article, Active Isolated Stretching has assumed an ever-increasing role in my private practice. Simply put, it has expanded the range of what I’m able to do.

I followed up my study in Costa Rica with an AIS seminar in Louisville a few months later, and then took Aaron’s advanced training in Florida in November 2008. That was followed by my hosting Aaron for a 4-Day Active Isolated Stretching Seminar in Burlington, Vermont in May, 2009. It was a wonderful and unique opportunity for local and regional health practitioners to study with Aaron.

A great deal of pain and dysfunction in the body is anchored by an absence of length in the muscles and fascia which restricts movement and often sets up compensation patterns.

For many problems I’ve found that I can accomplish more in less time using this stretching technique, and often what’s achieved is more long-lasting. Increasingly I have clients requesting this work. In some cases, clients want nothing but Active Isolated Stretching in their bodywork sessions.

“I just feel fantastic after getting stretched out like that! My body has never known that kind of feeling of flexibility...”

This was the remark of an active fifty-something business traveler who originally came to me for sciatica. In his case, the problem was entirely gluteal and hip flexor tightness, and after two sessions, his sciatica was gone and has not returned.

Also, it’s wonderful to be able to teach these stretching variations to my clients and see how excited they are when they return for another appointment. Not only do they find the work effective, but it’s more enjoyable for many individuals, especially if they’ve struggled with stretching.

I still do plenty of hands-on work using Neuromuscular, Myofascial, and Deep Tissue Techniques, and I always will. When soft tissues are extremely tender or in spasm, or when an individual can barely move without pain, I find that pain relief must begin with calming the soft tissues and the individual’s nervous system before performing more active work using movement.

But for many, many problems Active Isolated Stretching is proving to be an extraordinary tool.


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