Active Isolated Stretching
Written by Paul Elliott
Stretching! There, I’ve said it. The very word tends to send many people into contractions.
I enter into this article to share my views on stretching with the entire Canadian massage and body-working population knowing that stretching is, to our community, as controversial a topic as politics or religion tends to be.
The work that I have studied and now teach is called Active Isolated Stretching (AIS). AIS has been developed by Aaron L. Mattes over the past 35 years and has gained phenomenal success around the globe. One of the extraordinary concepts about this work is that the Mattes Method incorporates a stretch which lasts no longer than two-seconds (I’ll expand on this later in the article). Another remarkable characteristic with AIS is that anyone can learn to do this technique.
As an AIS instructor, therapist, and athlete, it’s my belief that flexibility is essential for the longevity of any therapist or athlete. More importantly, it is vital to anyone with a personal pursuit of an active lifestyle. As professional therapists we all understand that overuse of muscles is the most common cause of muscle tightness which results in restricted movement and restricted postures. These constrictions contribute to muscle weakness, muscle strength imbalance and reduced flexibility, all of which lead to injury. Yada, yada, yada.
Perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, however I still have concerns. Here’s why: for several decades experts have advocated a prolonged, static stretch of up to 60 seconds. This has been (and still is!) the gold standard that governs our stretching. It doesn’t help that the positions in which we put our bodies to achieve these “stretches” are physically unsound and at times contraindicated. Plainly put, for most people, attempting a hamstring stretch by trying to touch our toes (standing, sitting or with a leg heaved on to the back of a park bench) is uncomfortable. Now, once in that position, how much fun is it to stay there for 60 seconds?
There are two problems inherent with holding a static stretch for so long. The first problem involves the body’s protective myotatic reflex.
After two seconds, the myotatic reflex triggers the muscle spindles and Golgi bodies into a protective contraction. The second concerns the effects of ischemia. After five seconds, blood begins to shunt away from the muscle, creating a localized ischemia.
Before I rock the boat too hard, let’s take a look at stretching from a medical and scientific point of view. At the root of the Mattes Method is Sherrington’s law: A muscle will do either one of two things – it will contract or it will release.
Sherrington’s law of reciprocal inhibition and muscle contraction states that when a muscle on one side of a joint is contracted, the opposite side sends a neurological signal to relax or release.1
Adhering to Sherrington’s Law, the Mattes Method enables maximum myofascial stretching of the isolated muscle because the muscle is stretched and released without activating the protective myotatic reflex which, after only 2 seconds, inhibits the stretch potential of a muscle.
When the tendonous attachments contract in their reflex action, the muscle is no longer relaxed but is now in eccentric contraction.
So, what can happen to a muscle after that 2-second point?
Here’s an equation you may not find in massage or anatomy class:
Beyond the issues of the stretch reflex and the possible tearing of muscle tissue, is the effect of blood flow to the muscles. In the preface to Mr. Mattes’ book, Dr. Taras Kochno writes:
- Stretched beyond the 2-SECOND point, muscle fibers can tear.
- All tears result in bleeding at the site of the tear.
- Bleeding promotes scar tissue, which is how the body repairs itself.
- Scar tissue becomes less flexible than surrounding muscle or tendon,
- Wherever flexibility is compromised, muscle weakness, imbalance and contractures develop.
- This will result in less blood flow to the area.
- a decrease of blood flow equals a lack of, or decrease in oxygen;
- And a decrease of oxygen equals an increase in pain.
“A prolonged static stretch greater than five seconds actually decreases the blood flow within the tissue, creating localized ischemia and lactic acids build up. This can result in irritation or injury of muscular, tendonous, lymphatic and even neural tissues, similar to the effects [and consequences of] trauma and overuse syndromes.”
|As the isolated muscle - in this case the hamstrings - achieves a state of relaxation (as a result of the neurological message sent from the quadriceps), a more beneficial stretch (picture 3)
can be accomplished without any opposing tension from the attachments of the muscle or rather, without triggering the stretch reflex.
So, if we think about it this way, something as simple as improper stretching can cause more damage than we realize.
Let’s look at this in another way. If we try to stretch our hamstrings by touching our toes, the erector spinae, sacrospinalis, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings will all be in a state of eccentric contraction while the body is held in this position.
In other words: By trying to stretch your hamstrings by touching your toes, dozens if not hundreds of muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, and bones will all adjust to accommodate this unusual position.
The muscle being “stretched” is in fact being eccentrically contracted – meaning that the muscle is being asked by the body to both hold on while simultaneously asking it to stretch and release!
This is a complete contradiction to Sherrington’s law!
Aaron Mattes writes in his book: “As one tries to stretch beyond the proper planes of the attachments, tension and friction is increased and a resistance is encountered that will prevent full flexibility.”2
The body responds to inappropriate tension by recruiting the opposite side muscle group to contract and in doing so deters the stretched muscle from any potential injury. Therefore, all of the small adjustments the body has to make in trying to stretch the hamstrings by touching your toes will work against the stretch that you’re trying to achieve.
In effect, this two-second stretch not only allows the target muscle to optimally lengthen without triggering the stretch reflex, it also means that in those two seconds the muscle cells can be loaded with necessary oxygen and nutrients. Those cells will then be eliminated of any accumulated toxins. Therefore, no myotatic reflex! No self-inflicted ischemia. No pain.
Accepting Sherrington’s Law as established scientific fact, the AIS technique involves a contraction of an agonist muscle group which sends a neurological message to lengthen the opposite side or antagonist muscles.
For example, by actively contracting the Quadriceps (pic 1), the hamstrings receive the neurological message to relax (pic 2), assisting the stretch to optimize the muscle (pic 3).
Furthermore, contracting muscles are major vehicles used to deliver
blood and oxygen. Repetitive isotonic muscle contractions deliver
greater amounts of blood, lymph and nutrition to specific regions than
or isometric contractions. Therefore, isolating a muscle or muscle groups brings greater specific benefit to
The isolated muscle is put in a physiological position to achieve a
state of relaxation. It is from this relaxed state that a greater, more
complete stretch can be attained. While in this relaxed state, the
muscle can be stretched 1.6 times its own length with gentle
assistance. As a result, the restoration of full Range of Motion can be
In summation, the new paradigm of Active Isolated Stretching, offers a
way not only to stretch safely and effectively, but it can also affect
positive change in your physical well being. Active Isolated Stretching
can expand the potential of any body – it can also expand the potential
of the professional therapist.
OK, so I’ve rocked the boat!
1. Rasch, Philip J, Roger K. Burke. 6th edition, Kinesiology and Applied Anatomy, pg 63.
2. Mattes, Aaron L. Active Isolated Stretching: The Mattes Method, pg 3
In the second of this two-part series Paul Elliott will discuss how working with AIS can augment your massage work. He will also explain how we as therapists can empower our clients with the tools that allow them to participate in their own health; enabling them to improve their own quality of life.
Paul Elliott a Montreal-based muscular therapist, who lectures about and teaches AIS across Canada. Paul heads up a team of event therapists – working such events as the Montreal marathon and the Montreal Triathlon. Paul is also a distance runner who runs competitively with the Boreal Runner’s Club. He has studied Active Isolated Stretching since 2003 under the tutelage of Aaron L. Mattes in his Florida clinic as well as assisting Mr. Mattes in many AIS seminars in Canada and the USA. If you are interested in sponsoring an Active Isolated Stretching Seminar in your area please contact Paul at
or at www.stretchingcanada.com