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New rules of stretching

As trained health professionals we might say, “Health is the absence of disease.” A client in pain, on the other hand, might be more inclined to answer: “Not having to live with pain.”

October 18, 2016  By Paul John Elliott

As trained health professionals we might say

As a therapist and educator, I would like to think that we could offer our clients something more than just a treatment. In order to truly effect positive change in people’s negative physical situation we must educate them – offer them the opportunity to participate in their own health.

The goal of this article is to provide comprehensive information about the effects of stretching on mechanical strain and its potential for therapeutic release. It also proposes safe and effective ways to empower you and your clients with tools that can help them live a pain-free life – or at least, to have a better quality of life.

Any article or book is simply a proposition – it’s a position on what we do in the environment that we create. It is not the final word. There is no true right or wrong. A technique either fits or it doesn’t.

Empowering our clients
Offering clients the option to participate in their own physical situation can be enormously helpful when you offer the two key elements to change: awareness and understanding. When we create a somatic awareness in our clients, we are also teaching clarity (understanding). Any information retained during a session can become a client’s tool for life.


As Canada’s authority on active isolated stretching (AIS), I find this technique to have great therapeutic legitimacy in everybody’s life – certainly in massage and bodywork.

What makes AIS different?

The ‘active’ component
One of the keys to the success of active isolated stretching lies in the understanding that only relaxed myofascial structures will allow themselves to be fully stretched. This is achieved through the active contraction of an agonist muscle, which sends a neurological signal to the targeted, antagonist muscle to release and lengthen in preparation for movement. This physiological phenomenon is known as reciprocal inhibition.

The two-second rule
The biggest paradigm shift lies in the fact that an active isolated stretch lasts no more than two seconds. Using a stretch of no more than two seconds allows the targeted structure to fully lengthen without triggering the body’s protective myotatic reflex, which after two seconds inhibits the stretch potential of a muscle.

The myotatic reflex
Every muscle is subject to the myotatic or “stretch” reflex, which opposes changes in muscle length, especially sudden or extreme changes. This can be considered the body’s built-in protective mechanism. When a muscle elongates beyond a certain length, the myotatic reflex triggers the muscle spindles and Golgi bodies into a protective contraction causing it to tighten and attempt to shorten. After the two-second point we release the agonist contraction and allow the targeted muscle to return to its neutral position – therefore, no myotatic reflex, no pain.

Of course, it is possible for a muscle to lengthen under the load of a myotatic reflex. Adhering to Sherrington’s Law, a muscle lengthening under load is considered an eccentric contraction. Also, the body’s myotatic reflex is proportionate to the amount of force put into the movement. The more sudden the change, the more pronounced the muscle’s stretch reflex will become.

The importance of the “out-breath” during active stretching cannot be over stated. One of the reasons for breathing out during the stretching phase is that when we inhale, oxygen-rich blood is delivered everywhere in the body, and for our purposes, to the tissues that are being opened and optimized. This oxygen-rich blood then pushes toxins out of the cells and into the blood stream where they are exhaled out through the lungs. Other remaining toxins will be picked up by the interstitial fluids and sent to the kidneys and eliminated via the bladder.

Massage therapy tool
AIS is a vital component to the prevention of injury and rehabilitation. It is an important adjunct to improved mobility, and thus, facilitates the healing of most injuries.

The tissue lengthening and fascial release provides functional and physiological restoration of superficial and deep fascial planes. Reorganizing the fascial planes allows for greater alignment, balance and structural function.

While AIS can aid the therapist in injury prevention, performance enhancement and rehabilitation, it also offers safe and effective self-care tools for clients.

The law of averages suggests that a massage therapist’s professional life span is seven years – often succumbing to repetitive strain injuries. In that suggested time frame alone, we therapists will have spent thousands of hours flexed over our treatment table.

The muscles from the cervical spine to wrists bare the brunt of the strain. However, dysfunctions in the muscles of the trunk and hips commonly arise from the regular anterior flexion in our posture. The subsequent issues in the trunk and hips can have an effect on the upper extremities.

The AIS protocols can help therapists avoid injury by optimizing key muscle groups. This optimization will help improve our capacity for activity, inasmuch as a stretched muscle requires less energy for completion of movement.

In part two we discuss the clinical application of AIS, which you can apply to your practice.

Paul John Elliott has been a registered massage therapist since 2003 and is the founder of both PJE Therapeutic Services and Stretching Canada. You can contact him at

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