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Active Isolated Stretching
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
I recently received a letter from a reader that asked for my opinion on a stretching technique called Active Isolated Stretching (AIS).
AIS was named and developed by a man named Aaron Mattes, who has had a long history of using this stretching technique on his clients and teaching it to thousands of health practitioners over many years.
The reason why some practitioners promote AIS over conventional stretching is this: conventional stretching attempts to stretch muscles when they are not fully relaxed; AIS aims to stretch muscles when they are maximally relaxed, providing for effective stretches with low risk of injury.
Consider the muscles that surround your thigh. The four main muscle bellies at the front of your thigh are collectively called your quadriceps muscle. The three largest muscle bellies at the back of your thigh are known as your hamstrings. From a functional perspective, your quadriceps and hamstrings perform opposite actions; your quadriceps muscles contract to extend (straighten) your lower extremities, while your hamstring muscles contract to flex (curl) your lower extremities.
Your nervous system is designed to allow each of these muscles to do their jobs with the least amount of opposing strain. For example, when your quadriceps muscles need to straighten your lower extremities, your nervous system decreases its output to your hamstrings in order to make them relax, which in turn, allows your quadriceps muscles to straighten your lower extremities with minimal resistance.
In the same way, when your hamstrings need to curl your lower extremities, your quadriceps are ordered by your nervous system to relax so that your hamstrings can function without unnecessary stress.
This mechanism is known as reciprocal inhibition.
AIS uses reciprocal inhibition to stretch muscles when they are maximally relaxed. To continue with muscles described above, when the goal is to stretch your left hamstring muscle with AIS, you begin by contracting your left quadriceps muscle for a few seconds, which causes your left hamstring muscle to relax via reciprocal inhibition.
This is followed immediately by a brief, intense, and controlled stretch of your left hamstring muscle while it is still in a state of relaxation.
This same method can be applied to any opposing groups of muscles in your body. If you want to stretch your lower back, you should precede your lower back stretch with a period of contraction of your abdominal muscles. If you want to stretch your calf muscles, you should begin by flexing the muscles that line the front of your legs (the area that runners associate with shin splints). If you want to stretch a bicep muscle, you should begin by flexing the tricep muscle on the same arm.
Proponents of AIS say that this method is much more effective than conventional stretching methods that do not take advantage of reciprocal inhibition.
I only learned of the name, AIS, recently. But I have known about using reciprocal inhibition to stretch short muscles for about twelve years, and have used this stretching method with great effectiveness in my practice whenever I have felt that a person's muscles required special attention. More specifically, I have found AIS to be particularly effective in treating tight muscles surrounding the neck region, and short hamstrings.
Some practitioners who use AIS in their practices believe that conventional stretching methods that do not take advantage of reciprocal inhibition can actually do more harm than good, since conventional methods can illicit a self-protective, contractile response in muscles being stretched.
My position is that conventional stretching methods can provide short and long term benefits as long as you are mindful of the following points:
Try to stretch later in the afternoon or evening, when your blood circulation is at its peak. Blood circulation is at its worst first thing in the morning, a consequence of your heart not having to work very hard in the absence of significant gravitational force while you are sleeping in a horizontal position. As you go about your daily activities, your blood circulation naturally improves as your heart begins working harder.
If possible, save intense stretching sessions, like a yoga class, for after you have done a good warm up. The more you exercise or warm up before you stretch, the more blood flow your muscles will have, which decreases their risk of suffering a strain or tear.
Do not bounce with your stretches. Move your body slowly and gradually into a position that allows you to feel a solid stretch in the target muscle, then hold this position and focus on keeping your breathing steady.
Never stop breathing while you stretch. If you find yourself holding your breath on a regular basis during stretching sessions, consider this a sign that you are putting too much stress on your tissues and ease back on the intensity of your stretches.
The reason why I remain a great fan of forms of yoga that emphasize stretching is that when performed with the guidelines listed above in mind, they allow you to accomplish three things at once: to keep your muscles flexible, to train your muscles for strength, and to train your heart for endurance.
If you would like to learn more about Active Isolated Stretching, I recommend that you read the following book:
The yoga video that I use most often is:
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