Active Isolated Stretching
For some reason in the health care field, active isolated stretching (AIS) is still rarely taught as a good way to stretch your muscles, even though it does in fact give a great stretch, feels as good or better than regular stretching, and may even be better for your muscles than conventional stretching. But with like so many health care protocols (see my blog post from May 2018 about why we should no longer be icing our injuries), once it’s habit in the industry and habit in the school curriculum, it becomes next to impossible to change. Just as well though - you can learn something new today from Yellow Gazebo!
AIS was first developed in the 1970’s by Aaron Mattes, a kinesiotherapist and massage therapist. Mattes developed the stretching technique as a means of helping athletes be more strong and flexible, and also to be less prone to injuries. Since first developed, AIS has become popular with chiropractors, physiotherapists (acupuncturists such as myself), and many other disciplines as a means of helping their patients recover better and faster.
The essential premise behind active isolated stretching is as follows:
Choose the muscle to be stretched.
Perform the stretch, but hold it for only 2-3 seconds.
Repeat the stretch 10-15 times.
When I teach my own patients this method of stretching, I usually liken it to strengthening exercises; think of this method of stretching as if you’re doing sets of repetitions with weights.
What’s the science behind AIS?
Active isolated stretching is based on the premise that the way we have been generally taught how to stretch, ie holding a pose for 30-60 seconds at a time, is fundamentally counterintuitive. Which kind of makes sense at first glance, doesn’t it? I mean, does it seem natural to hold a stretch that long? No animal in nature does! But I digress.
What happens when you hold a stretch for more than a few seconds is something called the “myostatic reflex,” which is a protective mechanism in our muscles that is meant to prevent us from injuring ourselves. Inside our muscles are muscle spindles and Golgi bodies that begin a contraction after a few seconds of stretching. This protects the belly of the muscle from being potentially torn, but also prevents a really good stretch in the main part of the muscle, and instead shunts the blood flow primarily to the ends of the muscle. NOT where we really want the stretch.
Without getting even more into complicated science (see Sherrington’s Law), I’d suggest giving AIS a try. At the very worst, it’s a new, less boring way to stretch. At the very best, you’re doing your muscles a world of good, and probably getting more flexibility as well!