What is Active Isolated Stretching?

Stretching is an activity that eludes most of us as runners, walkers, and hikers. When I ask my clients, "Have you stretched since I last saw you?" most sheepishly look away and mumble, "Nooo." Stretching is something we all want to do and know it is good for us, yet somehow drop it from our exercise programs. I often hear people say that they would stretch more if it didn't hurt so much and if they could actually see a difference in their flexibility.

What they don't know is that they should see a difference after they stretch and it doesn't have to be painful. Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) is a technique that helps people maximize the effectiveness of stretching without causing the sort of discomfort that keeps a lot of us away from it.

You may be asking yourself, "What is Active Isolated Stretching?" AIS is a specific stretching program developed by Aaron Mattes over 30 years ago. Mattes is a registered Kinesiotherapist and Licensed Massage Therapist who has dedicated his practice to helping both professional and amateur athletes become more agile and less injured. His technique uses four basic principles:

  1. Isolate the muscle to be stretched.
  2. Repeat the stretch eight to 10 times.
  3. Hold each stretch for no more than two seconds.
  4. Exhale on the stretch; inhale on the release.

Seems easy enough, right? Let's look at some of the details that make AIS so effective.

How do we isolate a muscle to be stretched? Isolate the muscle to be stretched by actively contracting the opposite muscle. In other words, if you are aiming to stretch the hamstrings, (the muscles on the back of the thigh) you must first actively contract the quadriceps (the muscles on the front of the thigh). Then, the brain sends a signal to the hamstrings to relax. This provides a perfect environment for the hamstrings to stretch.

What is the purpose for repeating each stretch? Repeat each stretch eight to 10 times in order to increase the circulation of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the muscles being stretched. This technique will help you gain the most flexibility per session. Remember, the more nutrition a muscle can obtain and the more toxins a muscle can release, the faster the muscle can recover.

Hold for two seconds. How does that help? Each stretch is held for a maximum of two seconds in order to avoid the activation of the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex (also called the myotatic reflex) prevents a muscle or tendon from overstretching too far or too fast. This is our body's natural protection against strains, sprains, and tears. By holding short-term stretches, we increase our range of motion with each repetition and eliminate any fear of pain.

Breathing is an essential component to decrease fatigue in the muscles. Muscles need oxygen to function well. If there is not enough oxygen, lactic acid is created. Lactic acid creates that sore feeling in our muscles. If our muscles are sore, they are less powerful, more fatigued, and more prone to injury.

After a long hike, walk, or run, what are the problems that pop up and keep you from going out again? For most of us, it's the same patterns: sore muscles, old injuries, and new injuries. These things make it hard to go out and have fun while training.

If you could take a pill that would keep your muscles from being as sore, improve your ability to recover, and decrease the likeliness of injury?do you know what they'd call it? AIS. Whether you're an exercise enthusiast or a competitive athlete, Active Isolated Stretching can help your training and recovery become more efficient and more fun.

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Heather Thompson has been teaching movement therapies for over 15 years. She is currently a certified Pilates Instructor and Active Isolated Stretch Therapist. For more information, you can contact Thompson at

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