The ability to treat myself when an injury occurs has been indispensable over the years. One of my favorite stories goes back over a decade ago.
I was walking across uneven ground in the mud and rolled my left ankle. I had never sprained my left ankle before and it hurt! Big time!
The first thing I did, once I caught my breath, was to begin gentle, active movements of my ankle. After a short bit I was able to tolerate stretching my ankle with my hands. Once I had reduced the splinting enough for my ankle to partially bear my weight, I walked back to the car and drove home.
I was particularly disappointed because I was planning on attending a concert the next day. When I got home, instead of putting my foot up and resting, I got to work on it. First icing to anesthetize, then stretching to eliminate splinting and realign tissue fibers, and finally following up with manual resistance using my hands to re-stabilize the joint.
I repeated this sequence many times that evening and by the time I went to bed I could almost bear my weight normally. The next morning the swelling was down considerably. I continued to work on my ankle throughout the day. By the evening after spending about six hours treating my injury and despite some bruising and a little instability, I was able to go to the concert and even dance.
AIS: A System of Movements
Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) is a dynamic system of movements designed to address the muscular and fascial systems specific to anatomical planes of movement. It addresses dysfunction by means of painless, gentle, rhythmic, repeated movements.
The key to keep in mind here: painless. gentle. rhythmic. repeated. The gentle, effortless rhythm relaxes the nervous system, changing the afferent spinal loop and reducing muscle guarding. Stretching a muscle beyond its neurological barriers may result in increased splinting or tearing of the tissues via engagement of the myotactic reflex.
Pain is always a powerful indicator that you have done something beyond your body’s ability.
What truly sets AIS apart, however, is the length of time involved for each movement. None of the stretches are maintained for more than a couple of seconds. In fact, there is really no holding of any of the stretches. The entire movement takes only a couple of seconds and is repeated numerous times with several sets.
Repetition allows for faster, deeper, longer-lasting remodeling (see Wolff’s Law) of the tissues and underlying structures. Much like anything in life we do that requires practice, stretching a muscle a couple of times and calling it enough will most likely not suffice to create lasting, meaningful change. Repeating specific movements, often throughout the day, can quickly and effectively change tissue health and retrain the neuromuscular connections for greater mobility.
Guardians of the Soft Tissues
The spindle cells are the guardians of the soft tissues, protecting from injury. This is particularly important if tissues are injured. Spindle cells are proprioceptors that monitor lengthening tissues; they are particularly abundant in muscles. When these proprioceptors detect a stretch that is harmful, they send a signal to the muscle to contract. This is called the myotactic or stretch reflex. It occurs automatically, regardless of how careful you are.
The myotactic reflex is activated when the tissue is under too much stress. Examples of this are when a stretch goes too far or is done too quickly. The two-second-rule is Aaron Mattes, LMT’s discovery that has changed how we stretch. This rule is variable and dependent upon how sensitive the tissue is that is being stretched.
In addition, by holding a stretch you also create an ischemic condition that reduces the amount of water, blood and nutrients being delivered to the cells. By maintaining short-duration movements, the AIS system avoids triggering the stretch reflex and decreases the amount of time tissue is ischemic.
If you want to feel a muscle being eccentrically loaded, bend over and touch your toes. Your hamstrings and calves are contracting to hold you up against gravity. Now lie on your back and lift your leg up in the air. There is no loading of the hamstrings or calves in this position as you are working against gravity instead of being pulled by it.
Think about a time you engaged in some type of stretching or other activity that caused soreness afterwards, despite the fact that you were very conscious of what you were doing. In this case you pushed yourself too far, ignoring the subtle feeling of the stretch reflex. What might feel like a “safe” activity in your conscious mind may register differently in your body.
Your perception of feeling a “good stretch” can also be a sign that your tissues are in a state of tug of war with each other. You will know if the stretch was “just right” because you will not feel any soreness afterward and your range and stability will improve following the exercise. Muscle soreness indicates tissue damage; whether micro or macro, it is still an injury.
Another important physiological component of AIS is reciprocal inhibition (see Sherrington’s Law). Active muscle engagement of the antagonist muscle inhibits the muscle you are trying to stretch and allows it to be lengthened without force. For example; when you flex your elbow, signals are sent to your triceps to relax so that your muscles can flex your elbow. By working actively, your nervous system sets up the end range and you can better judge if a stretch is going too far or not.
A Vascular/Lymphatic Pump
Over the years I have particularly noticed the impressive effect AIS has on the circulatory system, both venous and lymphatic. This becomes apparent in many cases when visible joint swelling reduces during the treatment, even in cases of severe edema. As I understand it, this can only happen through stimulation of the venous and lymphatic systems, which are basically passive.
Stretching applies pressure to the vessels, “milking” them, and active muscle contractions of the antagonist support the return of lymph and venous blood for further processing and redistribution. The AIS system of repeated active movements creates a vascular/lymphatic pump which in turn produces a massive profusion of blood and lymph directed into and out of the targeted tissues and joints. In my experience this is the key component of AIS that produces healing.
When practiced gently, without pain, AIS creates a relaxed yet stable feeling in the tissues and joints being treated. The importance of not creating pain has become more and more clear to me over the years. I have learned to always begin with very easy movements, trying not to stretch myself as far as I can right out of the gate.
I have found that if I keep my movements controlled and do not worry about how flexible I am or how far I can stretch myself, I tend to loosen up quickly without suffering any pain or soreness afterwards. It took me many years to fully understand and apply this concept.
Here are two essential stretches for the lower body that focus on anti-gravity muscles. The stretches use a non-stretchy strap or your hand for assistance. Keep your movements precise and very gentle.
1. Knee Flexion with Hip Extension
• Find a counter or similar surface that you can balance against to help stabilize your torso.
Flex your right knee and grab your ankle with your right hand. If your quadriceps are too tight to allow for this, try wrapping your strap around your ankle to help hold your knee in flexion.
• Gently extend your right hip.
• Keeping your knee flexed, assist gently at the end of the movement with your right hand.
• Release and repeat two sets of 10 reps.
This stretch will relieve the tension in your quadriceps and help take the pressure off of your lower back. If you experience any discomfort in your lower back while doing this stretch, bend your torso forward slightly. This should stabilize your spine and pelvis to perform the exercise without pain. If this is unsuccessful, do not proceed with this stretch.
2. Advanced Ankle Dorsiflexion
• Wrap your strap around your right leg, crossing the end of your strap. Keeping your leg straight, slowly raise it until you feel a slight stretch.
• Lower your leg until you feel no stretch. This is your starting position.
• Gently dorsiflex your foot and assist with your strap.
• Release and repeat two sets of 10 reps.
• Repeat the above sequence by pulling slightly harder with your right hand and then again with your left hand to access different tissues along the fascial line.
This stretch will help to release the muscles and fascia along the back of the leg into the hips and low back.
Please keep this in mind: When you stretch yourself, move slowly and come to your end points gently. Avoid the urge to push yourself beyond your current potential and you will become more flexible.
Keep your breath calm, regular, and deep. Don’t worry about synchronizing your breath with your movements. Follow your natural breathing pattern.
Most important: Do not hold your breath. Remember, none of the movements should be painful. If you experience any pain, stop immediately and consult a physician or practitioner you trust.
Joshua Morton, LMT, MAISS, MMLT, is a 1994 graduate of Seattle Massage School. In 2002 he met Aaron Mattes and has devoted his practice to AIS since. Morton has been an international educator for 20 years and teaches at AIS Northwest. He has authored a guide to assisted stretching and self-stretching.
His practice is located in Tacoma, Washington. Susan Guttzeit, LMT, MAISS, contributed to this article. She received her massage practitioner license in 1996 upon graduation from the Pacific Center for Awareness & Bodywork on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.