As professional massage therapists, we know how important it is to keep our bodies healthy and strong.
We’ve learned about proper body mechanics, the importance of good posture and breathing.
An Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) routine remains the mainstay of both my practice and self-care despite learning a great many other techniques over the years. It is still my best and favorite tool for addressing the majority of soft-tissue injuries I find in my clients and in my own body.
What I particularly like about self-care with Active Isolated Stretching techniques is how I can do them anytime during the day and how I can incorporate a stretching routine into my busy schedule.
A Stretching Routine to Get Out of Pain
I was 28 when I met Aaron Mattes, RKT, LMT, the developer of AIS. He completely changed my whole approach to therapy and self-care. Now, at 45, I am more or less pain-free and suffer little more than stiffness and aches if I fail to keep up on my discipline of self-care.
I have a history of lower back pain going back to when I was 16 years old. By steadily using AIS techniques for self-care, my intermittent bouts of back and hip pain are almost a faded memory. When they do occur, I am able to work myself out of the pain quickly.
In fact, I have personally found that unless I suffer an accident, injury or allow too much time to lapse between my own stretching routines, it takes very little regular effort on my part to maintain this condition.
In a nutshell, AIS uses active muscle contractions and repeated, rhythmic movements that avoid triggering a rebound contraction in the tissues you are trying to stretch. In this section I will address some of the benefits of this stretching technique for self-care and how to successfully incorporate it into your day.
Because I live on an island, to get to my office I have to take a ferry. Waiting in line or while crossing on the ferry gives me an opportunity to do some gentle stretching movements for my neck, back, wrists and hands. I like the active component of AIS. I feel both relaxed and energized after doing some stretches.
Of course, everyone has their particular preference for creating more flexibility and strength, but I want to emphasize how important it is to stay mobile — not only in order to give our clients good care, but also to enable us to be active in our chosen profession for many years.
Be Gentle, Pay Attention
When practicing AIS it is important to be very gentle and aware of what you’re experiencing from the very beginning. If a particular stretch is done too vigorously, we may be sore afterward.
Pay attention to what you feel as you go into the end point of a stretch. Do you feel a buildup of tension? Is there any pain in doing the stretch? The tension may be a signal that the myotatic stretch reflex has kicked in and the muscle has received a signal to contract to protect itself and the joint it crosses from injury. (Stretching a muscle beyond its neurological barriers may result in increased splinting or tearing of the tissues via engagement of the myotatic reflex.)
Holding a stretch increases tension as the body struggles to adjust to the decreased circulation and triggers another protective mechanism initiated by the Golgi tendon organs. These proprioceptors located in tendons are also sensitive to changes in tension. They do the opposite of the spindle cells. The Golgi tendon organs inhibit the muscle; they do not relax it.
Inhibited vs. Relaxed Muscles
It is important to understand the difference between an inhibited muscle and a relaxed muscle. An inhibited muscle will be less able to respond to the demands you place upon it, leaving you more prone to injury. A relaxed muscle, on the other hand, will leave your muscles ready for action.
When doing Active Isolated Stretching, I recommend avoiding tension or stress and being as relaxed as possible. Increases in range of motion may come quickly or may be gradual depending on the individual. With regular practice you will notice your flexibility increase steadily. Try the stretches below for three weeks. It’s easy enough and will not take much out of your day.
As a massage therapist, health care provider or fitness professional, it’s not always easy to maintain good form when providing care. Typical concerns in these professions are shoulders, neck, low back and wrist or hand pain. The following stretches done throughout the day in between appointments can help to counteract the effects of gravity and your work so you can continue to perform in your profession for many years without pain or disability.
Do the exercises mentioned in this article in front of a mirror if possible so you can observe your form. Focus on precise movements. AIS uses a non-stretchy strap or hand to assist the stretch. Repeat two sets of 10 reps on each side.
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 Active Isolated Stretching since. Morton has been an international educator for 20 years and teaches at AIS Northwest (aisnorthwest.com). 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. He also wrote “Lower-Body Flexibility for Pain Free Practice.”