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Revolutionize Your Stretch: Your Guide to Active Isolated Stretching

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Woman does active isolated stretching

Here's a list of the top three things most people wish to avoid: early mornings, negative energy, and stretching before or after workouts.

And while I applaud you for steering toward positive vibes only, I also want to take this time to steer you toward stretching. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it can be repetitive. And yes, it's not quite as fun as swinging a kettlebell or doing a dozen burpees in your living room (yes, burpees can be fun).

But stretching is one of the most beneficial yet often-ignored things you can do for your body. The problem is, there is so much contradicting information online pertaining to the "right" way to stretch that it's easy to get confused. Can you stretch a cold muscle, or no? Is dynamic stretching better than static stretching? Which stretching exercises are best?

Below, I teach you about my preferred form of stretching: active isolated stretching (AIS). Science shows AIS can deepen each stretch and improve your flexibility, making it a must-have in my recovery process. (And if you dread stretching, here's a pro tip: Turn on your favorite podcast, playlist, or audiobook while stretching, making it a more enjoyable experience.) 

Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Before making significant changes to your fitness or recovery routine, I recommend consulting with your physical therapist.

What Is Active Isolated Stretching? 

Active isolated stretching is a stretching technique developed by Aaron Mattes nearly 40 years ago. A licensed massage therapist and a kinesiologist, he teaches AIS to athletic trainers, massage therapists, physical therapists, and even Olympic-level athletes.

Active isolated stretching involves holding a stretch for a mere two seconds (in stark contrast to some physical therapists who recommend holding a stretch for one to two minutes). Holding a stretch for a shorter time period allows the muscle to lengthen, without triggering any sort of contraction or trauma. 

After you hold the stretch for two seconds, you'll relax, then repeat. While active isolated stretching is similar to dynamic stretching, there’s another key difference. With AIS, you will use opposing muscle groups to initiate the stretch, only assisting with bands, a towel, or your hands to deepen the stretch (more on this below). 

Most advocates of AIS recommend doing 10-15 repetitions of stretching. This allows the muscles to relax, lengthen, and ultimately become more flexible. 

How Does Active Isolated Stretching Work?

Woman does active isolated stretching while sitting on bed

Active isolated stretching works through two ways. First, it doesn't trigger the myotatic reflex, a protective stretch reflex when you initiate a stretch. Second, it contracts the opposing muscle group, forcing the targeted muscle to relax. 

Why the Myotatic Reflex Is Bad for Flexibility 

When you initiate a stretch, you're asking your muscles and tendons to lengthen — almost like a rubber band. In a sense, you're asking your muscles to pull themselves apart.

When this happens, your muscle is going to try to fight back — to hold itself together, preventing itself from becoming damaged. This is what causes the myotatic reflex. When you stretch too far, or too long, your muscle safeguards itself through this protective action. The myotatic reflex is your muscle physically recoiling upon itself, preventing the muscle from tearing.

The idea behind active isolated stretching is to end the stretch before the myotatic reflex has a chance to kick in. If your muscles never recoil, your muscle will continue to lengthen upon your second stretch, third stretch, and so on, thereby elongating your overall range of motion.

Why Contracting Opposing Muscle Groups Helps Deepen Your Stretch

Here's the difference between an active and passive stretch: With a passive stretch, you're asking a major muscle group to relax. With an active stretch, you are purposely contracting (tightening) your muscles through the stretch.

As it pertains to AIS specifically, you won't contract your target muscle through the stretch. Instead, you'll work to contract the opposing muscle group, thereby forcing the target muscle to relax. For example, if you are looking to perform a hamstring stretch, you will forcibly contract your quadricep muscles (the opposing muscle group). I'll show you how to perform this stretch below. 

Active Isolated Stretching Program for Lower Body

Woman lays on the ground and holds up extended leg

Here are several basic stretches you can try at home. Remember, you should only hold a stretch for two seconds before allowing the muscle to release. As you move to the assisted portion of the stretch, you can use a band, towel, or your own two hands to deepen your stretch. 

1. Lower Back Stretch 

To stretch your lower back, lay down with your lower back firmly connected with the ground (you'll have to do a slight pelvic tilt inward). Bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the floor. Keeping your knee bent, bring your left leg up toward your left armpit. When you reach your end range, slightly tug your knee further upward for two counts, then return to the ground. Repeat 10 times, then do the same on your right leg (demonstrated 30 seconds into this video).

2. Hamstring Stretch 

Lie on your back with your lower back connected with the floor. Using your quad muscles (don't assist with your arms), bring one leg to a vertical position, perpendicular with the ground. When you reach your end range of motion, you can finally assist your leg, slightly pulling on the on the back of your hamstring to reach two degrees further. Hold for two seconds, then release by bending your knee. Do 10 repetitions, then switch legs (view a demo here).

3. Glute Stretch 

Lay on your back with your back firmly connected to the ground, with both legs fully extended. Bend your right knee and bring it tightly over your chest until you reach your end range. Next, pull your knee diagonally across your body, toward the left side of your chest. Hold for two seconds, then release. Repeat 10 times then do the same with your left leg (demonstrated roughly 1:30 into this video). 

4. Calf Stretch

Sit with your butt on the ground, with both legs extended out in front of you. Use a band or towel to wrap around the ball of your left foot (the top portion of your foot, before your toes). Bring your toes backward, toward your chest. When you reach your end range, use the towel to deepen the stretch (you should feel a nice stretch in your achilles). Hold for two counts, repeat 10 times, then switch to your right foot (view a demo here). 

5. Quadriceps 

Come into a seated lunge position, with your left knee and right foot connected with the ground. Activate your left glute (squeeze your left butt) and push yourself forward, feeling a stretch in your left quad. Hold for two seconds, then return to your starting position. Repeat 10 times, then switch to your right leg (view a demo here). 

Get a Deeper Stretch Through Active Isolated Stretching 

Stretching is an important aspect of any exercise and recovery routine. While there is plenty of contradicting information on the best way to stretch, my preferred method is through active isolated stretching (AIS). I recommend performing AIS or dynamic stretches before your workout, as part of a warm-up. At the conclusion of your workout, finish with static holds.

With AIS, you will only hold a stretch for two seconds, preventing your muscles from entering a myotatic reflex — a physical recoiling of the muscle. You'll aim for higher repetitions of shorter holds, rather than one static hold lasting 30-60 seconds.

Make the lower body stretching routine shared today part of your regular recovery process. You should always stretch after workouts, focusing on the muscles you worked. 

For a targeted workout plan you can follow along at home, try the Build Bullet-Proof Health training plan, complete with nutrition, cardio, strength, and recovery guidance. If you have questions on optimal recovery, I recommend signing up for our premium membership. With the premium membership, you get face-to-face or virtual meetings where you can ask me anything you want — including the best way to stretch.

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