The Pain Relieving Power of Active Isolated Stretching

by Stephen O'Dwyer
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What is Active Isolated Stretching? Summary Overview

Active Isolated Stretching is a gentle but profoundly effective form of stretching that replaces the use of static holds of 20-40 seconds (Static Stretching) with a repeated 2-second stretch. The reason for using a repeated 2-second stretch is in order to prevent triggering a natural protective mechanism in muscles called the Protective Stretch Reflex.

If you've ever felt the defensive binding in a muscle during stretching, the feeling that the muscle fighting back against you instead of lengthening and softening, then you've experienced the Protective Stretch Reflex at work.

By avoiding the Protective Stretch Reflex, Active Isolated Stretching can lengthen muscle fibers unencumbered and therefore can improve flexibility much more rapidly than Static Stretching. Also it can accomplish this without the typical strain that often accompanies Static Stretching.

Here's an example of this method for stretching the hamstrings. In this instance, a simple belt is used to assist the stretch, but many stretches using this method do not require a prop.

But to truly understand the pain relieving power of Active Isolated Stretching, it's essential to clear up some of the confusion about stretching in general.


Why Do We Need to Stretch in the First Place?

When a muscle is in an unmoving position for an extended period of time, it begins to adapt to the physical position we've put it in. The longer the muscle is in that unmoving position, the greater the opportunity for the muscle to settle into a shortened state. In other words, the muscle adapts into a shortened state.

A common example of this is when we've been sitting for an extended period of time. Both our hamstring muscles and our hip flexor muscles reside in a shortened position when sitting in a chair.

When we get up to move, both sets of muscles must be met with a counterforce in order for them to lengthen.

Why? Because a muscle can't lengthen by itself. It can't reset under its own power.

A muscle is designed to contract by itself in order to do work, but it can't lengthen without an external force acting on it. The two ends of the shortened muscle must be pulled in opposite directions. This can occur through the simple act of movement and sometimes that's enough.

Sometimes the simple act of moving from a sitting to standing position and then walking can do the trick.

But when simple movement doesn't work, some kind of specific stretching is required. We might try twisting and turning and reaching for the sky as we do naturally upon getting up in the morning.

But when this is not enough, we turn to a more methodical form of stretching. For many of us, that means using the method we learned in gym class in grade school.

This method is commonly known as Static Stretching.

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What Exactly is Static Stretching? How is it Performed?

Static stretching is perhaps the most widely known method of stretching and the instructions are pretty straightforward:

Instructions for Static Stretching

1. Position the body so that a particular tight muscle or muscle group is put on a stretch.

2. Hold the stretch in a fixed position for an extended period of time such as 20 seconds or 30 seconds or even longer, depending on the source of the instruction.

3. If you experience pain, discomfort, trembling in the muscle, or even your whole body tightening up with the effort, that's just an expected part of the process.

4. Repeat these steps for all tight muscles and, if it doesn't seem like anything's changing, increase the intensity of each stretch and hold the stretch even longer.

These steps may sound reasonable. And in cases where muscles possess a baseline degree of flexibility, or have not adapted into a shortened position over a long period of time, this method can work.

But if you're like many of the clients I've worked with over the years, you may have found that Static Stretching often doesn't work quite as well as advertised.

For those suffering from chronic pain or stubborn stiffness and inflexibility, Static Stretching may not only fail to improve things, but may aggravate symptoms, sometimes significantly.

Why?

Because Static Stretching can trigger a phenomenon in the body called the Protective Stretch Reflex.

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The Protective Stretch Reflex: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


The Good

The Protective Stretch Reflex is a natural protective mechanism in muscles designed to prevent them from being injured.

For example, when we're engaged in any physical activity requiring a muscle to accomplish a goal - running, jumping, lifting an object, moving quickly - the Protective Stretch Reflex is continuously at work making sure our muscles can handle the job they're being asked to accomplish.

How it works:

Structures within the muscle called Golgi Tendons continuously monitor the activity of a muscle as it contracts and relaxes, again and again.

When the Golgi Tendons sense that the demand being put on the muscle may overload the muscle's capacity, these monitoring structures will signal the muscle to brace appropriately to protect itself.

During physical activity, we're glad to have this reflex at work. 

It is triggered naturally and is wholly appropriate in helping to prevent injury. Without it we would be in constant danger of tearing our muscles.


The Bad

But if we're attempting to stretch a muscle - that is, if we're attempting to establish a new and longer resting length in a muscle - can you see how triggering this protective reflex would be unwanted?

Again, here is what happens:

When the Protective Stretch Reflex is triggered, the muscle braces to protect itself.

A muscle bracing is a muscle that's contracting, shortening, not lengthening.

This brings us to the problem with Static Stretching:

When a muscle is put on a fixed, sustained stretch, the Golgi Tendons often perceive the threat of muscle overload.


The result is that the Protective Stretch Reflex is triggered which causes the muscle to bind and fight against the stretch.

This is especially true when muscles are extremely or chronically tight, and this defensive reaction can occur in as little as 5 seconds.

Does this protective reflex always get triggered? Not always.

When muscles possess a baseline degree of flexibility, this reflex may not be triggered.

The problem, however, is that those who need stretching most don't typically possess such flexibility!


The Ugly

If that was the end of the problem I wouldn't worry so much about my clients using Static Stretching. The worst that might happen would be that their stretching would be ineffective.

But the problem runs deeper that that...

Here's what can happen:

We feel stiff and inflexible - maybe even to the point of feeling chronic pain - so we apply the most familiar stretching method known to us: Static Stretching...

We diligently apply this method, gritting our teeth, our bodies trembling, our muscles bracing, as the Protective Stretch Reflex kicks in and fights against our stretching efforts...

Determined to force the stretching to work, we double-down, holding the stretch longer and even more strongly.

What happens then?

The Protective Stretch Reflex gets even stronger.

The end result is that we not only fail to improve our flexibility but we cause further strain - sometimes significant strain -  thus worsening our pain, destroying our confidence in stretching and potentially sidelining us from activity for days, weeks or even longer.

And perhaps the most troubling part of this equation is that this may not be the first and only time we have gone through this whole drama.

The big question is:

Why do we do this? When our stretching is obviously not working, why do we double-down and try to force it?

The answer may lie in a misunderstanding about the appropriate use of the mindset of No Pain, No Gain.

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The Positive and Negative Use of the Mindset of No Pain, No Gain


The Positive

The idea behind the mindset of No Pain, No Gain is as old as civilization itself. We struggle through the discomfort of strenuous effort because we know we often must endure difficulty in order to produce significant achievement.

This idea is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of physical performance in which the body is pushed to, and through, perceived physical limits in order to reach new heights of strength, speed, endurance or mastery.

If I'm trying to achieve a new personal record in my marathon time, or I'm trying to win a tennis tournament, or I'm trying to help my team win a big game, and I want to get the most out of my physical potential, I need to push myself in training, both mentally and physically.

In fact, the more I can endure the hardship of difficult training, the greater my chances of maximizing my potential. In this context, the mindset of No Pain, No Gain is not only appropriate but essential.


The Negative

But in a therapeutic context, in the context of trying to heal a body from injury or from chronic pain, the No Pain, No Gain mindset is not only of no use, but can potentially worsen the pain, prolong symptoms and interfere with recovery, sometimes significantly.

When muscles are strained, exhausted, ischemic (low blood flow) or in spasm - all characteristics of muscles in pain - they require rest and careful mobilization, not to be pushed to their limit.

The same is true for muscles that are excessively tight and short and stuck. Such muscles require gentle coaxing and a gradual approach.

Otherwise we remain in a feedback loop in which we can never recover, what I call The Treadmill of Re-Aggravation.

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The Treadmill of Re-Aggravation

Simply put, The Treadmill of Re-aggravation is that cycle in which we consistently push our bodies beyond a healthy level of physical stress and do not ensure adequate rest and recovery. The result is that our bodies cannot recover or heal.

Remaining on The Treadmill of Re-Aggravation

1.

Tight muscles and chronic pain lead to...

2.

Attempts to gain relief using Static Stretching, leading to...

3.

Our triggering of the Protective Stretch Reflex, leading to...

4.

Doubling down with the mindset of No Pain, No Gain, leading to...

5.

Our muscles fighting back even more strongly, leading to...

6.

No improvement in our flexibility, increased pain and potential injury, leading to...

7.

Starting the process all over again; remaining on The Treadmill of Re-Aggravation.

Clearly, a different approach is required, one that does not trigger the Protective Stretch Reflex in the first place.

And this brings us to a highly effective stretching method that takes advantage of the body's natural reflexes called:


Active Isolated Stretching


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Stretching Blueprint for Pain Relief and Better Flexibility

The Complete Guide to Active Isolated Stretching


The Ground-Breaking Method of Active Isolated Stretching

I have been treating chronic pain for 30 years using a wide variety of therapeutic strategies including Neuromuscular Therapy, Myofascial Release, Deep Tissue Bodywork, Somatic Movement Re-Education and others. And I've had good success using these methods.

But when I began to incorporate Active Isolated Stretching into my work with clients I felt like I'd found the missing piece of the puzzle.

I first learned about this stretching method during a conference I attended in 2008 where Aaron Mattes, the chief developer of Active Isolated Stretching, was presenting.

To this day, I clearly remember Aaron's introductory remarks because they left such a strong impression on me. Here's a summary of what he said:

For many years, a static stretch of up to 60 seconds or longer has been the gold standard of stretching. But research has clearly shown that a static stretch of 5 seconds or longer stimulates what’s known as the protective stretch reflex. This reflex results in an antagonistic muscle contraction, an undesirable response when attempting to stretch soft tissue.
Many of us have felt the truth of this protective response. The muscle you’re stretching aches, your body trembles, and you fight to keep the stretch going. But still the “no pain, no gain” credo persists in our minds and we continue to try to force our bodies to do something they’re not designed to do.
In order to optimally stretch both muscle and fascia you must ensure that you’re not triggering the protective stretch reflex. How do you do that? By performing a repeated stretch held no longer than 2 seconds.
Also, by having the client actively move rather than be passive, you take advantage of a very helpful neurological law, the law of reciprocal inhibition.*


* Law of Reciprocal Inhibition - When contraction of a muscle is stimulated, there is a simultaneous inhibition of its antagonist. This phenomenon is essential for coordinated movement.


Around the conference room you saw heads nodding and faces lit up with excited recognition. We were all thinking the same thing:

That just makes sense.


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Active Isolated Stretching Fundamentals

As I discovered during that conference, Active Isolated Stretching is very easy to learn. It can be done with the assistance of a therapist but it can also be done without assistance.

Instructions for Active Isolated Stretching


1) Actively move the body or limb such that the intended muscle is put on a mild stretch.

Movement is often initiated by the antagonist of the muscle being stretched. This takes advantage of Reciprocal Inhibition.

2) Hold the stretch for a 2-second count. 1-1000, 2-1000.

Since the Protective Stretch Reflex can be triggered in as few as 5 seconds, we strive to use a 2-second count as the baseline.

3) Come completely off the stretch.

If we do not come completely off the stretch so that the muscle becomes slack, we do not reset the muscle properly. Resetting the muscle by making it completely slack ensures the greatest responsiveness to new length and improved flexibility.

Additional things we strive for:

4) To not have the muscle being stretched holding up our full body weight.

When a muscle is supporting our full body weight, the muscle is eccentrically contracted. This is not an optimal state for a muscle to be in during stretching. It is much better for the muscle to be in a relaxed state with no load being put on it.

5) To not push beyond a comfortable end-range.

When we push beyond a comfortable end-range, we can potentially trigger the protective reflex in the muscle. Therefore, it's a best practice to use stay with a mild stretch with each repetition.

The Pain-Relieving Power of Active Isolated Stretching

Needless to say this modality revolutionized how I thought about stretching.

But more than that, Active Isolated Stretching had an immediate and profound impact on my work with my clients. Here are the three key areas in which I could immediately see significant improvements:


1. This stretching method worked synergistically with all the other modalities and enhanced their effectiveness.


2. This stretching method increased positive outcomes in cases where I'd had limited success using other therapies.


3. This stretching method provided my clients with a strategy of self-care at home so that they weren't so reliant on the therapy, either by me or other health care providers.


I had certainly prescribed stretches and exercises to my clients in the past but they reported that Active Isolated Stretching was simply easier to follow and, frankly, more enjoyable.

Instead of holding stretches and fighting against the Protective Stretch Reflex, they now performed a set number of reps for each recommended stretch, with each rep being just 2 seconds long. And the number of reps depended on how tight a particular muscle was.

For example one client might have this for homework:

  • Right Hamstrings: 5 reps - Left Hamstring: 10 reps
  • Right Hip Flexors: 7 reps - Left Hip Flexors: 10 reps
  • Right Latissimus: 5 reps - Left Latissimus: 7 reps
  • Right Pectorals: 3 reps - Left Pectorals: 5 reps

My clients love Active Isolated Stretching...


1) Because they can see and feel the muscle melting before their very eyes.


2) Because it's so gentle they enjoy stretching rather than dreading it.


3) Because it's a set number of reps, they know exactly what to do. No more wondering if a stretch has been held long enough.


4) Because it's non-straining, they're more motivated to do their stretching which means much faster progress.


5) Because it flat-out works! Aches and pains are relieved,

flexibility is improved,  and overall energy is boosted.

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Revisiting the Profound Potential Benefits of Stretching

We've heard about the many potential benefits of stretching:

  1. Relieving chronic pain
  2. Improving muscle performance
  3. Boosting overall energy
  4. Improving flexibility
  5. Improving sleep
  6. Relieving joint discomfort

But for too long we may have dismissed the likelihood of such benefits because our experience with stretching didn't bear out those results. Rather stretching may have become an exercise in futility, just a struggle against our bodies as we tried to force some flexibility where none would appear.

But all of the benefits in the above list are very real and very attainable. We just need a better approach, an approach like Active Isolated Stretching.



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Stretching Blueprint for Pain Relief and Better Flexibility

The Complete Guide to Active Isolated Stretching

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