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download active isolated stretching the mattes method pdfDiscovering the Power
of Aaron Mattes’
Active Isolated Stretching
By Ben Benjamin, Ph.D. with Jeffrey Haggquist, D.O.
he field of massage therapy and bodywork encompasses a wide range of
different styles and approaches. Each of us brings a unique combination of
skills that we’ve found to be effective over years of study and practice — in
areas ranging from sports medicine and orthopedic massage to relaxation massage, craniosacral therapy, and a variety of ancient healing arts. There are few
experiences more exciting than finding a new modality or technique to add to
your repertoire that dramatically improves your ability to help clients. Over the
past couple of years, I’ve been exploring one such modality that has exceeded all my expectations: Active Isolated
Stretching (AIS), a system developed over the course of the past 37 years by kinesiologist Aaron Mattes.
A Surprising Discovery
Discovering AIS has been the second major turning point in my professional career. The first came in the late 1970s.
At the time I was working quite successfully (running a small somatic therapy school, as well as a large private practice), using techniques focused almost entirely on muscles. I was operating on the assumption that most pain and
injury problems could be traced back to muscular tension and imbalances. It came as a great shock to learn that the
majority of chronic pain is actually caused by injuries to fibrous connective tissues (ligaments, joints, tendons, and
fascia). When I first heard this, I was highly skeptical. I wasn’t convinced of the idea until I’d had it confirmed by
direct experience, seeing Dr. James Cyriax’s therapies give lasting pain relief to people who hadn’t responded to
any other therapies. Those people included me — receiving treatment for my own injuries eliminated the back
and neck pain I’d felt for the previous 22 years (for which massage of the muscles had provided only partial relief).
Learning how to assess and treat connective tissue injuries caused a radical shift in my thinking. I eagerly
shared what I’d learned with my clients and students, and saw many pain conditions that I had previously
assumed to be permanent or beyond my expertise respond readily to the new types of treatment. Over the past
30 years, I’ve devoted much of my life to refining, practicing, teaching, and writing about these techniques.
Recently I’ve again had cause to question my assumptions about which musculoskeletal problems are likely to
be permanent, and which can be resolved. From my earlier study with Dr. Cyriax and my own work with clients, I
came to believe that in the majority of cases, a combination of friction treatment, myofascial therapy, massage
techniques, and/or exercise therapy could effectively relieve chronic pain, build strength, and improve range of
motion. When these were not sufficient, I could usually trust that either injection therapy or surgery would be successful. However, there were still various conditions that I thought of as untreatable, including declines in flexibility due to aging, degenerative arthritis, or serious injury and muscular dysfunction due to progressive degenerative
diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or Parkinson’s disease. I’m happy to say that AIS has proven me wrong.
As in the previous instance, I initially came to AIS with a great deal of skepticism, and was convinced only
by direct experience. I’ve seen results in myself that I never thought possible: after receiving the work for just a
few months, I achieved greater range of motion than I could ever remember having. Limitations that I’d attributed to the inevitable effects of aging simply disappeared. Moreover, once I received AIS training and began
incorporating it into my work with clients, I started seeing remarkable changes — healing times for most softtissue injuries were cut in half, and some conditions that had been gradually worsening over time (including
one individual’s MS symptoms) began to reverse course.
In this article, I’m going to outline the mechanisms of AIS, explain how and why it works, and discuss the
specific ways in which it complements massage therapy and supports healing. In the process, I will highlight a
variety of specific examples — including some surprising results I’ve seen in my clients, in myself, and in other
individuals I’ve encountered — that demonstrate the usefulness, versatility, and power of this approach.
How AIS Works
The AIS method differs from most other types of stretching and strengthening programs in several important
respects. Listed below are seven defining characteristics of AIS techniques. Each is supported by established
principles of human physiology. Note that although this method is called Active Isolated Stretching, it actually
incorporates both stretching and strengthening in almost every maneuver. (Aaron Mattes has also developed a
complementary program focused more heavily on strengthening, which is outside the scope of this article.)
of AIS Stretches
2. Active initiation
3. Incremental assists
4. Gentle motion
5. Brief duration
6. Multiple repetitions
7. Deep breathing
AIS movements are precisely targeted to stretch individual muscles and parts of
muscles, rather than larger muscle groups. (For instance, in contrast to a simple
forward bend that provides a general stretch for all aspects of the hamstring
muscles, AIS uses six different stretches to focus on different combinations of the
medial, lateral, oblique, proximal, and distal fibers.) This enables the practitioner
to independently evaluate — and then work to maximize — the flexibility of
each section of the muscle. There are AIS protocols for every primary muscle
in the body, amounting to more than 170 separate stretches. Using different
combinations of these stretches, we can develop customized regimens tailored
to the specific needs of any client.
2. Active Initiation
Although AIS stretches are supported and assisted by the practitioner, each movement is initiated by the client.
This enhances the stretch, since contracting a muscle on one side of a joint causes the muscle on the opposite side
to relax (a principle known as Sherrington’s Law of Reciprocal Inhibition), and that relaxation helps the muscle to
stretch more efficiently. Moreover, having the muscles actively working helps to increase the temperature of the
muscles and the fascia, which enhances flexibility even further.
3. Incremental Assists
At the end of the client’s active range of motion, the practitioner provides just enough assistance to push slightly
beyond what the person could do on his or her own. In this way it’s possible to increase flexibility incrementally,
typically adding two or three degrees
Two of the six AIS hamstring stretches
with each repetition.
4. Gentle Motion
The movements involved in AIS are
quite gentle, never approaching a
muscle’s maximum sustainable force
(i.e., the level of force that will cause
that muscle to give out). Laboratory
studies confirm that to avoid injury,
it’s important to use 50% or less of
the maximum force for the muscles
being stretched.2 Gradual, gentle
motion also helps to delay activation
of the myotatic reflex (commonly
referred to as the stretch reflex) — a
defensive mechanism that is designed
to prevent muscles from stretching
too far or too fast. A movement
that’s overly sudden or severe will
cause the muscle being stretched to
5. Brief Duration
The key to avoiding the stretch reflex altogether is to hold a stretch for only a short time — no more than two