Active Isolated Stretching

Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) is a stretching system developed by Aaron L. Mattes which is based on controlling the body’s stretch reflexes. Following established physiological and neurological principles, AIS allows muscles to be safely stretched, pain and joint stiffness eliminated, leading to a body with more movement potential and less structural stress. Active Isolated Stretching is beneficial for athletes, desk bound workers, or anyone with stiff joints and tight muscles. The exercises are simple to learn and very practical to implement into a daily routine. It can serve as part of your daily exercise routine and can be safely incorporated into a rehabilitative protocol.

Click here to get right to the video demos.

Why Stretch?

Flexibility is a key factor for human movement and performance potential. Movement is much more efficient and enjoyable when our bodies are flexible and can perform our daily activities without restriction. Flexibility is not a general whole-body factor. It is specific to each joint. The work or exercise we perform every day may require repeated use of the same muscles and joints within a limited range of motion. These repetitive actions can lead to muscular imbalances causing reduced joint flexibility and postural changes. Over time, muscles become tight, joints become stiff, and joint degeneration and muscle pain may develop.

How Does Active Isolated Stretching Work?

Active Isolated Stretching works with the neurological wiring between opposing muscle groups that produce movement around a given joint. These opposing muscle groups have a reciprocal neurological “agreement”. When a muscle on one side of a joint contracts, the muscle on the opposite side is given a signal to relax. This is known reciprocal inhibition. It is this neurological cooperation between opposing muscles that allows for smooth and coordinated movement to occur.

In effect, AIS is a form of reciprocal inhibition stretching. It focuses on one specific joint at a time and isolates muscles for stretch by using the agonist muscles active contraction, taking the joint through its full range of motion, to stretch the target antagonist muscle tissues.

To illustrate, let’s take for example the quadriceps muscle group and the hamstrings muscle group. These muscle groups oppose one another in the joint movements they cause. They both act on the knee to produce movement (actually these muscles do more than just acting on the knee but we’ll keep it simple for this example). When the quadriceps muscles contract, they cause extension of the leg at the knee. Or in other words, if your knee is already bent, the quads act to straighten out the knee. When the hamstrings contract, they cause the opposite action. They flex the leg at the knee, so you go from straight leg to bent knee. Putting all this together, you will end up contracting your quadriceps muscles to stretch your hamstring muscles and vice versa (see lower body stretch video).

What Might Prevent Optimal Flexibility?

Pre-existing physical or medical conditions may affect your ability to develop flexibility beyond a certain point. Even if a particular condition prevents normal range of motion for a joint, a stretching program (of one kind or another) could help one to optimize and maintain a functional range of motion within their limitations.

Chronically poor posturing caused by improper desk ergonomics, high heeled shoes, prolonged unbalanced standing postures where your weight is shifted through the hips always to the right or left (this happens with some people using standing workstations too). 

Repetitive work activities can lead to muscle and postural imbalances as well. Rapid growth periods during adolescence combined with high levels of physical activity where muscle and tendon flexibility fails to keep up with long bone growth.

Getting old comes with normal wear and tear or “mileage” as we lose elasticity in muscle and connective tissue.

How Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) May Help You

Because AIS is active by nature, it can serve as a warm up to prepare the body for physical activity (e.g. daily activities, sport, or work)

AIS can help to optimize specific joint range of motion and reduce the risk of injury

The repetitive gentle motions of AIS will invigorate the circulatory, respiratory, and neuromuscular systems of the body

AIS is a simple program that can be used to reduce postural tightness by activating weak and inhibited muscles in order to stretch the opposing “tight” muscle groups

Practiced consistently, AIS can help one to develop and improve flexibility and maximize potential for athletic performance

3 principles of performing Active Isolated Stretching

1. Make each stretch is active.  This means that you will be moving intentionally through a precise range of motion which allows the targeted tissues get stretched out in a safe and gentle manner. Each stretch is performed for 5 to 10 repetitions and can be assisted either with your hands or with a stretching strap/rope to gently guide and assist the stretch to the point of light irritation – don’t force the range of motion.

2. Hold each stretch repetition for 2-seconds only, then release.  Why? Muscles have a built-in protection mechanism called muscle spindles to guard against potential injury from over-stretching. They kick in after two seconds causing the muscle that is being stretched to contract against the stretch. This reaction is known as the stretch reflex. Following the two second rule will allow you to lengthen the muscle without without the muscle fighting the stretch.

3. Breathe… in at the starting position, breathe out as you stretch.  Breathing helps to relax the nervous system and is an important fuel for muscle contraction. Repeat this breathing pattern with each repetition and try to sync your breath with the movement. Most importantly, don’t hold your breath during the stretch as that will create more tension.


I’ve put together a simple video follow along routine for the upper and lower half of the body to get you started. It focuses on the major muscle groups and basic movement planes. For more comprehensive instruction the following book is recommended – “Specific Stretching for Everyone”, also available on an easy to follow along Blu-Ray Disc version (I don’t get a sales commission if you purchase through the links).

Disclaimer: The material presented on this site is for informational purposes only. No medical advice is being given here and the information should not be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes. Certain medical and orthopedic conditions may contraindicate the application of this information. Please do your own research and consult your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions.

Active Isolated Stretching Videos – Upper & Lower Body

Review the 3 principles of performing Active Isolated Stretching

AIS Upper Body Part 1: Neck Stretching Routine:

Coming soon…
AIS Upper Body Part 2: Shoulder and Arms; Part 3: Trunk stretching
AIS Lower Body Stretching

Published by Mitchell Diaz, LMT

I'm a licensed massage therapist practicing in South Miami, FL.

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