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Static Stretching: How This Common Type of Stretching Can Damage Your Muscles and Tendons

Story at-a-glance -

  • Conventionally recommended static stretches that you hold for 60 seconds may actually damage your tissues
  • Active isolated stretching (AIS), which involves specific stretches held for only 2 seconds with gentle pressure, can help you rehab from injuries and increase range of motion and flexibility
  • AIS works with the primary laws of your body, allowing elongation of muscle and fascial tissue without eliciting your body’s protective mechanisms that would inhibit safe, effective stretching and overall flexibility
  • To get the full benefits that exercise provides, incorporate not only high-intensity Peak Fitness and strength training but also proper stretching

By Dr. Mercola

I have long stated that if you want to achieve high-level health it will be impossible to do it without exercise. Exercise can be one of the most powerful drugs you ever use; in fact, if it were a pill it would be priceless.

But just like a drug, the dose is crucial and you have to use it properly or you will not get the results you are seeking.

It is VERY easy to either over or under dose on exercise …take it from me. I am a firm believer in learning from other people's mistake so hopefully you will listen to my story and learn from mine.

The Exercise Mistake I Made for Decades

I have been exercising for over 40 years but the vast majority of that was with standard aerobic exercises like running. About 10 years ago, I added strength training and two years ago I adopted high-intensity exercise training called Peak Fitness. The last element of my training program that I now use is flexibility training.

A major mistake that I made was that for many years I focused solely on one type of exercise, while largely excluding the other types that would round out my program and provide additional, invaluable benefits.

You see, after four decades of working out I had outstanding cardiovascular fitness and had built up a fair measure of muscular strength with my weight training – but I still had loads of pains and stiffness, primarily low back pain.

What I came to realize, and I hope you will agree with me, is that fitness is FAR more than cardiovascular or muscular strength or the way you look. To achieve true fitness you really need to be able to move freely in all directions without any limitations to your range of motion (ROM), as this is what allows you to participate in all of life's wonderful activities.

Not only should you be able to walk around, and up and down stairs, without pain, but you should be able to participate in any athletic activity and not be limited by pain or ROM – only by your athletic ability. Really, one of the greatest joys of life is to not only be healthy but pain-free – to be able to move like you did as a child, with complete freedom and ease. So that was when I started on my journey to incorporate flexibility training into my workout routine.

There's More to Stretching Than You Might Think

There are many options when it comes to flexibility training and, aside from stretching here and there to warm up or cool down from a workout, the first one many use is yoga, which is very effective. Personally, I have tried it a number of times and for whatever reason I was never able to stick with it long term.

One of the programs I use instead several times a week – about every other day – is the Power Plate, which I have discussed before. The Power Plate works by vibrating in three dimensions, or three planes: vertical, horizontal and sagittal (front to back).

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Why 'Active' Stretching May be Better than 'Static' Stretching

If you have ever tried stretching, you most likely followed what most experts have advised, which is that stretching should last up to 60 seconds. For decades this prolonged static stretching technique has been the gold standard. However, what research is now showing is that prolonged static stretching actually decreases the blood flow within your tissue creating localized ischemia (a restriction in blood supply) and lactic acid buildup. This can potentially cause irritation or injury of local muscular, tendinous, lymphatic, as well as neural tissues.

So I looked at some American variants to conventional stretching, like the Egoscue Method, which is a series of very specific posture stretches and special exercises tailored to each person's specific needs. Egoscue helps to restore muscular balance and skeletal alignment and is often used as a natural method of pain relief. This method did work well for me and I was able to eliminate the pain I had when I got out of my chair or car and that was great.

Earlier this year, I met a personal trainer who had fine-tuned her therapy for those who were injured. She wound up doing some very specific stretching techniques to help them and she found out that the techniques led to improvements in chronic degenerative conditions like MS, Parkinson's and ALS.

I found this fascinating and what I subsequently came to realize is that a bulk of the improvement was related to moving the fascia, which is the connective sheaths covering your muscles. When they move, they create tiny pizeolectric signals that can improve your overall health. At that point I started to reengage with a technique that I learned earlier called AIS.

What is Active Isolated Stretching?

AIS was developed by Aaron Mattes who has a clinic in Sarasota, Florida. For the last 40 years he has worked with tens of thousands of patients, including many Olympic and professional athletes, and helped them achieve enormous professional success.

I now do a daily stretching routine that stretches my neck, shoulders, legs and toes for about 45 minutes every day. I typically multitask the upper body stretches so I do them while I am listening to video or audio programs on the Web that I need to review anyway. I do the neck stretches while I am working on my computer, and the leg and toe stretches while I am in bed – so it's very possible to work this routine into even the busiest schedules.

So just what is AIS?

Active isolated stretching can be used for warming up for exercise, training and most importantly to rehab from your injuries. This is key, as nearly everyone I know gets injured while exercising at some point or another. After injury or even after prolonged periods of inactivity your muscles and joints lose flexibility, ROM, strength and general stamina.

I had a serious hamstring tear when I first started doing Peak Fitness exercises; I was sprinting outside and injured my left hamstring. More precisely it was the adductor magnus right where it inserted on the sit bone or the ischial tuberosity. I played around with it for a few years but after consistent AIS stretching I have finally been able to resolve it.

AIS is a protocol of specialized repetitive stretches, performed in a specific order targeting myofascial (muscle and connective tissue) injury and restriction. AIS works with the primary laws of your body, allowing elongation of muscle and fascial tissue without eliciting your body's protective mechanisms that would inhibit safe, effective stretching and overall flexibility.

The process begins with the identification of the specific muscles and tissues to be stretched. Sometimes this is obvious but typically it requires the assistance of a trained therapist to help identify which muscles and exercises are to be used in your treatment program. Next, you use very gentle pressure and hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints.

How to Do AIS

You have to be careful not to use too much pressure so as not to engage the Golgi tendon and myotatic stretch, which act as safety mechanisms that if engaged will prevent the stretch from working. The keys to using AIS effectively include:

  • First you need to move the joint as far as you can in the direction of the stretch. This is the ACTIVE part of the exercise which activates the antagonistic muscles that inhibit the stretch. Many fail to do this and only passively stretch the muscle and that simply will not work. It is the most common mistake people make doing this work
  • Stretch the muscle gradually with a GENTLE stretch of less than one pound of pressure toward the end point of ROM, and then hold it for TWO SECONDS
  • Do NOT push through the stretch; instead do multiple stretches and with each stretch you get more ROM
  • Usually you do sets of 10 reps
  • To actually engage the stretch you can use a therapist or you can do regular home stretching exercises

It is important to always return the area being stretched to the starting position before continuing the next repetition, as this will allow the tissue to receive blood that carries oxygen and nutrients through the movement of your lymphatic fluid, and it will also allow waste products generated during the stretch to be removed.

It is also important to monitor the stretch reflex carefully, as your tissue is stretched to the point of light irritation. Then after two seconds release the tension to prevent reverse contractions of the tissues being stretched. You also want to make sure you are breathing properly by exhaling during the stretch, as this will oxygenate your tissue and fascia.

"No pain, no gain" is a very dangerous motto in this type of stretching, and really any program that places your joints, muscles, fascia and other connective tissue in jeopardy with prolonged force, multiple joint stretching exercises or improper specificity protocols will endanger the tissues you are working on.

Do You Want to Try Active Isolated Stretching?

Ideally, you can find a local therapist who can work with you on developing the proper AIS protocol. There are only about 40 advanced trained AIS therapists in the United States, and I am fortunate to have Al Meo in my clinic.

Remember that to truly optimize your overall health, from shedding excess pounds and gaining muscle, to improving your posture, physique, strength, agility and longevity, I recommend you fashion a well-rounded exercise program that incorporates not only proper stretching, but also high-intensity Peak Fitness, strength training, and core exercises as well.