Learn how to get flexible while being kind to your muscles.
In the early 1970s, when many of his contemporaries were rebelling through protests, long hair, and rock ’n roll, Aaron Mattes was rebelling against something less colorful—the conventional wisdom of body stretching.
While yoga and its meditative relaxation methods were becoming the “in” thing in exercise, Mattes was putting his knowledge (a BA in science from Wisconsin State and an MS that emphasized kinesiology and kinesiotherapy) to good use. He developed a stretching technique much different from that used in yoga—taking a posture and holding it for 60 seconds or more. Mattes’ idea was to utilize precise movements to isolate a specific muscle. Once in the proper position, a stretch is held about two seconds, released slowly and then repeated eight to 10 times in a set.
This approach became known as the Mattes Method of Active Isolated Stretching (AIS). More than 30 years later Mattes and his disciples are still using it for everything from relieving stress to conquering chronic pain, especially pain from overuse injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, lower back problems and other ills resulting from a lack of flexibility. “I saw that the old way of stretching—bending over and trying to touch your nose to your knee and hold it—was not working for a lot of people,” Mattes recalls. “That was not making people more flexible.”
In Mattes’ view, the conventional stretch is “violent toward the muscle,” so it responds by quickly contracting to protect itself from injury. The result? No added flexibility. Because AIS involves a shorter stretch, the muscle is lengthened more easily. “We have seen 60 degrees of increased flexibility in a joint in just minutes,” Mattes says.
Less Pain, More Gain
For people with poor flexibility stretching can be a Catch-22, especially at the start of a training program. They need to stretch to help avoid injury, but holding certain stretches for a full minute can be so painful they may choose to not stretch at all. The phrase “no pain, no gain” doesn’t even apply to them. But with AIS there is less pain and more gain because it’s much easier on the body.
Combining two- second stretches with intervals of relaxation overrides the muscles’ tendency to contract when stretched tight. “We change the energy in the human body,” Mattes says. “It is more than just stretching; we can change the way someone’s body moves in just a couple of sessions.”
During AIS, muscle is kept in a relaxed state by adding assistance—a therapist’s hands, one’s own hands or a strap—to support the limb. The person being stretched then actively contracts the agonist muscle, which allows the antagonist muscle to lengthen. For example, in a conventional triceps stretch, the triceps (antagonist) extends the lower arm outward while the biceps (agonist) flexes the lower arm inward; flexing the biceps stretches the triceps. An AIS triceps stretch starts with the elbow flexed and positioned at 90 degrees with the palm facing the back of shoulder; the therapist moves the arm upward behind the neck at a 45 degree angle, stretching the triceps.
Stretching Past Discomfort
Many fitness professionals use AIS techniques as part of their clients’ workouts. Says Sharissa Reichert, a personal trainer with Crunch Fitness in New York: “I make sure to stretch my clients before a workout to warm the muscles and for about 10 minutes at the completion of a workout as well. Everyone should stretch, with or without a trainer.”
While Mattes has worked his AIS magic on celebrities such as tennis pro Pete Sampras and legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, most of those who come to his Sarasota, Florida-based clinic are not famous. Marjorie Brook, owner of A Kneaded Break, a stress management company in Wantagh, New York, has been a licensed massage therapist for 11 years. She attended a Mattes
AIS seminar four years ago while recovering from abdominal surgery, and it changed her life.
“When I walked into the seminar I could not sit up comfortably,” Brook explains. “Aaron pulled several people, including me, up on stage to demonstrate his stretching technique. He performed several stretches on me and they really helped alleviate my pain.” Why was AIS so effective?
According to Brook, when muscle injury occurs, collagen is spun in the muscle fibers to help in healing. The mass of collagen usually remains embedded in the fibers, forming lumps that can be felt during massage. AIS lengthens the muscle and breaks up the collagen, sending it into the bloodstream and improving circulation within the injured tissue.
“I was so impressed with AIS I decided to use it in my massage practice for my clients that have muscle injuries,” says Brook, who has now been an AIS specialist for three years. Shortly after integrating AIS into her practice, Brook worked on Jeff Patrick, a 44-year-old construction worker from Plainview, New York. After more than 20 years of hard labor, Patrick often felt stiff and sore.
“After just a couple of sessions, I saw an amazing difference,” says Patrick. “Where I used to have lower back problems and stiffness in the morning, now I have no pain. I can get out of bed dancing if I wanted.”
According to Mattes, that’s no exaggeration. If one stays flexible, he believes, they can get out of bed dancing at 44, 64 or any age. “Flexibility is the key to keeping the body young,” Mattes says.
“I’m 63 and feel like I’m 20.”
Visit www.StretchingUSA.com to find AIS books, DVDs and other aids, along with a list of approved AIS therapists.