An Introduction to Active Isolated Stretching with Phil Warton by Nathaniel Gworek
Repetitive stress injuries are extremely common in musicians, and one of the best ways to avoid them is through basic stretching. Stretching has been scientifically proven to be an important part in preparing for and recovering from physical activity, but it is also important as a daily health care routine. Continued research has shown that stretching is not just preventative, but it also helps cure muscle injuries. Although there are many methods, from yoga to passive or ballistic stretching, it is commonly agreed that everybody should be stretching on a daily basis.
Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) was developed by Aaron Mattes and Jim and Phil Wharton. As physical trainers, each has worked with professional athletes worldwide, from football players to Olympic gold medalists. The method of AIS has not only aided in muscle recovery and injury prevention, but is also effective in improving physical performance of top-level athletes. The Whartons have over 25 years of experience in AIS and muscle-injury treatment and prevention. They have appeared on national television, including Dateline NBC and the Discovery channel, and continue to share their work in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and their own podcasts. This article will focus on Whartons’ stretch method and will end with an interview with Phil Whaton.
Active Isolated Stretching is not a new method, but perhaps isn’t as popular as yoga or tai chi, which tend to take place in studios with large group classes. In fact, the simplicity and do-it-yourself nature of AIS is one of the main draws; you can do it anywhere and with any amount of time. The theory is that by focusing on a single muscle in each stretch, you can both strengthen and relax the muscles. When you do this with all the muscles in a chain (lifting an object takes all the muscles up the arm), the whole-body mechanism becomes stronger and more flexible. AIS also uses 8–10 repetitions of short, small stretches — hence, the “active” element. AIS posits that isolated muscular stretching and strengthening will lead to greater flexibility and physical performance of the body as a whole. The method behind Active Isolated Stretching is deceptively simple. The instructions provided by the Whartons are as follows:
“Prepare to stretch one isolated muscle at a time. Actively contract the muscle that is opposite the isolated muscle. The isolated muscle then will relax in preparation for its stretch. Stretch it gently and quickly; hold the stretch for no more than two seconds. Release the stretch before the muscle reacts to being stretched (by going into its protective contraction). Do it again.”
As Wharton mentions, it’s “remarkably simple.” I have illustrated a single stretch in the figures provided. Note that in Figure 1.1, I am starting the stretch with just the strength of my right hand. Figure 1.2 shows me gently assisting the stretch with my left hand (on the palm, not the fingers) and holding it until the point at which I feel the stretch reflex, after which I will release. Note that the assisted stretch is not that far away from how far I can stretch independent of any assistance. You then repeat this 10 times and move onto the next stretch. Figure 2.1 and 2.2 demonstrate this with a rotational stretch.
A scientific principle behind the advantages of Active Isolated Stretching is avoiding the “myotatic response”: the involuntary reaction of a muscle to tighten when it is stretched. Because of this response, when you do things like static stretching (getting into a stretch position and holding it for 30 or more seconds), your body is working against itself; while you are trying to stretch, your body is automatically tensing the muscles you are stretching. The same response occurs in ballistic stretching, which uses short, sharp bursts of movement to stretch. Our body naturally considers this a danger to itself and the muscles tighten in defense, rather than achieving the end result of relaxing and stretching.
One of the main principles of stretching is that it is not only restorative, but also preventative. Wharton makes a point to discuss the mental state one must have to stick to a stretching routine. He issues a 21-day guarantee, saying that you will experience a profound change in your physicality and flexibility if you commit yourself to stretching every day for three weeks straight. As we know from our musical practice, we are only as good as our drive to practice and hone our craft. This applies to almost every aspect of physical health, including the practice of AIS. You have to commit yourself mentally to the idea of making a routine for stretching to see the benefits. The person most affected by your habits and your routine, both positively and negatively, is yourself.
INTERVIEW WITH PHIL WHARTON
Nathaniel Gworek: Why do we need to stretch?
Phil Warton: Sometimes we don’t realize how contracted we get just from daily life. Gravity is a force that is always there. And when we exercise with intensity and duration, after a while, the system isn’t posturally aligned and has a limited range of motion because it’s going through these limited motions repetitively. On the other hand, we have compression from sitting. Musicians get both of those; sometimes they have to do repetitive motions and sit at the same time. So, there’s spinal compression and also repetitive stress through the median nerve and the carpal tunnel. Simply put, muscle fibers come together at random when they’re overworked, overused, hyperextended, and there are adhesions of the muscles that limit blood flow to these muscle fibers. Stretching helps break these adhesions and restore blood flow to restore those muscles.
Gworek: What does AIS do differently than conventional stretching?
Warton: Just to back up and give an overview, early stretching in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s was a lot of ballistic work. There was a lot of bouncing and tearing of muscle fibers. Then in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, we took the stretching principle from yoga and increased the intensity; they took out the mental aspect and tried to push the stretches even farther. Then people started to do static stretching where you hold a stretch for 30 seconds to a minute. Only later would the research show that this stretching triggered the myotatic response, your muscles’ defense against overstretching, which actually weakens the muscle at the tendons and ligaments. So instead of going against that myotatic response or thinking it will let go, we do a non-hold and release those stretches before receptors kick in. We’re moving within our normal range of motion, into that point where you feel that stretch, that’s when the myotatic response kicks in, and then we go back to start position. In the books we say one to two seconds, but you’re never really holding a stretch, that’s really the time it takes to move within that dynamic range. There’s a sophisticated simplicity behind the motion since it’s all based on doable stimulus.
Gworek: If someone wanted to start AIS, where would they begin?
Warton: The books and the videos [links below] walk you through the process. It does depend on what area you want to target. In the book, we break it down into five zones. When we work with people, we start at the hips and trunk because a lot of pain comes from the spine. The shoulders are another great place to start, and you can do it while you’re seated, working, or on an airplane or something. There’s about a 10-minute routine for the hands and fingers, which is what musicians might really want to work on. As long as nothing is fractured, you can start anywhere you have pain. Your body signals you with pain; you get this biofeedback telling you to try to decompress these injured areas.
Gworek: What would you say to people who feel nervous about a new type of stretching?
Warton: A lot of us are reluctant to move; the intuitive thing to do is stabilize. We need to use the idea of moderation for these stretches. If you’re in severe pain, more is not better. You have to listen to your body, try a couple of repetitions, and ask yourself if it feels worse. When you’re in pain, you need to test your range of motion. With repetitive motion injury, we used to think RICE was the answer: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. But we’ve started to see that it’s more powerful to move instead of rest. Movement is life; we’ve got to try to get the circulatory response. The key is the blood flow — getting new nutrients in there to break down the adhesions or the microfiber reductions. The idea of elevating your legs on an exercise ball or a couch to return blood flow from your lower extremities to the rest of the body is powerful. The simple things are the best.
Gworek: What are some of the most common stretch mistakes you see?
Warton: I think the mistakes are going too hard, too fast. Trying to get it all in one repetition or two. We’re already in such a fast-paced Western lifestyle. It’s also about the breath — getting that airflow to the blood. We need to isolate some things and restore our bodies before going into these complex movements. It’s not that the movement is too much, it’s just too much right now, like putting the cart before the horse. We always come back to basics. We need to allow our body to be functioning before we go into being functional. Another mistake is focusing only on the painful area. If it’s the right hand, they’ll only treat the right side. We need to focus on the whole body, being bilateral and getting both sides. Sometimes the pain can be a compensation in the way you hold your instrument or the way you set yourself up to play.
Gworek: How do you feel about other care activities such as yoga or chiropractic treatments?
Warton: I love them. Vinyasa yoga is a great practice; it is movement based rather than holding positions. Chiropractic can be a great adjunct, but we don’t want to get reliant on it. We need to not just be releasing muscles and fibers, we also need to support and strengthen them. So, the ultimate is, we have those adjunct therapies that we can utilize, but we’re coming to the table with the self-care of AIS. Yoga, chiropractic, massage therapy, and pilates are all great adjuncts, but we want to start with the basics. We see the basics work and they help heal because that’s how the body works. We’re just looking at how the body is supposed to function and trying to get back to that function of the body mechanics so you can be more efficient in your biomechanical action, whatever you may do.
Gworek: Have you worked with people who have movement disabilities or frozen motion?
Warton: Definitely. That’s what’s great about the work, it’s basic kinesiology. In the study of muscles there are modifications for everything. I’ve worked with a patient — the mother of Georg Wadenius, who played guitar for Steely Dan — and doctors were considering surgery on her. Her arthritis was so bad and there was serious calcification in every joint. We worked with her for three days and she was able to play a piece with her son. She was on medications that weren’t working because the simple range of motion and strength hadn’t been restored. We can’t reverse serious arthritis, Parkinson’s, and MS, but when things come, there are strategies where you can restore. So, this kind of work is great for a lot of movement disorders and conditions. It’s almost a suspension of disbelief; it’s so simple, but you have to try the active work to believe it. And we need to try the good things, because we’re so inundated with the bad things — the time wasters — so it’s really nice when we can develop some healthy routines, and this can be a good part of that.
Phil Wharton has generously donated free memberships to his subscription channel. Visit https://vimeo.com/ondemand/whartonhealth and use promo code Rhythm22 for a month of free access. This offer is good until October 31, 2022.
Mattes, Aaron L. Active Isolated Stretching: The Mattes Method. A.L. Mattes, 1995.
Wharton, Jim, and Phil Wharton. The Whartons’ Stretch Book: Featuring the Breakthrough Method of Active-Isolated Stretching. Random House, 1996.
Nathaniel Gworek is an Assistant Professor at Point University, where he is the Assistant Band Director and Percussion Instructor. He works with the percussion community commissioning new music and performing recitals and clinics in the area. He is a member of the PAS Health and Wellness Committee, vice-president of the Georgia PAS chapter, and has previously served on the Board of Directors for the Women Composers Festival of Hartford. He has played with the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra, Finger Lakes Symphony Orchestra, UConn Opera Company, and the Hartford City Singers, and has toured the Northeast with percussion ensembles, orchestras, wind ensembles, rock and jazz bands, Mexican and African music groups, and a Renaissance music ensemble.