The Wharton’s Active Isolated Stretching

Phil Wharton was a competitive athlete in high school as a member of both the track and soccer teams. While a member of these teams, Phil was running approximately 35 miles a week. After high-school, he transitioned quickly into the collegiate running system where he immediately increased his mileage to 90 miles per week, placing demands on a body that wasn’t able to adapt. If this sounds eerily familiar, you should keep reading.

The repetitive stress resulted in injury, including fallen arches, muscle imbalances, and functional scoliosis. The injuries put Phil at a standstill with running and caused him to consider career-ending surgery to reverse the scoliosis in his back. He was advised by surgeons to have the surgery and was told that he would never run again. Phil and his father Jim didn’t accept this diagnosis and were determined to find an alternative form of healing for Phil. It is undoubtedly this attitude that has made Wharton Performance the ‘Gold Standard’ in the field of musculoskeletal health.

Phil and his father came across Kineseotherapy, the primitive version of active isolated stretching and were impressed with the results. They put together a program for Phil. He performed a 15 minute series of active isolated stretches 4 times a day, 7 days a week. He also committed to a 90 minute strengthening routine 3 days a week. Although this occupied a lot of time for Phil initially, it was this regiment that eventually restored Phil to good health and reestablished his relationship with competitive running. Phil still adheres to this routine today and leads by example, never prescribing for his patients anything that he hasn’t done himself that day.

Just in case you are not sold yet. Phil and his father Jim, who is an exercise physiologist, better known as the mechanic on the international track scene, have worked with the likes of Meb, Deena, Hall, and the list goes on. Furthermore, keep your eyes pealed for The Rope the next time you catch a glimpse of the elite athlete staging area. Chances are you will find these elites using The Wharton Performance methods.

What are the Principles of Active Isolated Stretching?

When a muscle is contracted, the opposing muscle naturally relaxes and only when a muscle relaxes can it be lengthened.  Active isolated stretching first identifies, and then isolates the muscle to be lengthened. For instance, let’s say that I have chosen the hamstring to be the muscle of choice to be lengthened.  Next, engage the opposing muscle to the isolated muscle, which in this case would be the quadriceps. Engaging the opposing muscle will allow the isolated muscle to relax and be lengthened. In this example, I will lift my leg by engaging the quadriceps muscle, putting my leg through the range of motion until I feel the isolated muscle stopping me and then hold for less than 2 seconds. Using the rope at this point to assist in guiding the leg through the range of motion if necessary.  Return to the starting position and repeat immediately for a set of 10 repetitions. Fundamentally, the Wharton’s prefer to use the term “lengthening” rather than stretching to describe the resulting goal of the exercises.

What are the benefits of active isolated stretching vs. static stretching or yoga?

Phil believes that it doesn’t make sense to prepare the body to be active by doing static stretching. According to the Whartons, in static stretching we are entering into a tug of war with our bodies, working muscles against each other. Try this.  Put your leg up on a bar and try to stretch your hamstring.  You will notice that the hamstring is the muscle that is contracted while the quadriceps is relaxed.  If we can only lengthen the muscles when they are relaxed then this exercise will not work for us. When we stretch in this way, our body fights back and tries to protect itself.  Furthermore, the static stretching does not provide the body with the circulatory response that active isolated stretching does. The circulatory response is what aids the body in healing so that when we are lengthening the muscle, we are simultaneously providing it with a healing response.

How does the combination of stretching and strengthening help in recovery?

With the popularity of minimalist footwear and the barefoot running craze, Phil insists that running naturally doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what type of shoe you wear.  Having lived in Kenya for a brief time and trained with a number of athletes at the highest level, he states that stretching and strengthening your body to improve alignment and balance in the body is the only true way to allow your body to run naturally the way that it was intended to.

I have spoken with Jim and Phil a couple of times and throughout all of my encounters with them, I am always struck but how sound and simple their philosophy really is. Their holistic approach, simple philosophy, outstanding knowledge of sport, and caring personalities have provided results at the highest level of many sports, particularly running.

At Runners Feed, we believe in running a lot but we also recognize one must be healthy in order to run consistently from year to year. If there is one thing that will enable you to run a lot, it is unquestionably, active isolated stretching.

Buy a book, find a rope, and get healthy!

About the Author: Jordan Haddad is a writer for Runners Feed. She has recently revisited the running scene searching for that illusive runner’s high. When she isn’t writing or running, Jordan loves to dance, swim, and bike. She was also well-known in her neighborhood for riding a bike with a large orange flag attached to the back because she never had the patience to do anything slowly.