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Cool Down With Reciprocal and Autogenic Inhibition Techniques

Help participants achieve greater flexibility with science-based moves.

As you wind down your dance, step, strength or boot camp class, many attendees are uncoupling from your intentional instruction and preparing for the next stop in their busy days. Don’t let participants leave without a solid cooldown experience! Next time, as you lead the stretch, why not share a little science with them?

When it comes to improving flexibility and regulating muscle stiffness, the Golgi tendon organ (GTO) and the muscle spindles are key proprioceptors. The GTO senses change in muscle tension, and the muscle spindles sense change in muscle length; both assist with joint placement and kinesthetic awareness (Haff & Triplett 2016).

Autogenic and reciprocal inhibition both assist with muscle lengthening if stimulated through specific techniques. The GTO, located between the muscle belly and the tendon, senses increased tension when a muscle stretches or contracts. When the muscle contracts, the GTO is activated and responds by inhibiting this contraction and contracting the antagonist (opposing) muscle group. This is known as autogenic inhibition.

Reciprocal inhibition occurs when the muscle spindle (located within the muscle belly) is activated, spurring a reflexive contraction in the agonist muscle and resulting in relaxation in the antagonist muscle (Gagliardi 2012).

Unlike reciprocal inhibition, autogenic inhibition affects the same muscle group that undergoes the prestretch isometric contraction.

Try the following stretches in your next class to take ad­vantage of these techniques and help participants get the most from their workout experience.

Hamstring Release

Use reciprocal inhibition for a standing hamstring contract/relax stretch.

  • From offset stance, hinge at hips, dorsiflex front foot and place one hand on each thigh; keep body weight in back leg and maintain soft bend in front knee.
  • Feel gentle pull in front-leg hamstrings (antagonist) while isometrically contracting quadriceps (agonist); hold 7–10 seconds.
  • Release isometric quadriceps contraction and ease into hamstring stretch. Hamstrings are now agonist and quadriceps antagonist.
  • Hold 7–10 seconds.
  • Ask participants to reach toward front toe to notice changes in hamstring length.
  • Perform 2×–3×, each leg. Note: This stretch can also be done while seated.

Quadriceps Release

Use reciprocal inhibition for a prone contract/relax quadriceps stretch.

  • Lie face down, hands relaxed under forehead, cervical spine extended.
  • Flex one knee 90 degrees and contract hamstrings (same leg) while dorsiflexing ankle.
  • Hold isometric contraction 7–10 seconds.
  • Release hamstring contraction and grasp ankle. Pull heel toward body, statically stretching quadriceps. Hold 7–10 seconds.
  • Repeat 2×–3×; switch legs.

Autogenic Chest Opener

Use autogenic inhibition to release chest and anterior shoulder muscles.

  • From offset stance, place hands behind back, fingers pointing down; hold 7–10 seconds. This action statically stretches chest and shoulders.
  • On inhalation, bring hands in front of chest, pressing heels of hands together to create isometric contraction in chest and anterior shoulder.
  • On exhalation, hold isometric contraction 7–10 seconds.
  • Release and perform chest-opening stretch again.
  • Perform contract/stretch stretches 1×–2×; switch legs. Note: Perform simultaneously with calf stretch to save time.


Gagliardi, C. 2012. What’s the difference between autogenic and reciprocal inhibition? Accessed July 16, 2018: acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/resource-center/exam-preparation-blog/2868/what-s-the-difference-between-autogenic-and-reciprocal-inhibition.

Haff, G.G., & Triplett, N.T. (Eds.) 2016. NSCA Essentials of Strength and Conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Irene Lewis-McCormick, MS

"Irene McCormick, MS, is the 2018 IDEA Instructor of the Year and the senior director of fitness education for Orangetheory Fitness® in Boca Raton, Florida. Former adjunct faculty at Drake University, Irene is a master course instructor for TRX®, a lead conference educator for WaterRower®, a Savvier Fitness master trainer, a Ryka® brand ambassador and an award-winning conference educator. She has also written two books, and is a subject matter expert for ACE, NASM, Human Kinetics and Orangetheory."

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