Ever wondered – what is PNF stretching? This technique is also known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and is often used in exercise and injury prevention. Chances are, whether you’ve heard of it or not, you’ve probably seen it before.
But first, what does stretching do to your body? (opens in new tab)? In the simplest terms, stretching relaxes, strengthens and lengthens muscles to improve range of motion and reduce the risk of injury. Dynamic (moving) stretches are traditionally used before training to prepare muscles and joints for exercise, while static (non-moving) stretches are useful after training to aid recovery, although they can also be used in warm-ups. Hospitalized.
There are plenty of ways to stretch, but PNF stretching is said to be a more advanced method used by athletes to achieve a deeper stretch. However you decide to exercise, PNF stretch can improve your performance and aid recovery.
We spoke to experts to find out more. Discover the many benefits of stretching (opens in new tab) for your body and the best yoga mats (opens in new tab) to perform them, or read on to learn more about PNF stretching.
What are PNF stretches?
Rami Hash, Ph.D
Rami Hashish received his PhD in Biomechanics from the University of Southern California in 2014. He then worked for several years as a physiotherapy clinical instructor before founding the National Institute of Biomechanics.
According to Rami Hashish (opens in new tab) (PhD, DPT) body performance and injury expert, the contract relax method is arguably the most common PNF stretching technique and facilitates a deeper stretch to improve range of motion.
“In this method of stretching, a passive stretch is applied to a muscle or muscle group, then an active contraction is performed by the muscle being stretched,” Hashish explains. “This results in a bit of short-term muscle fatigue. The muscle is then relaxed and aided in a deeper stretch.”
Hashish explains that consistent PNF stretching can increase range of motion and overall flexibility, leading to improvements in muscle and athletic performance. And the research, like this study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics (opens in new tab), agrees with.
Hope Choplin, board certified clinical exercise physiologist and coach at Noom, adds that PNF was originally developed in the late 1940s for people with neurological disorders before it was also used for musculoskeletal disorders. “Now it’s commonly used by therapists, athletes, and dancers,” she says. “In recent years, it has also been popular in gyms because of its association with ‘fast results’.”
“As an ACSM-certified clinical exercise physiologist, ‘exercise is medicine’ resonates with me, and I’ve spent time working with both sides of the wellness spectrum. I’ve spent over 10 years creating and implementing group clinical exercise programs for people with heart disease. – and peripheral vascular disease, using cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviews to formulate meaningful health and wellness goals, and I have personal training expertise with individuals after stroke and traumatic brain injury (TBI).Although I think post-event therapy is important is, providing intervention before a major medical event is a long overdue shift in the well-being continuum. As a health coach, I am thrilled to be making an impact at this pivotal moment for many.”
What are the three types of PNF stretches?
According to the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (opens in new tab), PNF stretching falls into three categories. But before we dive deeper into it, let’s quickly discuss the most common stretching methods:
- Static stretching: Involves holding a muscle under tension without movement, with or without the use of a support or partner. passive stretching requires a support to add resistance, such as a wall or resistance band.
- Dynamic stretching: This sport-specific warm-up stretch contains: active and ballistic stretch. Active involves moving a limb through its full range of motion, such as leg swings. ballistic stretching involves a quick ‘bouncing’ movement (such as a bouncing toe touch) at the end of the movement, but it is no longer recommended as a stretching technique.
PNF is under pre-contraction stretching and is a passive form of stretch requiring contraction and relaxation of muscles to the limit against a support or partner, performed repeatedly.
PNF is thought to trigger an inverse myotatic reflex. Essentially, this tells your muscles to relax before they get injured. Think of it as a protective conversation between your brain and muscles. Strangely enough, research — like this study (opens in new tab) mentioned above – says it’s still a working theory.
Anyway, PNF is divided into three types: contract-relax, hold-relaxand contract-relax agonist contract (CRAC) – which we break down below.
Other Benefits of PNF Stretching
We’ve already discussed benefits such as increased range of motion and flexibility, but PNF can also help strengthen muscle groups and improve performance.
“Increased strength isn’t often considered in stretching,” Choplin says. “However, studies (opens in new tab) have shown that performing a PNF stretch for a few months (twice a week for eight weeks) can double the effectiveness in joggers and movements such as a vertical jump and throwing distance.
Chartered physical therapist, Ben Lombard, specializes in treating sports injuries and agrees it’s a helpful technique.
“It works on the principle of gently holding a sustained contraction of a muscle being gently stretched,” he explains. “This action stimulates special receptors in your joints called Golgi tendons, which help the muscle relax.”
But Lombard recommends using it as part of a cluster of treatments rather than on its own, and also in conjunction with dynamic stretching and strengthening of target muscles for best results; this is because the technique is not very dynamic when run on its own.
Ben Lombard is a private chartered physiotherapist working in London. He specializes in sports injuries, but in recent years has broadened his field of activity to become a specialist in the field of postural rehabilitation and the treatment of scoliosis.
How do you run PNF?
It’s worth repeating that to take full advantage of PNF stretch it must be performed carefully with a person or prop, such as the best resistance bands or a friend. Hashish agrees that implementing it into a regular stretching and exercise routine could maximize your results.
“The hold-relax technique involves stretching the target muscle and then holding it for a few seconds,” explains Hashish. “The muscle then performs an isometric contraction where the muscle contracts without moving. After relaxing the contraction, the passive stretch can be repeated, more deeply.”
For example, if a trainer helps you stretch your hamstrings while lying on your back, they would passively stretch you into a straight leg until you feel resistance. After holding the passive stretch, you would contract your hamstrings by pressing against the resistance of the trainer; the trainer would apply enough resistance to prevent any active movement of your leg. After this contraction, you can relax and the trainer deepens the passive hamstring stretch.
“The contract-relax The method is almost identical to hold-relax, but the muscle contracts during movement,” adds Hashish. “For example, if you contract your hamstrings, the back of your knee would come closer to the floor as you push against the trainer’s resistance. You then relax as the trainer stretches you into a deepened position.”
contract-relax-contract is similar to contraction-relax, but after relaxing the contraction, the opposing muscle group contracts as the trainer assists in deepening the stretch.
In other words, after pushing against the resistance of the trainer so that the back of your knee comes closer to the floor, you now reverse the action by bringing your still extended knee closer to your chest while the trainer assists in deepen the rack.
Not sure how to stretch your hamstrings (opens in new tab)? Be sure to learn some basic stretching techniques first, including how to stretch your lower back (opens in new tab)at.
What are the disadvantages of PNF stretching?
Hash warns that performing PNF stretches before exercise can lead to decreased performance. According to a study in the Journal of Human Kineticsmay reduce muscle performance in plyometrics, sprinting, weightlifting and intense training requiring maximum muscle effort, possibly due to an ‘inhibitory effect’ after stretching.
However, performing after (or without) exercise has been shown to significantly improve performance when performed at least twice a week, with effects lasting about 90 minutes after the stretch.
Use this method with caution, especially if you are a beginner in training or PNF as a technique. Choplin tells us that PNF stretching hasn’t always been shown to be superior to “normal” stretching, and it takes a partner who knows how to perform it—something that can otherwise cause muscle tears and injury in stretcher novices.
She recommends a few easy ways to reduce your risks:
- Do not embark on a PNF stretching routine without being shown the correct procedure by a professional trainer
- Children and teens should not attempt to stretch PNF because their bones have not yet grown and they are often more flexible than adults, which can lead to a higher risk of connective tissue or tendon damage.
- More advanced PNF stretching methods should only be used by professional dancers or athletes.
“While PNF stretching has a place, especially for advanced exercisers, athletes and dancers, or in the field of therapy, it may not be a practical form of stretching for everyone,” adds Choplin.
“PNF stretching can be extremely difficult without a skilled partner. Individuals can rest assured that leaning on more traditional forms of stretching — active, passive or dynamic — will still benefit from improved flexibility and range of motion.”
It is also recommended to avoid unstable joints, such as your shoulders, and use the stretch for your back and lower body.