Flexibility is important for athletes (and non-athletes alike) which is why stretching is a key component in many active individuals’ fitness regimens. Gaining greater flexibility can lessen your chances of injuries, increase ROM (Range of Motion), and make everyday activities feel more comfortable. Plus, having tight muscles can put a damper on your workouts, squats, posture, and mood.
With that, not all stretching methods are created equal. Sure, you’ve heard of static stretching and possibly active stretching, but have you heard of PNF stretching? PNF stretching is a form of assisted stretching via another person or a band.) If not, you’re going to want to stick around, as this form of assisted stretching is known for bettering the body. Time to get loose!
PNF Explained: An Athlete’s Best Friend
“PNF, otherwise known as Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, is a technique used in physical therapy to increase muscular flexibility, range of motion, or decrease neuromuscular tone,” explains Cord DeMoss, PT, DPT, CSCS, and co-owner of Vitality Therapy and Performance in Tulsa, OK.
So how does PNF work? While there are a handful of PNF methods, they all require safely pushing your muscles to the limit during a stretching session. It allows both stretching and contracting of the targeted muscle groups.
For example: Let’s say a physical therapist is helping you perform PNF stretching of your hamstrings (these can also be done by using a band by yourself). The PT would raise your leg until you hit a somewhat uncomfortable stretch. A stretch where you would feel as if you cannot extend that stretch anymore.
Once in the stretching position, you’ll perform an isometric contraction (slow push against the PT’s hand) at a light-to-moderate level for 6-10 seconds, and then allow the muscle to stretch even farther.
The Goal is to Get Loose – Here’s Why That Process Can be Difficult
“Being tight” is almost always associated with the nervous system stopping us from going farther, “Rather than the muscle itself actually being unable to lengthen anymore, PNF has shown to be effective at downregulating (or calming down) the nervous system,” DeMoss explains.
A good example DeMoss uses with his patients is this: Imagine a soldier trying to fold completely in half in order to stretch his hamstrings. Typically, they won’t be able to do that. However, if they were to become unconscious and had to be carried out of a battle on the shoulder of a comrade, now imagine the position they would be in. Nearly folded all the way in half.
This is possible because the nervous system is not actively preventing the soldier from folding in half and is proof that the muscles themselves were fully capable of lengthening enough to perform this action all along.
Benefits of PNF Stretching
From increased sports performance to faster post-workout recovery, the benefits of this assisted stretching method are outstanding. “The benefits of PNF stretching are the ability to quickly improve ROM and decrease neural tone,” DeMoss says, and in his personal anecdotal evidence, as well as evidence supported by research, consistent practice of PNF stretching provides improved long-term results in flexibility.
And it doesn’t stop there. “In a weight room setting, PNF can be used to not only improve the ROM able to be performed such as depth of a squat but also can help drive mind-muscle connection throughout the full ROM which is highly beneficial in the gym,” DeMoss says. All the reasons a gym-lover should take up PNF for themselves.
How to Perform PNF Stretches
This method of stretching can be done at home with ease and follows a simple process:
- Warm up.
- Put your muscle on a full stretch, (as far as you feel it can be stretched at that moment) then perform an isometric contraction at a light-to-moderate level for 6-10 seconds, and then, allow the muscle to stretch even farther.
- Repeat this process two to four times, then hold the final position for about 30 seconds.
Let’s say one of your biceps is so tight that you cannot straighten your elbows all the way. You use your opposite hand to straighten it as far as it will go, and then flex your biceps isometrically as if you were trying to do a dumbbell curl.
Remember, the elbow will not actually bend because our opposing hand will resist movement in order for the contraction to be isometric.
Hold that for 6-10 seconds and then release the contraction. At this point, you should be able to straighten your elbow more than you could before you started.
“Another common example is partner stretching a hamstring when an athlete cannot lie on their back and straighten their knee all the way towards the ceiling,” Cord says. “The athlete would put their heel on their partner’s shoulder, the partner would then straighten the athlete’s leg as much as possible (within tolerance) and then the athlete would try to perform a hamstring curl into the partner’s shoulder,” he explains.
After the six- to 10-second isometric contraction, the knee should straighten a little bit more than it previously was able to.
You would then repeat the process two to four times and then hold after the last rep for about 30 seconds.
Who Should Avoid PNF Stretching?
Like with any type of stretching, DeMoss encourages you to perform this method within the parameters that your body allows. “You also do not want to perform this if you have an active tear in a muscle that has not completely healed,” he advises.
DeMoss says that, when performed by healthy individuals as an added practice to improve their overall athleticism and flexibility, PNF can be a great tool.
“If you are using this technique to heal an injury, guidance by a physical therapist is recommended,” he says.
And finally, he says, “It is never a good idea to put a muscle on the full stretch if you have not warmed up yet, so make sure to adequately warm up before performing PNF stretching.”
Final PNF Thoughts
- PNF can be done at home using a band or with the help of a qualified professional (trained physical therapist or certified personal trainer)
- PNF increases flexibility, decreases the chance of injury, and increases sports performance and ROM.
- PNF should never be performed on cold muscles. Warm up first.
- Consult a physical therapist who will assess your body, give you the “all clear,” and begin teaching you how to apply PNF properly.