What PNF Stretches Are
And How To Do Them

PNF stretches (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretches) are a method of rapidly expanding your range of motion. While originally designed for rehabilitation, they are now used by athletes and weekend warriors as well.

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They are really a way to combine passive and isometric stretching with the help of a partner or therapist. PNF stretches can give you exceptionally fast gains in flexibility for both passive (e.g., lying on the ground, trying to touch your toes) and active (e.g. kicking higher) flexibility.[1]


Increasing flexibility in the legs with the help of a partner in one use of PNF stretches.

A Short History

Dr. Herman Kabat developed PNF stretching to help polio patients regain lost range of motion.[2] With help from Margaret Knott and Dorothy Voss, PNF stretching expanded; at the same time, Knott and Voss realized that these effective techniques could be used by anyone looking to gain flexibility and rang of motion, not just polio patients.

Kabat, Knott, and Voss (smart and thoroughly awesome people) began teaching their method to a wider audience so everyone could become more flexible! PNF was popularized in the 60s, when courses in it began to be offered to physical therapists.

Originally PNF exercises were concerned merely with increasing the natural spiral movements of the human body in PNF theory (e.g. right hand to left hip, then back up to the ceiling over your right shoulder). PNF stretches developed out of that, working to expand the range of motion in joints to better facilitate this natural motion.[3]


What Is PNF Stretching?

PNF uses an isometric contraction before a stretch, which then allows a greater range of flexibly from the stretch muscle. This is done passively, with the therapist stretching the patient's body (sometimes called facilitated stretching).

The contraction should be done for at least 20 seconds for optimal results.[4] This fatigues the fast twitch muscle fibers, which are then less likely to tighten up when the muscle is stretched.[5]

There are 3 main guidelines given in the book Facilitated Stretching: PNF Stretching and Strengthening Made Easy. They are…[6]


  1. Stretch,
  2. Isometrically Contract The Muscle, and
  3. Stretch More.


On the surface, pretty simple; and effective. Both things I really like!!!

There are tons and tons of movement specific stretches to help gain range of motion for virtually any joint, however I'll go over just the three main techniques of PNF style stretching below.


Main PNF Techniques

Hold-Relax

This is usually done when the range of motion for a muscle is extremely small, or the body cannot bend that way because of weakness and/or pain.[7]

First, the therapist/helper stretches his or her patient to the limit of their normal range of motion. The patient then resists the therapist as the therapist tries to move the body part through a larger range of motion (20 second muscle contraction). The patient then relaxes and allows their body part to be moved into the new, larger mange of motion by the therapist.

This is an example of a passive stretch, since the actual stretching is done by the therapist or helper. They gradually move your limb through an increased range of motion.

Doing Hold-Relax PNF stretching is more dangerous than Contract-Relax stretching (see below) since the therapist or person assisting you might stretch your muscle too far accidentally.[8] Ouch, that is not fun.

If you're just trying these for the first time, try…


Contract-Relax (CR)

This style of PNF stretching is also called contract-relax-contract and contract-relax-agonist-contract (CRAC).This is very similar to the hold-relax.

The therapist/helper moves the limb to the limit of its range of motion, and the patient then pushes against the therapist's resistance (for 20 seconds). After the resistance the patient then contracts the agonist muscle(s) (the opposite of the muscle the patient was contracting to push against the therapist's resistance) and moves their own limb through the enlarged range of motion.

This is an example of active stretching, since enlarging the range of motion is done by the patient. This is also safer than the hold-relax method above, since you are in complete control of your body and how far you move.[9]

Either of these techniques (hold-relax or contract-relax) can be used several times in a row to gradually increase your range of movement. After contract-relax, the patient is instructed to move their limb throughout the entire range of motion of the joint, so that they can move through the new range of motion without the therapist's help.[10]


Hold-Relax-Swing

This one is also called the hold-relax-bounce. It starts like the other two, with a passive stretch from the therapist and isometric muscle contraction. However, instead of ending with a passive or active stretch, a ballistic or dynamic stretch is used (e.g., swinging the joint quickly through its full range of motion).

This is dangerous. Hold-relax-swing stretching should only be attempted by athletes or people with exceptional muscular control.[11]


So...

These are just the basics of stretching PNF style. There are many different kinds of specific stretches, for virtually all the limbs in the body.

However, it's easy enough to just take a stretch that's stiff for you and work on it with a partner using the main techniques given above. As long as you exercise caution you can make flexibility gains really quickly!

Such as, more flexible in just one session or just one week of sessions using this method. Try it; it works.

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References:
1. Appleton, Brad. 2001. Stretching and Flexibility: Everything You Never Wanted To Know. Roots & Wings. Pp. 20.
2. McAtee, Robert E. 1993. Facilitated Stretching: PNF Stretching and Strengthening Made Easy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers. Pp. 11.
3. Ibid. Pp. 24-5.
4. Appleton. Pp. 21.
5. Ibid. Pp. 22.
6. McAtee. Pp. 36.
7. Ibid. Pp. 12.
8. Appleton. Pp. 22.
9. Ibid.
10. McAtee. Pp. 13.
11. Appleton. Pp. 21.

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