What Is "PNF" Stretching?

Submitted by SharpHealth Team on Tuesday 12th October 2010
In this article
  • PNF stretching explained.
  • Stretches to get you started.
  • Guidelines for stretching.

We all know we should stretch but, truthfully, how many of us take the time? It’s a fast-paced world and every minute counts. A SharpMan doesn’t have time to waste on stretching if there is no immediate and practical benefit. Should you give up stretching and hope you don’t pull a hamstring on your next run? Don’t throw in the towel yet.

Let’s take a different approach. As Chef Emeril says, "we’re gonna kick it up a notch," with PNF stretching. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF, is like stretching on steroids. Check out the SharpHealth skinny:

A Little History

Originally developed by Herman Kabat MD, Ph.D. in the 1940s and early 1950s as a treatment modality for paralysis patients, PNF stretching has found its way into mainstream health and fitness circles. And for good reason: it works. Study after study supports the efficacy of PNF stretching and also shows other benefits as well. Such as:

  • Want to improve your flexibility in the shortest time possible? PNF.
  • Want to gain strength while you’re stretching? PNF.
  • Want to recover more quickly from workouts? PNF.

What PNF Is Not

A couple basic types of stretches are used today. You have probably done one of the following two versions of stretching in the past:

Ballistic stretching. Sometimes called dynamic stretching, this style of stretching forcefully stretches a muscle by way of a bouncing movement. An example of a ballistic stretch is standing with your feet together, legs straight and rapidly bouncing down to the toe-touching position. Ballistic stretching risks muscle injury and is no longer advised as a healthy means of stretching.

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Static stretching. This is the most common form of flexibility training. In static stretching, the target muscle is stretched to the point where a "pull" is felt in the muscle. An example of a static stretch is sitting on the floor with your legs extended and reaching forward to grab your toes. Static stretches are typically held for a count of 15-30 seconds.

What PNF Stretching Is

PNF stretching is a specific flexibility protocol that uses a combination of isometric contractions and partner-assisted stretching techniques. Several styles of PNF are used, the most practical being the CRAC (contract-relax, antagonist-contract) technique.

PNF stretching is best done with a partner after a light warm-up. A warm-up may consist of walking briskly, cycling for 5-10 minutes or engaging in any activity until you first break a sweat. Whenever you do a warm-up you are literally raising the temperature within the muscle. Warmer muscles make for more pliable, and therefore more injury-resistant, muscles.

Sample PNF Stretches

Interested? Try the following PNF stretches the next time you hit the gym:

Hamstring Stretch. Lie on the ground facing up with one leg fully extended and the other leg bent at a 45 degree angle with your foot flat on the ground.

Raise your straight leg as high as possible — but stop before you feel any pain or discomfort. If you have a partner, he or she can assist by holding the raised leg in position. Hold the stretch for 15 seconds.

Forcefully contract your hamstring for six seconds (as if you are trying to force your heel to the ground). Your partner will apply resistance by pushing your leg and holding it steady. If you are working without a partner, a towel wrapped around your foot will work do the same.

Now, pull your raised leg forward towards your body again. This will stretch your hamstring. As you reposition your leg by pulling it farther back, your partner will again stabilize your raised leg to provide resistance against your motion. Hold the stretch for 15 seconds.

Repeat two to three times. After the initial contraction and relaxation, you will notice an ability to comfortably stretch farther.

Pectoralis (Chest) Stretch. Begin by standing in a doorway with one arm raised above your head at a 90-degree angle (i.e., a WWII German-style salute). Place your forearm and open palm against a doorway and turn your body away from the arm until you feel a comfortable stretch through your chest and into your shoulder. Hold for 15 seconds.

Contract the pectoralis, or chest, muscles, pushing against the doorway for six seconds (i.e., imagine pulling your arms together in the prayer position).

Relax and repeat the stretch, holding for 15 seconds. Repeat two to three times per side.

Shin (Tibialis Anterior) Stretch. Begin this stretch by lying flat on the ground and "pointing" with your toes. This will stretch your shins to their full range of motion. If you are stretching with a partner, he or she will hold the foot in the stretched position. For an effective self-stretch, anchor your foot under a solid object such as a couch or dresser. Hold the stretch for 15 seconds.

Contract your shin muscle, pulling your toes toward your body for six seconds. Relax and point with the toes, once again stretching the shin muscle. Hold for 15 seconds. Repeat two to three times.

This can be an especially important stretch for anyone who suffers from shin splints, as PNF stretching will serve to both strengthen and stretch the affected muscles.

SharpTips to Remember

Warm up before stretching.

Continue to breathe throughout the stretching process. Holding your breath — which many SharpMen do when they concentrate on a movement — can cause a rapid rise in blood pressure.

Stretching should always be comfortable and pain free. If you stretch to the point where it hurts, you greatly increase your risk of muscle or tendon injury.

Work with an attentive partner and explain to him or her exactly what assistance you require.

Regardless of the type of stretching you are incorporating into your workout, the one factor that will best increase your flexibility is consistency. Just as adding bulk requires consistent weight workouts, maximizing on your flexibility allows your body the time it needs to adapt to new requirements.

For more information see Robert McAtee’s book Facilitated Stretching.

This article last updated on Tuesday 12th October 2010
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