If you have looked at ways to improve your fitness, keep reaching your fitness goals and refining your technique, then you will regularly see advice to increase your flexibility. No matter whether you are an athlete, a dancer, in the gym toning and sculpting, climbing or practicing yoga, flexibility, mobility or range of movement (ROM) is key to progression. If you want to do an exercise correctly, you need to have your muscles and joints free to move through the required motion as smoothly and easily as possible.
As well as hitting your goals with increased mobility, you are helping to prevent injuries and increasing your ability to move comfortably and freely in your daily life. Read on for how PNF harnesses your body’s own reflexes to aid your flexibility.
You probably know that you should be stretching to increase your flexibility, but if you are like many people you undertake nothing more than a half-heated effort to bend a little after the ‘real workout’ has finished. And, even if you are being very dedicated in your stretching, some techniques are better than others. Research suggests that Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is one of the most effective techniques for increasing range of movement. For this reason PNF stretching techniques are now widely used by physicians, physical therapists and athletic trainers, and fitness professionals.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is an advanced stretching technique that was originally created in the 1940s to assist treatment and rehabilitation for neuromuscular conditions including polio and multiple sclerosis. Dr Herman Kabat was the original creator, but PNF has developed over time. As well as increasing flexibility, it is also very good for targeting specific muscle groups improves muscular strength.
How does PNF work?
The basic theory underlying PNF stretching is that it relies on the body’s own reflexes to produce deeper stretches that increase flexibility. It quickens neuromuscular responses by stimulating the proprioceptors, the nerve endings which are found in muscles, tendons, and joints and sensitive to changes in tension.
Think of the feeling you get as you stretch a muscle – it goes from feeling great as you lengthen the muscle, until you get close to its limit where it feels extremely tight and perhaps starts to have a slight burning sensation. The elasticity has run out and you cannot go any further. At that point you have hit the myotatic reflex – which is your body’s way of protecting itself from over-stretching. To a certain extent this can be overcome through breathing out and slowly stretching to relax the muscle.
However, PNF offers a more effective way, by essentially tricking your body into relaxing the myotatic reflex. Thus, allowing your muscles to stretch further than traditional stretching techniques. In PNF both stretching and contraction are important parts of the process.
There are a few different techniques which we will go through in a moment, but they all involve stretching the muscle to its limit to trigger the myotatic reflex, then contracting before stretching again. When moving into the stretch for the second time there will be a greater range of movement available. Not wanting the muscle to tear, the body allows the muscle to relax further than it did the first time. This then facilitates creating more length in your muscles, and you get a greater benefit from your stretching practice.
It does not matter if you use the techniques for a few week, or for years – you will definitely see improvement in your flexibility.
Before you start
PNF takes your stretching to its limits, so it is very important to do the techniques only after you have warmed your muscles. Warming up before starting to stretch, prepare the body and mind for more strenuous activity by increasing core body temperature, as well as the temperature of the muscles themselves. It is essential to help prevent any soft tissue injury and to ensure the maximum benefit is gained from your stretching.
You can do a warm up to prepare for stretching, or the obvious perfect time is after a sports session or workout.
Adding PNF to your routine
Ease into it. You will need a period of conditioning your body before you go full on into the techniques. It is a good idea to wait a day or two between sessions of PNF, to allow your body to recover.
As, we said after training or a workout is a good time, and if you have a workout partner, then you will already have someone to do the technique with. One full repetition for each muscle group, added to your routine twice a week will increase your ROM.
It is important to have correct technique, so work with a trainer or therapist if you are just starting. If you are confident and well versed in stretching, then grab your workout partner and try these out.
There are three basic methods, or styles of PNF techniques:
Regardless of technique, PNF stretching is suitable for most muscles in the body. Good muscle group to start with are:
- Side fascia
- Hip flexors
- The hold-relax method
- The contract-relax method
- The contract-relax-antagonist-contract method
Each of these are done in three repetitions for each muscle, with a 30-60 second break in between. Normally done with a partner, they can also be adapted to do on our own.
The hold-relax method
This involves holding, contracting, releasing and stretching the target muscle. It generally follows the basic same pattern: 10-second stretch, 6-second contraction, 30-second stretch.
- 10-second stretch. Put the muscle into a passive stretch. This first stretch should take you just to the point of discomfort.
- 6-second contraction. Contract the muscle, such as pushing against the stretch and into an immovable object, such as your partner’s torso, without actually moving. This is when the reflex is triggered and there is a window to achieve an even deeper stretch.
- 30-second stretch. This is a passive stretch which should go beyond the range of your first stretch.
The contract-relax method
This is very similar to the hold-relax method, but this time the muscle is contracted whilst moving.
- 10-second stretch. Put the muscle into a passive stretch.
- 6-10 second contraction. This is an active isometric contraction done at around 20-50 percent of your max effort. It is done under resistance given by a partner or other implement. An example would be that in a hamstring stretch a partner or therapist provides resistance as you contract the muscle and push your leg down to the floor.
- 30-second stretch. Return the body to the original stretched position, for a second passive stretch which should go beyond the range of the first stretch.
The contract-relax-antagonist-contract method
This is said to be the most effective technique. It uses the bodies natural opposing muscle system – basically two opposing muscles cannot shorten simultaneously, or you could not move. So, when you engage one muscle your brain automatically tells the opposing (or antagonist) muscle to relax. This is called reciprocal inhibition.
This technique is similar to the hold-relax technique, but when you are stretching the second time, a forceful contraction of the opposing muscle to the one that you’re stretching is used to move deeper into the stretch.
- 10-second stretch. Put the muscle into a passive stretch.
- 6-second contraction. Contract the muscle without moving, by pushing against the stretch. Your partner can provide resistance.
- 30-second stretch. Now use the opposing muscle to actively pull yourself back into the stretch. Your partner probably won’t need to give much assistance, but an extra push can help you maintain the stretch.