PNF Stretching Explained – Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
Learn how to use PNF Stretching to take your Flexibility to the next level.
by Brad Walker | First Published February 16, 2004 | Updated November 26, 2018
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a more advanced form of flexibility training that involves both a stretch and a contraction of the muscle group being targeted.
PNF stretching was originally developed as a form of rehabilitation, and to that effect it is very effective. It is also excellent for targeting specific muscle groups, and as well as increasing flexibility, it also improves muscular strength.
Side note: There are many different variations of the PNF stretching principle. Sometimes it is referred to as Facilitated stretching, Contract-Relax stretching or Hold-Relax stretching. Post Isometric Relaxation (PIR) is another variation of the PNF technique.
A Word of Warning!
Certain precautions need to be taken when performing PNF stretches as they can put added stress on the targeted muscle group, which can increase the risk of soft tissue injury. To help reduce this risk, it is important to include a conditioning phase before a maximum, or intense effort is used.
Also, before undertaking any form of stretching it is vitally important that a thorough warm up be completed. Warming up prior to stretching does a number of beneficial things, but primarily its purpose is to prepare the body and mind for more strenuous activity. One of the ways it achieves this is by helping to increase the body’s core temperature while also increasing the body’s muscle temperature. This is essential to ensure the maximum benefit is gained.
How to perform a PNF stretch?
The process of performing a PNF stretch involves the following.
- The muscle group to be stretched is positioned so that the muscles are stretched and under tension. The individual then contracts the stretched muscle group for 5 – 6 seconds while a partner, or immovable object, applies sufficient resistance to inhibit movement. Please note; the effort of contraction should be relevant to the level of conditioning.
- The contracted muscle group is then relaxed and a controlled stretch is applied for about 20 to 30 seconds. The muscle group is then allowed 30 seconds to recover and the process is repeated 2 – 4 times.
- Information differs slightly about timing recommendations for PNF depending on who you are talking to. Although there are conflicting responses to the question of how long should I contract the muscle group for and how long should I rest for between each stretch, I believe (through a study of research literature and personal experience) that the above timing recommendations provide the maximum benefits from PNF stretching.
Refer to the diagrams below for a visual example.
The athlete and partner assume the position for the stretch, and then the partner extends the body limb until the muscle is stretched and tension is felt.
The athlete then contracts the stretched muscle for 5 – 6 seconds and the partner must inhibit all movement. (The force of the contraction should be relevant to the condition of the muscle. For example, if the muscle has been injured, do not apply a maximum contraction).
The muscle group is relaxed, then immediately and cautiously pushed past its normal range of movement for about 20 to 30 seconds. Allow 30 seconds recovery before repeating the procedure 2 – 4 times.
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Research, References and Related Articles
- Facilitated Stretching, 4th Edition by Robert McAtee (ISBN: 978-1450434317)
- PNF in Practice: An Illustrated Guide, 4th Edition by Susan S. Adler, Dominiek Beckers, Math Buck (ISBN: 978-3642349874)
- The Anatomy of Stretching, 2nd Edition by Brad Walker (ISBN: 978-1583943717)
- Science of Flexibility, 3rd Edition by Michael Alter (ISBN: 978-0736048989)
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): Its Mechanisms and Effects on Range of Motion and Muscular Function.
- Warm up Warm up properly and reduce the risk of sports injury with these warm up exercises and stretches.
About the Author: Brad Walker is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon (author page) has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.
Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.