In 2017, my goal was to work on my flexibility. I knew that training for flexibility would take time. To speed up the process, I took flexibility classes to learn what the most effective stretching techniques are. That’s when I heard about Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation or PNF stretching exercises for flexibility.
After doing some research, I learned that PNF stretching was originally a method for rehabilitation. Many research studies (1) support the effectiveness of using PNF to increase flexibility and range of motion (ROM). PNF improves flexibility by strengthening the muscles that you use while holding a stretch. Let’s dive into the benefits and risks of PNF, how it actually works and examples that you can use right away in your routine.
- What is PNF Stretching?
- PNF Stretching Benefits & Risks
- Examples of PNF Stretching Exercises
- PNF Stretching Before or After Exercise
What is PNF Stretching?
PNF is an advanced stretching technique that focuses on contracting and stretching targeted muscle groups. Typically doing PNF stretching requires a partner to help you with the stretches. You could also get the same results using a yoga strap or use furniture as support.
PNF stretching is done in the same pattern: 10 second stretch, 5 second contraction and 30 second passive hold. In the first 10 seconds, your partner would help you adjust to find your point of discomfort. The next 5 second is an isometric contraction. You would resist against the stretch by pressing towards your partner with 50% of your max effort. The 30 second hold is a passive stretch where you focus on breathing steadily to allow your your muscles to relax. You should be able to go beyond your initial range of motion at this part of the stretch.
Benefits & Risks of PNF
One research study states that “PNF stretching is positioned in the literature as the most effective stretching technique when the aim is to increase ROM, particularly in respect to short-term changes in ROM. A summary of the findings suggests that an ‘active’ PNF stretching technique achieves the greatest gains in ROM” (2).
- Always warm up your muscles before doing PNF stretching.
- Only do PNF stretches for large muscle groups (ex. hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, back). This technique should not be used for smaller muscles (ex. arms, calves or shoulders.)
- Do not perform more than one PNF stretches for the same muscle group.
- You should not perform PNF exercises everyday. There should be at least one rest day between workouts.
- Immediately stop if you feel any pain while stretching. Consult a physician if the pain persists.
Examples of PNF Stretching Exercises (Partner-Assisted)
According to the ACSM Guidelines for Stretching (3), PNF stretches should be held for ~3-6 seconds of resistance. Followed by 10-30 seconds of assisted stretching. For my own workouts, I practice 10 seconds of contraction, 10-20 seconds of muscle relaxation. Alternative between contract and relax for a total of 60 seconds each set. Complete 3 sets per target muscle group.
1) Partner Quad Stretch
- Lie with your stomach on a mat. Arms along the sides of your body.
- Have your partner kneel on the right side of your body. One hand holding your ankle and the other hand on your lower back for support. When you are ready, your partner will press your ankle towards your glutes. You should feel a stretch in your quadriceps.
- Allow your partner to press down for 10 seconds.
- After 10 seconds, press your foot against your partner’s hand for 5 seconds. Imagine driving the back of your foot towards the ground.
- After the contraction, relax your muscles and allow your partner to press your ankle down for another 30 seconds.
- Repeat on the other side.
2) Partner Groin Stretch
- Lay down on the ground with your feet together and knees apart. Arms along the sides of your body.
- Your partner should kneel in front of your feet. Both hands pressing down against your inner knees. You should feel the stretch in your groin and thighs.
- Allow your partner to press down for 10 seconds.
- After 10 seconds, resist against your partner by pressing your inner thighs together. Hold for 6 seconds.
- Following the contraction, relax and allow your partner to press your knees closer to the ground.
3) Partner Calf Stretch
- Sit on the floor with your legs extended out in front of you.
- Have your partner press your feet towards your body for 10 seconds. You can also do this stretch by wrapping a yoga strap or towel around both feet and pulling towards your body.
- Resist against your partner or yoga strap for 5 seconds.
- After the contraction, relax and bring your toes towards your body for 30 seconds.
4) Partner Chest Stretch
- Sit on the ground with a straight back, hands behind your head.
- Your partner should stand behind you with theirs hands on the insides of your elbows. Allowing your partner to gently pull your elbows back for 10 seconds. You should feel the stretch in your chest.
- Resist for 5 seconds, by pressing your elbows in towards each other.
- Relax and allow your partner to pull your elbows back for 30 seconds.
PNF Stretching Before or After Exercise
PNF should only be performed at the end of a workout to increase athletic performance and range of motion.
Read about which PNF Stretches I used to get my front splits!