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What Is PNF Stretching?

Curious to Give PNF Stretching a Try? Here's What You Need to Know

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Stretching is one of the top ways to achieve ultimate physical health. Most people do not realize that they should be stretching daily in order to "keep the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy," according to Harvard Medical School. Whether your stretching is through downward dog, cat and cow poses, some lumbar-oriented Pilates, or a specific stretching routine, achieving flexibility allows us to maintain a range of motion in the joints. Stretching every day can even improve your balance and stability, decreasing your risk of falling (ok, this klutz is officially SOLD), and it can greatly improve overall health.

On the other hand, if you don't stretch, muscles become tight, increasing the chance for injury. If you do not stretch regularly, and you are suddenly called on for strenuous exercise like an intense tennis match or a quick run, your muscles may become damaged when they are suddenly stretched out. An injured muscle can then lead to joint injury, strains, and other complications. Having a simple stretch routine every day can prevent this, keeping your muscles long, lean, and ready for any kind of physical activity. But if yoga isn't exactly your thing, and you're looking for a thorough stretching routine to try out with a trainer, PNF stretching is a fantastic way to stretch more effectively than ever before.

What Is PNF Stretching?

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, otherwise known as PNF stretching, is an advanced form of flexibility training. What makes it unique is that it involves both the stretching and contracting of the muscle, and can also improve muscular strength apart from gaining flexibility.

PNF stretching was developed by Dr. Herman Kabat in the 1940s in order to treat neuromuscular conditions such as polio and multiple sclerosis. Since then, it has gained traction particularly in the world of fitness professionals and pro athletes as being the most effective stretching technique for increasing range of motion, according to the International PNF Association.

Physical therapist Cynthia Golan from Be Med PT in Miami, Florida, sums up PNF stretching as a specialized type of "stretching in different angles to help the patient return to functionality after surgery or anything that might have injured the patient prior to receiving therapy." She clarifies that there are "three different types of PNF stretching techniques: the hold-relax, the contract-relax, and slow-hold-relax stretching techniques. These three techniques essentially fire up the muscle, and while firing up the muscle, all the blood rushes to the specific area that's being stretched. Once the patient goes ahead and relaxes the muscle, they are able to go deeper into the stretch."

PNF stretching is a way to "trick" your reflexes to go further, as we have reflexes that inhibit further stretching, but PNF practically deactivates these protective measures. PNF stretching always involves stretching a muscle to its limit, which triggers the inverse myotatic reflex, a protective reflex that actually calms the muscle to prevent injury. That way, the muscle relaxes more than it would normally, allowing for a high increase in flexibility.

How Do I Perform a PNF Stretch?

The Hold-Relax technique can trigger the reflex and is one of the most common forms of PNF stretching.

  1. Begin to stretch the muscle or muscle group and hold for a few seconds.
  2. Now, contract the muscle without moving (isometric stretching) by pushing gently against the stretch. This is best done with a partner, preferably a professional trainer, providing resistance. This is when the isometric muscle action happens.
  3. Relax the stretch, and then stretch again while exhaling. The second stretch will be deeper than the first due to autogenic inhibition.

The Contract-Relax technique is quite similar, but it requires you to contract the muscle while moving (isotonic stretching). For example, a trainer would provide resistance while you contract the muscle and push against them.

Lastly, the Hold-Relax-Contract type of PNF stretching goes one step further than the Contract-Relax type. Instead of relaxing into a passive stretch after going against your trainer's resistance, you would actively push into the stretch directly afterward.

Can Anyone Try PNF Stretching?

While everyone can benefit from regular stretching and even try the more specific PNF stretching, Golan warns that "an individual with osteoporosis or who has a tendency for dislocation would not be recommended to try PNF because they would be prone to further injuring themselves." She continues, "with any kind of stretching exercise, whether it is PNF or general stretching, always use precaution when using these techniques." In short, many people can greatly improve their flexibility with PNF, as long as they do so responsibly and with the proper guidance.

Image Source: Unsplash / Matthew LeJune
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