What is pnf stretching? What is it used for? Who is it used for? Well, for starters pnf stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. This makes sense when we look at what each of these three words mean.
Proprioception is essentially the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from some sort of stimuli that occurs within the body.
Neuromuscular means relating to nerves and muscles. And facilitation as it relates to exercise physiology is the intensification of the response of a neuron to a stimulus following stimulation.
So, what is pnf stretching?
Pnf stretching is a highly effective technique that’s often used in rehabilitation centers, athletic departments, gyms, and other related facilities by professionals who stretch very tight muscles (i.e., often athletes or rehab patients).
Often times athletes find that their hamstrings are tight. When static or dynamic stretching just isn’t enough, your best bet may be to turn to pnf stretching.
Pnf stretching is usually performed with a partner. It can be done several different ways, but for the sake of this article let’s look at the following example:
If someone has tight hamstrings have them lay on their back and raise the leg with the tight hamstring. Then, have the partner passively stretch the hamstring as far as safely possible. Do this for 30 seconds.
Then, have the individual isometrically contract their hamstring while the partner pushes back on the hamstring (forcing it to stay upright instead of completely falling down to the ground). Only a slight contraction of the hamstrings is necessary here. Nothing too intense. We just want to activate certain responses here (which I’ll discuss later).
After this isometric contraction phase takes place for 10 seconds or so, have the individual completely relax their hamstring and go into a second 30 second passive stretch. This is essentially how pnf stretching is done.
It is during this second passive stretch where you’ll see the effects of pnf stretching. The hamstring will actually be able to stretch back further than it was able to during the first passive stretch. Check out the paragraph below for more information on how this is done physiologically.
What is the physiology behind pnf stretching?
Pnf stretching works by “tricking” the mind by letting the muscle spindles have more of a delayed reaction as the muscle you’re stretching stretches. This is very important because it’s the muscle spindles that send signals to the brain to inhibit further stretching.
This is a safety mechanism that the body initiates when a muscle is being stretched too far. This occurs during the first passive stretch phase. The real magic with pnf stretching comes into play when the individual moves into the isometric contraction phase.
When this occurs, muscle spindles are no longer as active and the golgi tendon organ is then activated. During this 10 second isometric contraction, tension builds in the muscle due to the partner resisting the leg from going downward.
So, what we have here are the muscles spindles telling the brain that there is too much stretch and we need to contract the muscles in order to inhibit stretching. Then, we have the golgi tendon organ activated (after the passive stretch phase, during the isometric stretch phase) telling the brain that we have too much tension and that the muscles need to relax.
This is where the brain gets “tricked” for a lack of better words.
Autogenic inhibition then occurs, which is when the brain rejects the information that it’s receiving from the muscle spindles and the golgi tendon organs.
The result is that when the individual does a second 30 second passive stretch (right after the 10 second isometric stretch) they are able to stretch their muscle further than they could when they initially stretched it in the first 30 seconds.
This is due to there being minimal muscle spindle interference due to autogenic inhibition. This is how pnf stretching works!
Who is pnf stretching for?
Pnf stretching can be used for athletes who suffer from tight muscles, individuals partaking in a rehabilitation program, or just anyone looking to relieve tight muscles.
Pnf stretching should be done by either a professional or someone who’s very experienced. There are some courses you can take that can give you the knowledge you’ll need to effectively and safely perform pnf stretching on someone, or on yourself too for that matter.
Do I need a partner to do pnf stretching?
No. You can effectively do pnf stretching on your own. All you’ll need is an exercise band or a GoFit stretch rope. It may be difficult to stretch certain muscles given their angles, but as far as basic muscle stretching like the hamstrings for instance, you can easily do this on your own.
Use the same foregoing principles when stretching on your own and you’ll be fine. Just place the rope at on your heel (wearing shoes will help the rope stay) and pull back with your arms to execute a passive stretch for 30 seconds.
Then, just slightly contract the hamstring while resisting against the rope for 10 seconds or so. Finally, do a second passive stretch for 30 seconds. You should notice that during this second passive stretch your hamstring will be able to be stretched further than it was during the first passive stretch. This is due to the autogenic inhibition I discussed earlier.
Are there any risks to using pnf stretching?
Autogenic inhibition can be dangerous if not done by a professional or by someone inexperienced. Pnf stretching can be a huge problem due to the decreased activity of the muscle spindles during the second passive stretch phase.
This decreased activity of the muscle spindles is what allows you to be able to stretch your muscle further than what it would normally allow for.
This makes it very easy to over-stretch a muscle and possibly even tear it. Communication between the athlete and their partner is a huge factor when executing a safe pnf stretching session.
Remember that more is not always analogous to better performance. So, make sure that the individual helping you with your pnf stretching is very adept with this technique to ensure safety and effectiveness.
Pnf stretching is a very useful method that has helped countless athletes, rehabilitation patients, and many others suffering from very tight muscles to gain more flexibility and better well-being!