Increase Flexibility With PNF Stretching

Increase Flexibility With PNF Stretching

Stretching is an integral part of any workout routine. Greater flexibility enables us to become less injury-prone while gaining strength, but most only know about two types of stretches:

  • Static: traditional stretching where a muscle is held in an elongated position for up to 30 seconds (think toe-touches) to release tension and make muscles more pliable.
  • Dynamic: movement-based activities (e.g., trunk twists, sport-specific drills) to prime the body for action.

But there’s another way to increase flexibility and range of motion called PNF stretching. If you’ve ever worked out with a personal trainer who stretched you post-workout or visited one of the trendy stretching studios, you may have already done this without realizing it.

Whether you are a novice or frequently have someone else stretch you, here’s what you need to know about PNF stretching.

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What Is PNF Stretching?

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, or PNF stretching, is more than just a method of stretching. “It’s a treatment method and philosophy that utilizes the power of the nervous system to enhance movement,” says personal trainer and physical therapist Keats Snideman, PT, DPT, COMT, CSCS, LMT.

Physical therapists developed PNF in the 1940s as a way to treat patients with polio and multiple sclerosis and later began using it for other conditions.

Snideman explains that PNF breaks down into:

  • Proprioceptive: referring to the many sensory receptors that relay information about the movement and position of the body back to the central nervous system.
  • Neuromuscular: the connection between the nerves and the muscles/tendons that they supply.
  • Facilitation: to make an action or process easier.

While anyone can use it, “PNF stretching is primarily used in rehabilitative and orthopedic settings to restore flexibility, strength, and coordination to injured muscles,” explains personal trainer Chris Gagliardi, resource center manager for the American Council on Exercise.


pnf stretching- woman being stretched

How Does PNF Stretching Work?

PNF calls for taking a muscle to the point of resistance and then contracting that muscle or a surrounding muscle to allow for a deeper stretch. Most often this stretching is done with a trained partner, though you can do some of it with a strap or wall.

Snideman splits PNF concepts down into “direct” and “indirect” techniques. Both can result in an improved range of motion of a muscle, but for different reasons.

With direct techniques (or CRAC, contract-relax antagonist contract), Snideman explains:

  • You stretch the tight muscle to its end range of motion or just shy of it if that’s painful.
  • Then the muscle is isometrically contracted without any motion for five to 10 seconds.
  • After a brief relaxation, you stretch the leg a bit further, preferably with an active contraction of the opposite muscle group.

“This technique works by what is called ‘post-isometric relaxation,'” Snideman adds. “Which means that a muscle has a brief period of relaxation after isometric contraction.”

This relaxation is possible because of autogenic inhibition, during which the Golgi Tendon Organs send an inhibitory signal. This signal tells the muscle to release tension, allowing it to elongate.

You can often do direct PNF stretching with a strap or by using a wall.

With indirect techniques, Snideman says:

  • You stretch the tight muscle to its end range of motion or just shy of it if that’s painful.
  • Then, rather than contracting that muscle, you isometrically contract other opposing muscles that, in turn, help the tight muscle relax and stretch.

During this technique, the muscles engage in reciprocal inhibition. While one muscle is contracting, inhibitory signals cause the opposing muscle to relax.

“This technique might be better when a muscle is weak or painful to contract,” Snideman says.

Indirect PNF stretching is typically performed with a partner.


pnf stretch- man with band

When Should I Do PNF Stretching?

“There is no consensus on when it is best to use PNF stretching,” Snideman says. “But if this type of stretching is used prior to activity, it can help someone achieve the range of motion they need for whatever activity they are about to partake it.”

It’s best to warm up before doing PNF stretching, as flexibility is most effectively trained when the muscle is warm, Gagliardi adds.

Also, before exercise, be sure to do some dynamic stretching after PNF stretching. Otherwise, studies show you may have less vertical jump height or power during your workout.


What Are the Benefits of PNF Stretching?

“PNF-type stretching often produces a greater increase in range of motion more quickly than passive or static approaches,” Snideman says.

In a study published in Biology of Sport in 2016, researchers divided 40 college students with tight hamstrings into four groups. Three days a week for four weeks, students performed:

  • Typical static stretching
  • PNF stretching
  • Mulligan traction straight leg raise (TSLR) technique (another technique that increases hamstring flexibility)
  • No stretching

PNF stretching and Mulligan TSLR both increased hamstring range of motion more than static stretching did. Some even consider PNF the “most effective stretching technique” for increasing range of motion.


Precautions When Doing PNF Stretching

To be safe, only do PNF stretching with a professional, such as a personal trainer or physical therapist trained in the practice. Tell them about any injuries or strains, as contracting injured muscles or tendons may worsen things, Snideman cautions.

This also applies if you’ve had recent surgeries, as stretching the effected muscles may impair recovery. Once you know the techniques, you may be able to do some PNF stretching on your own.