PNF stretching is currently the fastest and most effective way known to increase static-passive flexibility. PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. It is not really a type of stretching but is a technique of combining passive stretching (see section Passive Stretching) and isometric stretching (see section Isometric Stretching) in order to achieve maximum static flexibility. Actually, the term PNF stretching is itself a misnomer. PNF was initially developed as a method of rehabilitating stroke victims. PNF refers to any of several post-isometric relaxation stretching techniques in which a muscle group is passively stretched, then contracts isometrically against resistance while in the stretched position, and then is passively stretched again through the resulting increased range of motion. PNF stretching usually employs the use of a partner to provide resistance against the isometric contraction and then later to passively take the joint through its increased range of motion. It may be performed, however, without a partner, although it is usually more effective with a partner's assistance.
Most PNF stretching techniques employ isometric agonist contraction/relaxation where the stretched muscles are contracted isometrically and then relaxed. Some PNF techniques also employ isometric antagonist contraction where the antagonists of the stretched muscles are contracted. In all cases, it is important to note that the stretched muscle should be rested (and relaxed) for at least 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique. The most common PNF stretching techniques are:
This technique is also called the contract-relax. After assuming an initial passive stretch, the muscle being stretched is isometrically contracted for 7-15 seconds, after which the muscle is briefly relaxed for 2-3 seconds, and then immediately subjected to a passive stretch which stretches the muscle even further than the initial passive stretch. This final passive stretch is held for 10-15 seconds. The muscle is then relaxed for 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique.
This technique is also called the contract-relax-contract, and the contract-relax-antagonist-contract (or CRAC). It involves performing two isometric contractions: first of the agonists, then, of the antagonists. The first part is similar to the hold-relax where, after assuming an initial passive stretch, the stretched muscle is isometrically contracted for 7-15 seconds. Then the muscle is relaxed while its antagonist immediately performs an isometric contraction that is held for 7-15 seconds. The muscles are then relaxed for 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique.
This technique (and a similar technique called the hold-relax-bounce) actually involves the use of dynamic or ballistic stretches in conjunction with static and isometric stretches. It is very risky, and is successfully used only by the most advanced of athletes and dancers that have managed to achieve a high level of control over their muscle stretch reflex (see section The Stretch Reflex). It is similar to the hold-relax technique except that a dynamic or ballistic stretch is employed in place of the final passive stretch.
Notice that in the hold-relax-contract, there is no final passive stretch. It is replaced by the antagonist-contraction which, via reciprocal inhibition (see section Reciprocal Inhibition), serves to relax and further stretch the muscle that was subjected to the initial passive stretch. Because there is no final passive stretch, this PNF technique is considered one of the safest PNF techniques to perform (it is less likely to result in torn muscle tissue). Some people like to make the technique even more intense by adding the final passive stretch after the second isometric contraction. Although this can result in greater flexibility gains, it also increases the likelihood of injury.
Even more risky are dynamic and ballistic PNF stretching techniques like the hold-relax-swing, and the hold-relax-bounce. If you are not a professional athlete or dancer, you probably have no business attempting either of these techniques (the likelihood of injury is just too great). Even professionals should not attempt these techniques without the guidance of a professional coach or training advisor. These two techniques have the greatest potential for rapid flexibility gains, but only when performed by people who have a sufficiently high level of control of the stretch reflex in the muscles that are being stretched.
Like isometric stretching (see section Isometric Stretching), PNF stretching is also not recommended for children and people whose bones are still growing (for the same reasons. Also like isometric stretching, PNF stretching helps strengthen the muscles that are contracted and therefore is good for increasing active flexibility as well as passive flexibility. Furthermore, as with isometric stretching, PNF stretching is very strenuous and should be performed for a given muscle group no more than once per day (ideally, no more than once per 36 hour period).
The initial recommended procedure for PNF stretching is to perform the desired PNF technique 3-5 times for a given muscle group (resting 20 seconds between each repetition). However, HFLTA cites a 1987 study whose results suggest that performing 3-5 repetitions of a PNF technique for a given muscle group is not necessarily any more effective than performing the technique only once. As a result, in order to decrease the amount of time taken up by your stretching routine (without decreasing its effectiveness), HFLTA recommends performing only one PNF technique per muscle group stretched in a given stretching session.
Remember that during an isometric stretch, when the muscle performing the isometric contraction is relaxed, it retains its ability to stretch beyond its initial maximum length (see section How Isometric Stretching Works). Well, PNF tries to take immediate advantage of this increased range of motion by immediately subjecting the contracted muscle to a passive stretch.
The isometric contraction of the stretched muscle accomplishes several things:
PNF stretching techniques take advantage of the sudden "vulnerability" of the muscle and its increased range of motion by using the period of time immediately following the isometric contraction to train the stretch receptors to get used to this new, increased, range of muscle length. This is what the final passive (or in some cases, dynamic) stretch accomplishes.