VIDEO: Limber Up With PNF Stretching

See your range of motion and flexibility improve almost immediately with these PNF stretches.

Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS | December 06, 2016


Want to see your range of motion improve right before your eyes? Then try proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. PNF basically plays a trick on your nervous system: By first contracting the muscle to be stretched, you activate a sensory neuron called the Golgi tendon organ (GTO). This spawns a protective reflex from your spinal cord that tells your muscle to relax, and voilà! Your flexibility instantly improves. Over time, this translates to a greater range of motion and a new resting length for your muscles, helping eliminate joint pain and improve results.

PNF stretching can be done using two techniques: contract relax or contract-relax-antagonist contract:

Contract relax: Move your limb to your end range of motion, then isometrically contract the muscle against the resistance of a partner for up to 10 seconds. Your partner should provide enough resistance during the contractile phase to hold your limb in place. Relax and have your partner move the limb a little farther using gentle but firm pressure to facilitate a stretch without pushing it too far. Hold this stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.

Contract-relax-antagonist contract: Move the limb to your end range of motion and isometrically contract the muscle to be stretched for up to 10 seconds as your partner holds your limb in place. Then relax that muscle and contract the antagonist (opposite) muscle. This has the benefit of reciprocal inhibition: When the antagonist (opposing) is firing, the neuromuscular input to the muscle being stretched is inhibited, furthering your stretch. Hold this contraction for up to 10 seconds.

For both techniques, your contraction against your partner’s resistance should be about 65 percent of your maximum, according to recent research; anything more may actually activate another protective reflex and cause the muscle to tighten again.

Try these stretches using either technique post-activity when your muscles are warm and pliable. Repeat each stretch two to four times and, presto! Insta-mobility.

Chest

Stand facing your partner and hold your arm to the side at shoulder height, elbow bent 90 degrees. Draw your arm back as far as you can to put the pectorals on stretch. Have your partner place one hand on your shoulder and the other on the front of your elbow and provide resistance as you press forward with your arm. Then relax as your partner gently moves your limb farther into the stretch.

Neck/Trapezius

Sit tall with a neutral spine with your partner standing behind you. Drop one ear to your shoulder and have your partner place one hand on your opposite shoulder and the other on the side of your head. Lift your head up against his or her hand, then relax and try to drop your ear closer to your shoulder as your partner holds the opposite shoulder down.

Hip Flexors

Lie faceup on a tall bench or high table with your hips at the edge. Hug one knee to your chest and let the other hang off the bench. Have your partner apply gentle downward pressure just above the hanging knee as you lift your leg upward to activate your hip flexors. Then relax your leg as your partner applies some gentle downward pressure.

Hamstrings

Lie faceup on the ground and lift one leg straight up in the air. Have your partner support and hold this leg at the knee and ankle and keep your hips on the ground as you tighten the hamstrings and try to drive your heel toward the ground. Then relax and have your partner gently press your leg a little farther into the stretch.

Butterfly (Inner Thigh)

Lie faceup with the soles of your feet together, knees open. Have your partner gently press downward on your knees as you try to squeeze them together. Then relax and let the weight of your knees open up your hips, with your partner offering very light pressure to prevent overstretching the groin muscles.

Quadriceps

Lie facedown on the edge of a high bench or table and drop one leg off the side, placing that foot on the ground for stability. Extend the other leg along the table and bring your heel toward your glutes. Have your partner hold your leg in place at your ankle as you try to extend your leg, then relax and have your partner move your ankle closer to your glute.

Note: If you aren’t feeling a stretch, walk the opposite foot forward farther to posteriorly tilt the pelvis.

About the Author

Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS

Erin Calderone, MS, CSCS

Erin Calderone has a master’s degree in kinesiology from California State University, Northridge, and is a kinesiology instructor at Glendale Community College. She recently started taking Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. Her advice to dedicated exercisers? “Focus on the quality of your movement patterns. If we want to keep moving our whole lives, we have to not just move more but move well.”