PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, but what does that mean? Proprioception is basically our body’s awareness of where it is in space. We know where we are thanks to our nervous system, specifically our neuromuscular system. So, this technique is all about how you can manipulate the nerve’s signal to your brain to affect your muscles response.
How is it different than other stretching techniques?
The cool thing about the PNF technique is that it can be used both as a stretch or as a strengthening technique depending upon how it is applied. Perhaps you remember going to the doctor for your annual physical and having them whack you on the knee (patellar tendon) with a reflex hammer. Likewise, the PNF technique uses the reflex response to either activate or inhibit a muscular response. There are two components of this reflex response, muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs.
Muscle spindles are the actual contraction part within a muscle and are quite sensitive to change in muscle length. When activated they are what cause resistance within a stretch. Golgi tendon organs (GTO) are little tension detectors within a tendon. Remember tendons are what attach our muscles to our bones and are what the doc is really hitting with the reflex hammer to get your leg to kick out. When activated GTOs cause a muscle to relax. It is through the manipulation of these specific muscular components that PNF stretching techniques can cause relaxation of the target muscle to achieve a more effective stretch.
When is it appropriate to use?
PNF stretching is appropriate to use pretty much any time stretching is indicated. However, unlike many other stretching techniques, it’s really great at actually improving range of motion. After all, that’s somewhat the point of stretching, right? The only thing is to do PNF stretching appropriately, it needs to be performed with a clinician or partner who knows what they are doing.
3 Types of PNF stretching
Hold-Relax: This technique begins same as a normal stretch. Let’s use a hamstring stretch as our example. The clinician will perform a static hamstring stretch and hold it at the end range for about 20-30 seconds. Then the client will perform an isometric contraction against the clinician’s hand for about 6-8 seconds and then relax. This will be immediately followed by the clinician moving a little deeper into the hamstring stretch.
Contact-Relax: If we stick with our hamstring stretching example, this time the client will contract their hamstrings lightly as the clinician pushes them into a hamstring stretch position. Once at the end range of motion the client will relax as the hamstring continues to be passively stretched.
Slow Reversal Hold-Relax: This technique is a combination of the previous two. When stretching the hamstrings the clinician will passively move the client into the hamstring stretch position where the client will then contract their hamstring bringing their heel back to the table. This is followed immediately by the client actively contracting their quadriceps pulling their leg up into the hamstring stretch position again where the clinician will then hold the leg as the client performs an isometric contraction against the clinician’s hand for about 6-8 seconds. The leg is then passively lowered back to the table by the clinician.