Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching is a technique widely use in rehabilitation and exercise training. This technique usually requires the help of a partner or a therapist. Research studies have indicated that PNF stretching is an effective method to increase both the active and passive range of motion (RoM) of a joint.
There are two main ways of performing the PNF stretch: 1) the contract – relax (CR) method; 2) the contract-relax-antagonist-contract method (CRAC).
Let’s break down each method and let’s use the tight hamstring as an example. In the CR method, we passively stretch the target muscle (hamstring) into near end-range and hold that position. Then, the participant is asked to perform maximal isometric contraction of the target muscle (hamstrings) for about 6 seconds, and then relax. After the relaxation, a greater range, passive stretch is applied to the target muscle. Repeat the whole procedure twice for added benefits.
The CRAC method follows the same procedure as the CR method but is continued after. Instead of passively stretching the target muscle after the relaxation, participant is asked to actively contract the antagonist muscle (the quadriceps). It is then followed by another passive stretch of the target muscle.
It is recommended to perform the PNF stretching at least twice a week for the continuous benefits.
Although PNF is an effective method to increase joint RoM, the underlying mechanism is not entirely known. Based on what researchers already knew about muscle’ properties, they believe that autogenic inhibition, reciprocal inhibition, stress relaxion, and the gate control theory all play some roles. However, more research is still needed to fully understand the topic.
Research also has shown that performing PNF stretch will decrease muscle strength and performance when it is done prior to high intensity and maximal effort exercise. However, it can increase performance and RoM if PNF stretching is done after these exercises.
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Hindle, K., Whitcomb, T., Briggs, W., & Hong, J. (2012). Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF): Its mechanisms and effects on range of motion and muscular function. Journal of human kinetics, 31(2012), 105-113.