Curious about PNF stretching? Here’s an overview, including how to get started, the best time to do it, and more.
Overview: Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching is an advanced way to improve range of motion (ROM). Research has found it to be one of the most effective ways to improve both active and passive flexibility.
Flexibility and range of motion is a key part of being healthy.
After all, being flexible enough to properly lift weight reduces injury, can help prevent overuse injuries and allows you the freedom to use the full range of your body’s abilities.
But, just as there are a bunch of different ways to bake a cake, there are a bunch of different ways that you can achieve the goal of a full range of motion.
One of my favorites, a research-backed form of flexibility training, is called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF.
Here’s a detailed look at what this kind of stretching can do for you.
PNF Stretching– A Ticket to Better Range of Motion
If you ever played a team sport, or went to the gym, or had a stiff joint, you’ve probably tried static stretching.
For most of us, this is the first introduction we have to enhancing range of motion.
But while static stretching has its place, and its still cemented in the back of the mind of countless gym goers as the ticket to flexibility, there is a better way.
And that is PNF, which is the umbrella term for different types of these kinds of stretches. When swimming around this technique you will also hear things like Contract-Relax stretching, Facilitated stretching, Post-Isometric Relaxation, and a few others.
The way that PNF generally works is like this:
- Get into a position so that your target muscle is being slightly stretched and is under tension.
- Contract the muscle while you push or pull against the muscle, either with a partner, a stretching band, or a wall. This is done for 5 to 7 seconds.
- Remove the resistance or push and return to an unresisted stretch for around 30 seconds.
- Relax and “recover” for around 30 seconds. Repeat for between 2-5 rounds.
Think of it as a resisted stretch.
And that’s pretty much it!
PNF Stretching – What Does the Science Say?
Here are a few studies that looked at the effectiveness of PNF stretching compared to regular stretching modalities.
- When it came to improving range of motion in hamstring muscles, PNF stretching produced a significantly greater improvement compared to static stretching. 
- With a group of ballet dancers—who are already more flexible than us Regular Joes—both static stretching and PNF stretching increased range of motion in the hip adductors. 
- A group of recreationally-active adults tried PNF stretching, either with a partner to provide resistance, or on their own with a stretch strap (with the control intervention doing static stretching). They found that whether you did it alone with a strap or with a partner, similar gains in ROM were obtained and both improved ROM more than the static stretching condition. 
- And finally, researchers found adult men and women both experienced increased shoulder extension and hip flexion with 12-weeks of PNF stretching compared to static stretches: “It was concluded that the proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) techniques were more effective than the static stretching method for increasing ROM for both hip flexion and shoulder extension for both sexes.” 
Are there downsides to this kind of stretching?
Yes! PNF stretching is an advanced form of stretching. For people new to this kind of stretching, it’s tempting to apply maximum force, but this isn’t necessary and is in fact counterproductive.
A gentle stretch is more than sufficient. If you are grimacing or wincing, you are literally doing the opposite of helping yourself and just opening up a bag of possible injury.
A simple rule of thumb with PNF stretches is that the smaller the target muscle group, the less force you should be applying to it.
Also, because it is so strenuous, you should give yourself ample time to allow your muscles to recover between sessions. An overview by MIT recommends not doing it more than once a day, and ideally not targeting the same muscle group twice in the same 36-hour window5.
And finally, because of the sometimes ballistic and risky nature of PNF stretches, these stretches should not be done with children or young adults whose bones are still growing.
PNF is an advanced stretching technique, so either start real slow or consider seeking out a physical therapist to help you get started.
When is the best time to do PNF stretching?
PNF stretching should be done after working out or when you are sufficiently warmed up.
The studies above, and several others, have noted that both static and PNF stretching can adversely impact athletic performance when done on cold muscles.
Stretching your muscles when not warmed up is like trying to go 0-60 with a freezing cold motor.
An ideal time to use PNF stretches is after a dynamic warm-up or after exercise.
Okay cool… so how do I get started with PNF stretching?
Flexibility can feel elusive for many. Progress is slow, and the boredom of performing long sets of static stretching can get boring.
Additionally, stretching improperly can actually cause more damage to weak joints and muscles.
One of my favorite stretching programs is a simple digital product called Hyperbolic Stretching by Alex Larsson, M.S., that incorporates dynamic stretches, static stretching and PNF stretching to help you speed up the process of getting flexible.
Whether you are looking to do the splits, or you want to alleviate shoulder and back stiffness, Hyperbolic Stretching is an excellent resource.
It includes detailed instructions on how to properly perform each stretch, including video demonstrations and clear cues so that you get the most of each movement. The program also includes numerous stretching routines for different goals and experience levels.
You can learn more about this product by visiting the official site for Hyperbolic Stretching by clicking here now.
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