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the benefits of pnf stretching

The best athletes in any sport take stretching very seriously before and after matches. Stretching is instrumental in any athlete's physical success.

Jozy Altidore

“What is PNF stretching?” I hear you ask.

PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, is that clearer for you? No? Thought not.

Although it sounds like something that may involve your brain, Neuro, (and to a degree it does), PNF stretching relates to a process of increasing your flexibility by controlled stretching. For athletes (and non-athletes), having a good degree of flexibility is crucial, not just for sports-related activities, but also for Active Daily Living (ADL). However, when PNF stretching is completed prior to exercise, it could decrease performance in maximal effort exercises. Nevertheless, anyone would find it difficult to leap over a hurdle, play golf, or even bend down to pick something up without a degree of flexibility, and as we get older, trying to keep flexible can become increasingly harder. A 2013 study and subsequent report in the Journal of Aging Research, showed that men and women will experience a decrease in flexibility of the shoulder and hip joints by approximately six degrees per decade between the ages of 55 to 86 due to not being not taken through their full range of motion to maintain their length.

Over the last 18-months, during the COVID-19 pandemic, an enforced home-working schedule has increased the likelihood of sitting at a desk hunched over a computer, which has led to an increase in a sedentary-based lifestyle, which can, in due course, vastly decrease a persons flexibility - and as a December 2020 Healthline report showed, a lack of movement can have a quicker and more profound effect on older adults. Studies also show that leading a sedentary lifestyle can lead to increased health issues such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Not including stretching in your daily routine, especially when sitting at your desk all day, after a workout, or having long journeys in a car (which is now starting to happen again) can contribute to a shortening of some key muscles within your body, further increasing the risk of injury. There are various methods of stretching such as static, either active or passive, dynamic, ballistic, etc. and there are various reasons for using these types of stretching. However, the difference is that PNF stretching relies on reflexes to produce deeper stretches to increase flexibility, and, as we personally perform these, and regularly use this method with train4performance's clients, so we can definitely vouch for its effectiveness.

When PNF stretching was first developed in the 1940s by the clinical neurologist, Dr. Herman Kabat, it was primarily used to treat neuromuscular conditions including polio and multiple sclerosis. This has since advanced and it is now widely used by athletes, physiotherapists, and other fitness professionals. Within the process of PNF stretching there are a few various techniques such as hold-relax, contract-relax, and hold-relax-contract, and this method of stretching can be ideal for anyone, but especially useful for people who need good flexibility in their sport such as martial artists, dancers, or where an increase in range of motion in a particular area is required due to an injury.

But why is this different from the ‘normal’ type of stretching?

PNF is a more advanced method of flexibility training that requires both the stretching and contraction of the muscle group being targeted, rather than ‘just stretching’ the targeted muscle. Firstly, a ‘conditioning’ phase must be completed prior to using a maximum of intense effort. Before any stretching, a comprehensive warm-up must be completed, this will ensure the body’s core and muscle temperature is increased, it is also a way to prepare your mind for ‘activity’.

To be a little more technical about it, a PNF stretch requires the use of the initial isometric contraction of the stretched muscle and the consequent reduced ability of the muscle fibres to contract in resistance to a subsequent stretch. This is done by engaging the Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO’s), these are the receptors which ‘inform’ the body about the level of energy a muscle develops (tension) when contracted and subsequently transmits a signal to the spinal cord to reduce the stretch. This in turn hinders the contraction of the muscle through the lengthening reaction, the contraction during a 'stretch' subsequently increases tension on the muscle, and the GTO’s are initiated more dynamically compared to the activation which comes from ‘just a normal stretch’.

More than just a little technical! So simply put, PNF stretching triggers the brain to think “I really don’t want that muscle to tear” and transmits a message to allow the muscle to relax a little more than it 'normally' would. “So that’s sorted!” I hear you say, “I can go out and start doing this”, mmm…. No, not recommended unless you really know how to do this. Using this method of stretching requires the knowledge of how to do this safely and effectively, and unless your exercise professional has been trained on how to administer this method, then you risk injury to the muscles being stretched. This type of stretching should also be avoided by children and youths where their bones are still growing.

Nevertheless, targeting the body’s long kinetic chain muscles such as the hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and back when using this method can result in a sustained increase in flexibility, add strength to the muscles, and can be beneficial for joint stability. But remember, don’t just ‘jump’ into doing PNF stretching, safe and effective stretching is the key to an injury-free lifestyle. Why not see if your fitness professional is knowledgeable about PNF stretching and try it? – You never know, with highly flexible hips and legs your ambition of dancing in a West-End musical may actually come true! (I'm still waiting to hear about my audition! ;-)

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