Focus on Flexibility: Pre-Contraction Stretching


“Focus on Flexibility” has covered both of the most common types of stretching, but this week we have a new one that you may not have seen before. Or, you may have even performed without knowing it was different than both static and dynamic stretching!

What is pre-contraction stretching?

The most common type of pre-contraction stretching is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF, stretching. PNF stretching involves contracting the muscle, usually with the assistance of a band or strap, for ~10 seconds prior to the release and further static stretch.

What are the benefits?

Benefits of PNF stretching mirror those seen with static stretching. However, research has also shown that PNF stretching may yield more immediate results in an increase in the range of motion. There is still a compounding effect and it won’t happen overnight, but there may be a shortened time frame to increase flexibility as compared to only performing static stretching.

While the exact phenomenon associated with the increase in flexibility from PNF stretching remains unclear, some have suggested it is related to an increase stretch tolerance or due to the inhibition reflexes during the pre-contraction phase. More research is needed to determine the exact cause of the benefits associated with this type of stretching.

When should I incorporate it into my training?

In the research, the greatest benefit is seen in those coming back from an injury or suffering from arthritis, specifically of the knee. Incorporating a series of PNF stretches was shown to lead to a greater increase range of motion (ROM) compared to static stretching protocol. However, an increase in ROM was seen in all groups who participated in the research and, therefore, PNF stretching should not be limited to only rehabilitation populations.

Overall, due to the lack of knowledge regarding exact mechanisms, PNF stretching is best incorporated as an entirely separate session from your workout. If you are performing dynamic stretching pre-workout and static stretching post-workout, an active recovery day would be the ideal time to add in a series of PNF stretches.

Tips and Tricks

The most common form of PNF stretching is “hold-relax”. Move through this series 1-2 times per exercise using the time limits outlined in each phase. You can use almost any traditional static stretch and perform it as follows:

  1. Place the muscle in the stretched position and hold for a few seconds.

  2. Contract the muscle without moving, such as pushing against the stretch without actually moving the limb. If you can’t reach, a band or strap is useful to hold the limb in this position. Hold for about 10 seconds.

  3. Relax the contraction and return to the static stretch again, while exhaling. The second static stretch should be deeper than the first. Hold this phase for 15-30 seconds.

Key Word (Acronym): PNF

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