If you’re like everyone else, you’ve probably given up on stretching altogether. You’ve stretched ‘til the cows come home with zero results. Perhaps it’s important to decide what results you want. There are stretches that are specifically designed to increase range of motion and strengthen muscle groups.
For example, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a stretching and flexibility technique designed to strengthen and enhance passive and active range of motion in targeted muscle groups. A more advanced type of flexibility training, the technique was first developed to aid in rehabilitation and to help improve motor performance. PNF is an extremely effective form of flexibility training in that it can greatly increase range of motion. The techniques involved can be both active, when muscle contraction is voluntary, or passive, when there’s no muscle contraction. PNF is ideal for flexibility training because it promotes muscular inhibition. It’s the inhibition of the muscle tightening reflex that allows a deeper stretch.
According to the National Institutes of health, “research indicates that PNF stretching, both the Contract-Relax (CR) and Contract-Relax Agonist Contract (CRAC) methods are effective in improving and maintaining ROM, increasing muscular strength and power, and increasing athletic performance, especially after exercise. However, proper protocol and consistency must be followed to attain and maintain the benefits of PNF techniques.”
Getting technical, the isometric (resistance without movement) and concentric (contraction) muscle behaviors executed before a passive stretch help to bring about ‘autogenic inhibition’ or reflex relaxation. An isometric contraction is called the ‘hold’ and the concentric is a ‘contract.’ PNF employs the contracting, holding and passive stretching techniques. Each move begins with a 10-second passive stretch. All stretches are best done with a partner, though a fixed object may be used.
Two Types of PNF Stretches
In the Contract-Relax or CR technique, you first isometrically contract the target muscle and immediately follow that with a slow, passive stretching of the target muscle. For example, the CR for hamstring you’d lie on your back with one leg flat on the mat and the other in the air, at a 90-degree angle. A partner would gently and carefully push your vertical leg forward until you feel the stretch; hold for 10 seconds. Then contract the hamstring being stretched by pushing back or resisting your partner’s resistance with less than 30 percent of your total strength for up to eight seconds. This shouldn’t hurt. Then relax and have partner push your limb again and hold for six to eight seconds. Repeat the contract and relax three or four more times before starting on the other leg.
In the Contract-Relax Agonist Contract or CRAC technique, follow the first two steps of the CR technique except you actively contract the opposing muscle group. So, while this stretch is like the CR, or hold-relax, follow it by immediately contract the antagonist muscle for three to six seconds, pushing the joint into a new range.
Chiropractic physician and CrossFit trainer Jason Cross has utilized PNF stretching for more than a decade in practice and now as a CrossFit coach.
“PNF has been one of the most effective and efficient stretching techniques for adding flexibility and even strength at the end range of motion for clients,” Cross says.
A particular favorite of Dr. Cross’ is the doorway tight hamstring stretch: you lie on your back in a doorway; put one leg up on the door frame so that your leg is resting against the wall and put the other through the doorway. The knee stays bent and your foot remains flat with your bottom close to the wall with tension on the hamstring. Allow a stretch for 10 seconds. Relax, contract against the wall for seven to eight seconds, relax leg again, then lower the other leg to the floor to increase the stretch. When you repeat, shift your bottom even closer to the wall to facilitate tightening while increasing the stretch. Repeat three to four times.
“When a client has tight hamstrings and has been unable to improve it with standard stretches, the doorway stretch demonstrates just how fast PNF stretching works.”
So grab a partner, or a door and get to stretching.