We all have things to do, places to go and goals to accomplish. We don’t have time for exercise or stretching that is inefficient and stands in the way of us and our goals!
This is also why you are here today and let me tell you.. your stretching is about to be taken to the next level. In this quick blog post I will explain the difference between Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) and Static Stretching (SS), summarise four different studies examining this topic, as well as give you exercises you can add to your stretching routine based on the findings below.
(And if you're looking for a little more accountability, you can join us for our FREE online flexibility classes over lockdown! Scroll down to find out more.)
What is PNF stretching?
(for all us nerds):
PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. That is quite a bit to swallow so let's divide it into bite size portions. Muscular facilitation is simply the activation and amount of neural attentions one muscle or group gets from our brain. So when it comes to PNF stretching it just means we are concentrating on one muscle or group. (there are also other contexts to facilitation and inhibition).
Proprioception is the ability of our limbs to understand where they are in space based on information our brain receives from our muscles, skin and joints. Proprioception allows us to judge where we are reaching, how heavy an object is or how low we are in our split with eyes closed.
Therefore PNF is simply using our brain to control and focus on a stretch, as well as the muscle force we are generating for a particular muscle group based on our limbs location in space and the force acting on it.
PNF stretching is a technique that uses intervals of muscle activation alternated with intervals of relaxation and stretching. This means, for example in a hamstring stretch you would first push against the elastic band (Figure 1) for a certain amount of time followed by you relaxing your hamstrings (static stretching), and then pulling your legs towards you (Figure 2).
What is Static Stretching (SS)?
Static stretching (SS) is way more simple and is just the simple sit passively in your stretch and relax!
Four studies investigating PNF and Static stretching
STUDY 1: Improvement of muscle flexibility: A comparison between two techniques.
This study found that what they call “Contract Relax” (similar to what we know as PNF stretching) returned significantly better results than static stretching.
STUDY 2: The Effectiveness of PNF Versus Static Stretching on Increasing Hip-Flexion Range of Motion
In this study they observed that the PNF group got a greater improvement in hamstring length (hip flexion). However, the difference was not statistically significant.
STUDY 3: Improvement of Hamstring Flexibility: A Comparison between Two PNF Stretching Techniques
In this study they found that PNF and static stretching give such similar results, concluding that both PNF and SS yield the same results.
STUDY 4: Effect of stretching techniques on hamstring flexibility in female adolescents.
Here the results were similar to the previous study reviewed. 1 out of 5 study groups gained more flexibility using PNF rather than SS, nonetheless the remaining 4 showed no significant difference between SS and PNF.
The jury is still out on this one... with some studies concluding that PNF stretching shows to be more effective than static stretching. In contrast, other studies show no statistically valid differences between the two modalities. However, after reviewing all those studies many of them did not use any warm up before stretching! Perhaps the reason why PNF stretching yielded better results is some of the studies, was because our muscles get warm from being activated? I don’t know about you but in my opinion stretching on cold muscles always feels a bit rusty?
This brings me to the conclusion that the differences in results between PNF stretching and statics stretching are too small to confidently conclude with PNF stretching being better. This is why, as a flexibility coach I always use both of those techniques.
Fig. 1 & 2: PNF stretching for front splits:
STEP 1: Use an elastic band. Extend your leg/push your foot again the band. Do this 20 times. Making sure you are activating your hamstrings as you do this.
STEP 2: Straighten your leg and use a band or hands to pull your streetlight leg towards you for 30 sec.
The full interval should be 20 pushes followed by 30 sec hold x 3 (no breaks).
Fig. 3 & 4: PNF stretches for middle splits/side splits:
STEP 1: Get into a froggy position! Hips and knees in line. Push you knees into the ground for 30 sec.
STEP 2: Relax and sink you hips into the ground.
The full interval should be 30 sec push followed by 30 sec relax x 3 (no breaks).
Fig. 5 & 6: Static stretches for front splits:
Make sure you are pushing your hips down to the ground and squeezing your
rear glutes rather than arching your back.
Hold for 30-90sec.
Front leg has to be straight, both hipbones in line. Arch your back and try to touch stomach to quad rather than head to knee.
Fig. 7: Static stretch for middle/side splits:
Middle split hold with weights:
Lie down on your back and make sure your feet are in line with hips. This should be a middle split and not straddle stretch. Use two weighted plates (or water bottles!) to push your legs towards the ground.
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(since this ain’t no school assignment I have taken the freedom to list sources not following the official rules. Hope I won’t get a C for life)
Improvement of muscle flexibility: A comparison between two techniques.
Dan Wallin, RPT, Björn Ekblom, MD, Raymond Grahn,
First Published July 1, 1985
African Journal for Physical, Health Education, Recreation & Dance
Van Rensburg, Liz Janse, Coetzee, Fredrik F
Sep2014, Vol. 20 Issue 3.2, p1237-1248. 12p. 1 Chart, 2 Graphs.
The Effectiveness of PNF Versus Static Stretching on Increasing Hip-Flexion Range of Motion, Landon Lempke, Rebecca Wilkinson, Caitlin Murray,
in Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 2018
Improvement of Hamstring Flexibility: A Comparison between Two PNF Stretching Techniques, Nagarwal A.K.1 , Zutshi K +, 2, Ram C. S. 3, Zafar R.3 1 Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi. International Journal of Sports Science and Engineering, 2009.