Struggling with your flexibility? Can’t quite contort yourself into a pretzel? Want to get more out of your stretching? Say no more.
Proprioceptive. Neuromuscular. Facilitation; sounds impressive doesn’t it? The name certainly belongs in a scholars handbook, but in reality it’s very simple. So what is PNF stretching and how can you use it as a topic to confuse your friends I hear you ask? Well, let’s break it down…
PNF stretching is a method used to facilitate muscle inhibition… Which means what exactly? Simply put, its a technique to relax muscles and, you guessed it, increase flexibility. Our muscles house proprioceptors (a fancy word for things that signal the brain to respond changes in movement, position or balance), but the two we care most about are; Muscle Spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs.
Muscle spindles turn on when a muscle changes length, whereas GTOs fire when there’s a change in muscular tension. Together they work to stop us from injuring our muscles. Simple enough so far, right? But bear with me for this next bit, it involves science (gasp!).
Muscle spindles activate from a rapid stretch, causing a ‘stretch reflex’, which basically means they stop the muscle from stretching further by contracting – good for preventing injury, but not ideal if you’re trying to improve flexibility. So how do we get around this? Easy, you slow down the stretch so they don’t kick in and panic as much.
GTOs on the other hand do the opposite. GTOs cause a muscle to relax, rather than contract, if it’s under too much tension to prevent injuries like tears. Because we are crafty, we can therefore use this to our advantage.
Let me give you an example: We simulate tension by contracting (tensing) our targeted muscle groups forcing GTOs to fire. This causes a subsequent relaxation in the contracted muscles. Ta da! You are now loose enough to stretch further!
Congratulations, you managed to make it through that alive! Now take a deserved swig of that, uh, water, tune back in and ask yourself; “How can I actually apply this?”
A good start is to find yourself a glamorous assistant to stretch you! If you make it that far, then here’s a simple PNF protocol just for you (and everyone else reading this) to try post workout (so the muscles are nice and warm).
Step 1: Passively stretch (partner assisted) to mild discomfort and hold for 20 seconds (see below).
That’s one rep down, so relax and wipe away the tears.
Hurts doesn’t it? (I probably should’ve mentioned that first). Unfortunately you have a total of 4 reps to complete per muscle, but on the upside your partner should be able to take you further through the stretch each time. Well done you, you’re now the equivalent of a human slinky!
However! Before all you young, beautiful people take to the winds to stretch your way into the Olympic Gymnast team, there are a few things to consider!
Firstly, think about your lifestyle, sport or activities and the optimal levels of flexibility they require. I wouldn’t expect an 120kg American Football player to do perfect splits during the half-time show – save that one for the cheerleaders. Conversely, there is also such a thing as being too flexible – at least, without being strong enough throughout your joints whole range of motion. I would hope the very same cheerleaders have not just flexible, but strong joints and joint musculature as hyper-flexibility can also lead to injury.
Secondly, are your muscles tight or taut? There is a difference you see, and it knowing it can be the difference between ending up immobilised on the floor like a taser victim, or touching your toes with your palms.
Tight muscles are just that; tightly contracted and knotty, and could benefit from a good stretch or massage, but taut muscles? Taut muscles are already stretched to their limit, likely from bad posture, spasming to contract so they’re not taken further to the point of tearing (neck and upper back pain from being at work all day sound familiar? Maybe try strengthening your back muscles and loosening the chest… all coming together now isn’t it!).
Lastly, when to stretch. There’s a reason I said to stretch at the end of a workout and not before. Remember our muscle spindles? The ones that make our muscles contract to stop us from stretching to far too fast? Well, they need to be ready to do that when we train to prevent injury, and to allow optimal force in our exercises / sport. Take away their ability to do that before you train and well, ever seen how many footballers get carted off for hamstring strains? Also ever notice how many stretch before a game? Yeah, me too, it’s a lot. A perfect example of unregulated trainers responsible for the welfare of top athletes, but I digress…
Anywho. In a nutshell, stretching, massage tight muscles, strengthen taut ones! Do both regularly for lasting results! If you have any questions on how to perform any of these stretches, then please do not hesitate to come and find me in the gym
Personal Trainer Sevenoaks,
The Better Body Group