PNF stretching has been around for a long long time. Though it isn’t always referred to by its proper name, lots of people are employing PNF stretching whether they know it or not. PNF stretching, or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, is a technique used to improve short term range of motion. It works very well though it doesn’t tend to last which is why I consider it a bit of a trick. But I like tricks and use them in a wide variety of poses. And I think it can have an effect on the brain in terms of conceiving what is possible in the body—though that is pure conjecture and I have no idea if it is correct.
There are a number of different techniques used in PNF stretching that involve some combination of alternating contraction and relaxation of opposing muscles. Growing up going to baseball games, I loved getting to Shea Stadium early to watch batting practice, and there would always be players in the field getting help stretching. The PNF stretching that athlete’s classically do is—a player would be lying on the ground with one leg up and a coach or another player holds the foot of the lifted leg. As they hold the leg in a static position the players isometrically contracts against them, which means they are working the muscles but not moving. When the player stops contracting the leg can stretch further, and sometimes a great deal further.
There are a number of variations on this theme involved in PNF stretching that all work to increase short term range of motion. You can even do it by yourself simply by engaging a muscle and then letting it go, to move deeper into a stretch.
Block lunges, one of my favorite exercises, works with the golgi tendon organs, in a similar way to PNF stretching. Block lunges give temporary length to the hamstring and quadriceps as well as release the psoas. Even though this stretch doesn’t last, I think they can be cumulative exercises that can take hold if done over a long period of time.
The main way I have used this type of stretching over the years is in a cool variation on hanumanasana, or front splits (my favorite pose). If someone puts their back foot against a wall and their front foot against someone else’s foot (Can you see my daughters little foot in the picture?) and contracts the quadriceps for three or four breaths and then releases they will go considerably deeper into their split. This can be done a number of times until anyone can get fairly low to the ground. Again, the length doesn’t necessarily last but it is very cool to go deeper if you haven’t done so before.
PNF stretching is very interesting stuff and can be applied to a wide range of poses and exercises. I use it judiciously because of what I perceive is its lack of long term effect. But give it a try and see how it goes.