PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)

PNF is a tool that helps improve the neuromuscular system’s effectiveness in coordinating movement. Originating as a treatment for individuals with cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions, it’s goal is to give the brain sensory information so it can heighten awareness of the position of the limbs in space.  Distal stimulation is reinforced proximally, meaning the sensory receptors of the hands and feet are used to help the hips and shoulders find their proper positioning.  Having a solid grab of this ‘home base’ helps the body figure out how to correctly adjust to the demands being placed upon it.

Effective movement requires effective communication between the muscles and joints, creating stability and mobility where necessary.  PNF increases the readiness of the input to output feedback loop.  It creates an awareness of tension so the muscle can then be relaxed. Often used to highlight the performance (or lack) of antagonists, the contract-relax cycle drives range of motion reflexively, increasing mobility on one side of the body by increasing the tone on the other.  In short, tight muscles are ramped on so they can be turned off.  With the impeding muscles relaxed, the desired muscle can lengthen and stretch.

Charlie Weingroff takes a crack at exploring this phenomenon, and how it’s different from static stretching here:

If you have chronic tightness in a particular area, ask yourself, “Where does the tightness come from?”  It likely won’t just work it’s way out.  If your hip flexors are always tense, are you a toe runner, a butt-less quadzilla, and/or someone who trains in anterior pelvic tilt?  There are reasons stiffness stays in a particular place.  Typically, it’s because the body is creating stability in a muscle that wasn’t meant to be a stabilizer (like the hip flexors).  Furthermore, if you gain range of motion in one area, you’ll have to increase steadiness elsewhere in order to keep it.
“Don’t go for length in one place if you don’t plan on adding strength in another.” – Gray Cook
Going back to the earlier analogy,  if your hip flexors remain tight despite your diligence in  stretching them regularly, you haven’t increased the use of your glutes and abs to release them from their constant duty.  Without redistribution of the workload, the tightness will continue, regardless of routine.  Rewire the brain and the body will follow.
Lastly, PNF was found to best work in Spiral-Diagonal Movement Patterns.  Spirals work all three planes of motion in one movement: flexion/extension, abduction/adduction, and rotation. The popular chops and lifts were were born from exploring this three-dimentional concept.
1/2 Kneel Chop:
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If you have trouble moving or controlling limbs vertically or horizontally, attempt them at a diagonal.    The slight abduction makes it easier for joint alignment and neurological correction.

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Used alone or in conjunction with other exercises, PNF contributes to stability, mobility, and motor control practice, all in one shot.  Incorporate it into your training to maximize efficiency. 

Much of this post was gleamed from via Lee Burton and Gray Cook (Static Stretching, Balanced Body Series, 2007)

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