Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching

woman stretching her legs

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching is a popular advanced method of deep stretching. It typically involves passively stretching a muscle (or muscle group), then performing an isometric contraction of that muscle while under stretch, and again passively stretching that same muscle group at a deeper stretch at a greater range of motion. This type of stretch was first used in rehab settings, but over the years athletes have found benefits from PNF stretching.

PNF is based on the principles of human anatomy and neurophysiology. Contracting a fully stretched muscle against resistance inhibits the stretch reflex and allows a muscle to stretch farther than it normally would. This may sound dangerous, and it can be, so it's important to follow the technique exactly and not force the stretch. But when done properly,  proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation allows an athlete to increase the range of motion around a joint. This is useful during rehab after an injury, as well is during post-workout deep stretching.


The most common way of using PNF stretching is to perform a 'stretch-contract-relax' sequence, but there are a variety of ways to inhibit the stretch reflex and get a deeper stretch that results in increased range of motion in a joint. The stretch-contract-relax technique is performed by moving the target muscle into a full (passive) stretch and then holding it in position (often with the help of a partner or a solid object supporting that body part) and then performing an isometric contraction of the muscle for ten or fifteen seconds, relaxing the muscle for a few seconds and then moving it into a slightly deeper passive stretch for another ten seconds or so. The entire muscle is fully relaxed for at least 20 seconds before repeating the process. While it can be performed solo, it's much more precise and effective with the help of a partner.

It's critical to warm up before performing PNF stretches in order to increase the blood flow and raise the temperature of the muscle. This helps prevent injuries that may occur from over-stretching a cold muscle. Ideally, this type of stretching is performed with a coach, trainer or therapist, but athletes can also use this technique after a workout to increase the range of motion.

How to Perform PNF Stretching

  • Position the muscle to be stretched in a way that it is fully, but passively, stretched and under tension against an immovable object such as the floor, a wall, or with the help of a partner who can hold the limb steady.
  • Perform an isometric contraction of the target muscle at full stretch. To do this, contract the stretched muscle or muscle group against the object or person, in a way that doesn't allow any movement. 
  • Hold the contraction for 3-10 seconds (6 seconds is preferred).
  • Relax the muscle briefly (about three seconds) and then move into another full, passive stretch and hold that for about 20 seconds. (You should notice your range of motion has increased slightly from your first stretch.)
  • After the passive stretch, let go of any stretching and relax and rest the muscle group completely for 30 seconds.
  • If desired, you can repeat the entire proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretch technique another three times for the same muscle group. Some studies find that one PNF stretch session is sufficient to improve range of motion.
  • Repeat in other target muscle groups as needed.


Keep in mind that PNF stretching should always be performed after activity for best results.  When done prior to exercise the research shows that proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation decreases performance in maximal effort exercises. Stretching before exercise can greatly reduce the power of muscular contractions, so if you are a strength or power athlete, it's even more important to stretch after your workouts. This doesn't mean you should skip the warm-up, though. Warming up before exercise is essential to get prepared for activity and to reduce the risk of injury.

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  • Brad Appleton. Stretching and flexibility: Everything you never wanted to know. [] last accessed Nov 2014.
  • Kayla B. Hindle,1 Tyler J. Whitcomb,1 Wyatt O. Briggs,1 and Junggi Hong1. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): Its Mechanisms and Effects on Range of Motion and Muscular Function. [] Journal of Human Kinetics. Mar 2012; 31: 105–113.Apr 3, 2012.
  • Sharman, M., Cresswell, A. and Riek, S. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching. Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006. 36, 929-939

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.