Stretches for Flexibility: Workouts Using PNF Stretching | Not Your Average Fitness Tips

Stretches for Flexibility: Workouts Using PNF Stretching

A proper stretching routine can be a great addition to any training program.  In fact, I’d argue that muscular flexibility workouts should be a part of everyone’s life, exerciser or not.  In my opinion, the best stretches for flexibility are included in a PNF stretching routine.  PNF stretching is also known as isometric stretching or contract-relax stretching.  I learned about these flexibility stretches from Pavel Tsatsouline’s Relax Into Stretch.

Muscle Tension

Muscle tension is the primary thing preventing the average person from doing a full split.  Pavel has a great test: put one leg to the side at a ninety degree angle and then repeat with the other leg.  In essence, you can do a split with each individual leg, but when you try to do both at once, your body simply won’t let you.   What happens is that based on previous experiences, your nervous system doesn’t let you stretch your muscles beyond a certain point.  This reflex causes your muscle to stiffen resulting in muscle tension.

Bruce Lee maintained excellent flexibility as evidenced by his nearly vertical side kick to 7’2” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s head in the unreleased Game of Death film.

To increase flexibility, you have to find a way to get your muscle to relax.  Pavel’s system will teach your body three keys to allow it to be more flexible:

  1. Trick your muscles into relaxation with various natural reflexes
  2. Convince your nervous system that the new range of motion is safe
  3. Create a new habitual muscle length

PNF Stretching

PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and is commonly referred to as isometric stretching or contract-relax stretching.  This stretching method is highly effective at improving your range of motion.  To perform PNF stretching, you contract your muscle for a short period of time, relax it, and immediately stretch the muscle a little further.  This works because your reflexes are slow to react.  Even though you relax, the muscles will be more than willing to continue stretching.  This is a short window but will allow you to stretch further than before.

Pavel using kettlebells in a full split

Isometric stretching actually improves your flexibility by making you stronger as well.  What happens is that your body feels more comfortable in a stretched position when it is stronger.  Essentially, your body realizes that it has the strength to recover from the stretched position which prevents your reflexes from kicking in, thereby allowing you to stretch further.  In other words, you get more flexible.

Isometric Stretching Routine

Pavel covers three techniques to incorporate into a stretching routine.  The first is contrast breathing which involves taking a deep breath and instantly exhaling while stretching.  This allows your body to completely relax and will increase your range of motion.  Forced relaxation is another method.  This is really a test of mental fortitude as you hold the stretch until your muscles can’t take any more.  Finally, Pavel discusses the Clasp Knife method which essentially involves canceling out your stretch reflex by aggressively applying force.

Stretches for Flexibility

Pavel outlines 24 flexibility stretches in Relax Into Stretch designed to hit all your major body parts.  The first 9 stretches are focused on the neck and back.  The next 7 involve the arm muscles.  The final 8 are focused on the legs, where Pavel recommends spending the most time.  It is recommended that these exercises be performed for 2-3 sets on 2-3 days per week.  It is also recommended that these exercises be performed at the end of the day after lifting since isometrics tend to impair coordination.  Pavel also provides 13 advanced flexibility drills.

Muscular Flexibility Workouts

The great thing about a stretching routine is that you can do it anytime, anywhere.  You can simply perform PNF stretching in front of your favorite nightly TV show if you’d like.  A core group of isometric stretching exercises will certainly help with muscular flexibility, simultaneously increasing both your strength and flexibility.  Workouts incorporating these stretches for flexibility only need to be done a few times per week for noticeable benefit.  Who knows, after 3-6 months, you too may be able to perform a full split!

13 Responses to “Stretches for Flexibility: Workouts Using PNF Stretching”

  • Dave,

    I think stretching is underrated. It’s important not only for flexibility, but also for injury prevention. I do some basic stretches regularly, but I would eventually like to get into some more advanced stretching such as Pavel’s routines you’ve described here.

    Alykhan

  • jess:

    I was introduced to kettle bell exercises by my ex-boyfriend. He’s gone, but I kept the kettlebells ;) they’re amazing for calorie burning. Simply wondering if there may be a more effective fat burning and muscle firming (constructing) train round? Btw, love the post!

  • I would love to stretch any spare minute I have but I forget about it sometimes .. I usually have to wait until I do some Yoga.
    As Pavel says I do notice my muscles take a few seconds to relax and then I can bend further. That’s why i prefer more static poses rather than dynamic stretching.
    Of course there are a few body building programs out there that use fascia stretching which will help allow the muscles to grow.
    Raymond

  • m:

    “Contract-relax stretching is 267% more effective than conventional relaxed stretching!,” Pavel wrote. That line just sticks in your mind. 267% better! Geeze! Could you image getting a 267% return on an investment? But here is a safe tweak that can make it even better than 267%. To start off, if you read or follow fitness; you know there are agonist/antagonist muscle pairing:
    – pectorals/latissimis dorsi
    – Front Shoulder/Back Shoulder Deltoids
    – Traps/Deltoids
    – Quads/Hamstrings
    – Abdominal/Spinal Erectors
    – Shins/Calves
    – Right Oblique/Left Oblique
    – Biceps/Triceps
    – Forearm Flexors/Extensions

    The tweak uses these pairings against each other. When one these muscles or muscle groups contract the opposite muscle or muscle group must relax, — Law of Reciprocal Inhibition. This tweak uses this forced relaxation to deepen the stretch. This method is called the CRAC (stretch agonist-> contract agonist ->stretch agonist->contract antagonist) or Cracked method; I prefer just to call it the Cracked method – it’s easier.

    OK! So, you have two isometric contractions one for the agonist and one for the antagonist muscles. You start out with your standard isometric stretch. Go into a passive stretch then build into a 7 to 10 minute isometric contraction of the target muscle. After the contraction, the agonist muscle is released from the contraction to relax. Remember that you have a short window to relax into a passive stretch of the agonist. Now simultaneously, you force the antagonist muscle into a 7 to 10 minute isometric contraction then released it. This is similar to applying a force to increase to ROM. Note that there is no final passive stretch for the antagonist muscle group.

    This is considered to be one of the safer PNF techniques. An additional passive stretch can be added to the antagonist contraction for extra flexibility; IT IS NOT ADVISED. Wait 1 minute before stretching the antagonist muscle group with the cracked method. Believe it or not, I can add to this! A 1987 HFLTA study shown that 3-5 repeated PNF stretches to a muscle group provided no more benefit than one PNF stretch to a muscle group. Just do one stretch unless you have time to kill.
    Reference: Pavel ”Relax into Stretch,” US Army TC-3-22.20, Brad Appleton “Stretching & Flexibility”

    m

  • Alykhan,
    For me, stretching is the perfect thing to do on an off night where I’m just watching TV. You’re right though that it’s great for injury prevention, especially for athletes.

    Jess,
    I’ve always read about great fat loss benefits of kettlebells. I haven’t gotten around to trying them myself, but a kettlebell circuit combined with a HIIT workout is probably as good as it gets.

    Raymond,
    Your post on yoga made me think twice about my stretching and flexibility and motivated me to add Pavel’s routine into my weekly workout.

    M,
    Excellent comment. Sounds like a great way to stretch!

    Dave

  • Keeping your body flexible and strong will reap you great rewards. Having flexibility with stability is an important part of any well-rounded fitness program.

    I will check out Pavel Tsatsouline’s program.

    Best – Mike

  • Mike,
    I completely agree. It’s something I put off for so long but now have time to get back into. I really think it will help me improve my strength and avoid injury over time.
    Dave

  • Toni:

    This is somewhat along the lines of yoga and pilates. That gentle stretching yields better flexiblity especially as we age. Plus, I’d hate to think if I wasn’t flexible, I might injury myself doing some of the exercises that I do to stay fit. My husband used to laugh at some of the yoga poses and pilates exercises that I did so I challenged him to do some. Well, let’s just say I showed him that they weren’t as easy as they looked, lol.

  • Toni,
    A lot of us guys think yoga and pilates are boring and a big joke but a lot of the poses are really hard. I’d venture to say that many guys would definitely break a sweat during those routines. It’d be highly beneficial as well. Flexibility is very important especially as we age.
    Dave

  • Anybody have any experience with the “Whole Body Vibration” machines? They’re supposed to help with flexibility as well as strength and even weight loss.

  • Bob,
    I’ve heard of whole body vibration machines but haven’t ever used them. They seem kind of gimmicky to me. I’m sure they help with strength and stability but I can’t imagine there any more effective than other exercise methods. Maybe just another tool to use every once in a while.
    Dave

  • Mark:

    As scary as it sounds, there is some science behind those machines. A group of PTs did some experiments with severly disabled people, who were wheelchair bound, therefore could not exercise. The subjects maximum exercise extent was that could just stand for a few minutes out of a wheelchair. They all had extremely low bone density and low lean muscle mass.

    The PTs had the patients stand on vibrating wooded paltforms and hold vibrating sticks. The subjects in the expermiment increased both muscle mass and bone density. It was mentioned that the subjects could then preform other exercises and leave their wheelchairs behind.

    Understand these were sick subjects. How this would help a healthy fitter person is debatable.

  • Mark,
    Very interesting insights. Thanks for the info.
    Dave

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