Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) – A Brief Intro

PNF originated in the 1940s and 1950s to assist in the stretching and strengthening of patients with spinal cord injuries  and neuromuscular disorders.

PNF uses passive and active techniques to improve flexibility, coordination, stability, and mobility of joints, muscles, and other connective tissues. The use of quick stretches and autogenic and reciprocal inhibition (basically the relaxation of muscles after they contract) are used to allow muscles that are hypertonic to relax. More technical definition: PNF uses the firing of certain proprioceptors to inhibit the “at rest” contraction of muscles. 

 Since the 1980s or so, PNF has been used in many other aspects of physical therapy and fitness training  besides neuro rehab. From personal use, I can tell you PNF is very effective in retraining functional movement patterns due to its use of diagonal movements (if you think about it, it’s rare to perform a functional movement in one plane of motion).  I frequently use PNF techniques to decrease tone in the quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, biceps, upper traps, etc, leading to large gains in ROM and function, as well as decreasing pain and discomfort. In my opinion there are few techniques that can actually stretch, and decrease tone as effectively as PNF.

For strengthening, PNF can actually be performed in “healthier” individuals with the use of exercise bands. Patient with stability/postural issues within the shoulders and hips can regain needed mobility allowing proper posture to be restored.

There are many different techniques to be used with PNF. Hold-Relax, contract-relax, alternating isometrics, rhythmic initiation, blah, blah, blah, but I’m definitely not going into that much detail because PNF is such an extensive BUT AWESOME method that I could be typing a dissertation on it.  I have provided you with two links below that warrant your attention, as well as two videos of upper extremity movement patterns used during PNF. If you are unfamiliar with PNF, you need to get together with someone who is so you can be taght some of these methods. PNF is a versatile tool that all fitness professionals and physical therapist should understand and use to their advantage.

Videos and Links:

D1 Upper Extremity Flexion and Extension (Sorry for the poor video quality)

D2 Upper Extremity Flexion and Extension (Sorry for the poor video quality)

7 responses to “Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) – A Brief Intro

  1. Not arguing the overall benefits of PNF, Mike, but it appears that the phenomena usually put forth to explain it’s effect (autogenic and reciprocal inhibition) may not actually exist. Stretch tolerance is more likely the reason.

    • Steve,
      Thank you for the response. I have not actually heard this before and was wondering if you have any further info on WHY it works? I guess what I truly have seen is that “it just works” but I was under the impression that the inhibitions were the cause. Either way, like you said it works. Also, the movement patterns used during PNF are valuable to not only neuro rehab patients but to fitness clients for their “functional” multiplanar/rotational motions, as well as facilitating co-contractions and joint stability/mobility when done with proper techinique. Sounds like you probably know more about PNF than myself, so if you could send anything my way I would appreciate it.


      • That’s what I was taught as well Mike – that inhibition resulted from muscular contraction. Work by Mitchell, et al reveals the opposite – “a muscle’s tone increases during its antagonist’s contraction”. I’ll send you the paper.

        Neurophysiological reflex mechanisms’ lack of contribution to the success of PNF stretches.
        Mitchell UH, Myrer JW, Hopkins JT, Hunter I, Feland JB, Hilton SC.
        J Sport Rehabil. 2009 Aug;18(3):343-57.

  2. I am writing an essay on the topic and i also found out that stretch tolerance is the reason for the gained ROM. This does not apply only on PNF. I cannot understand though why PNF produces greater stretch tolerance than other techniques?

    • George,
      I wish I knew more regarding this subject. My post was for a general overview of PNF which I soon thereafter did some more research on to find that reciprocal and autogenic inhibition have not been consistantly proven. I would suggest asking Steve Bubel. You can contact him at

  3. Pingback: Educainment 2.22.13 | Mike Scott, DPT·

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