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.

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!