Background and purpose: Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretches are widely used in athletics and rehabilitation. Although it has been shown that they produce better range-of-motion (ROM) increases than the slow or static stretch, the mechanisms responsible remain an enigma. This study was conducted to determine whether the previously proposed neurophysiological mechanisms of reciprocal inhibition and autogenic inhibition are responsible for the success of PNF stretches. In addition, the authors assessed the existence of the phenomenon of successive induction because it is used to strengthen reciprocal inhibition.
Methods: Eighteen subjects 17-44 y performed the PNF stretches contract-relax (CR) and contract-relax, agonist contract (CRAC). EMG data were collected from the medial hamstring muscles via surface and indwelling wire electrodes and analyzed for reciprocal inhibition and successive induction, as well as autogenic inhibition (surface electrodes only).
Results: Reciprocal inhibition was not evident. The results indicated an elevated rather than an inhibited EMG during the antagonist contraction, possibly representing cocontraction. The authors did confirm the presence of successive induction. Autogenic inhibition was also not evident, and the expected inhibition and therefore lower EMG values after muscle contraction were not observed; instead, they were higher than baseline.
Conclusion: Previous neurophysiological explanations for mechanisms of PNF stretching appear to be inadequate. This study corroborates previous findings that a muscle's tone increases during its antagonist's contraction. Other explanations should be considered regarding the mechanism for the effectiveness of the CRAC and CR PNF techniques in a nonneurologically impaired population.