PNF Stretching for the Rotator Cuff

by Graham Ulmer

About Graham Ulmer

Graham Ulmer began writing professionally in 2006 and has been published in the "Military Medicine" journal. He is a certified strength-and-conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Ulmer holds a Master of Science in exercise science from the University of Idaho and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Washington State University.


The rotator cuff is a series of four muscles surrounding the shoulder joint. The rotator cuff muscles serve to both stabilize the shoulder joint and support its movement. Because of the shoulder joint's high degree of mobility, the rotator cuff muscles are often subject to tears. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF, is a partner-assisted method of stretching that can improve range of motion beyond that of other methods and prevent acute muscle tears due to stiff joints.

PNF Stretching

PNF stretching involves three sequential muscle actions to facilitate a deep, passive stretch. By alternating a series of active and passive muscle contractions, this method works to relax the sensory organs at the end of the muscles that inhibit excessive stretching. You can use PNF stretching both as a method of improving flexibility of your rotator cuff muscles, or to assist with injury rehabilitation.

Hold-Relax Stretch

Begin the hold-relax phase by having your partner pull your arms behind your back for 10 seconds to a point of mild discomfort in the shoulders and then relax. Have your partner then apply gentle force in the same motion. Contract your shoulder muscles enough so you prevent your partner from pulling your arms back any farther than about parallel to your chest, and hold this position for six seconds. Then, have your partner pull your arms back as in the first step and hold for 30 seconds. You should be able to achieve a greater range of motion this time.

Contract-Relax Stretch

Begin by allowing your partner to stretch your muscles back behind your back and hold for 10 seconds. From the stretched position, have your partner try to draw your arms back while you resist this motion. Relax and have your partner gently draw your arms back behind your chest and hold this position for 30 seconds. By first contracting your shoulder muscles, you should be able to achieve a greater range of motion than in the previous step.

Hold-Relax With Agonist Contraction

Begin this phase by first performing the same steps as the contract-relax phase. Following the last step of the previous phase, flex your shoulders behind your back on your own, attempting to extend past the previous range of motion. This extra contraction should allow you to achieve an even greater stretch than the first two phases.

Stretching Recommendations

Beyond PNF stretching, there are several additional stretches that can help warm up the rotator cuff and prevent injury. Make sure to perform a 10-minute dynamic warmup before working out, allowing your shoulders to actively pass through a full range of motion several times. Perform a series of static stretches after working out, holding each stretch for at least 20 to 30 seconds.

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