Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique

Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or short PMR, is an easy to learn technique for relieving stress. You work through a phase of tension and relaxation of your muscles thus relearning how it feels in each stage and helping our body to remembers the relaxed state.

PMR was developed by Edmund Jacobson in early 1920ies. He was a physician and physiologist and researching in the field of Psychosomatic; the relation of social, psychological and behavior with our body.

During his studies, he noticed that muscles which were previously in a position of high tension do relax easier when the tension is released. At first, it sounds contraindicative, but it does actually work. So, based on this finding he did more experiments and eventually developed PMR.

Hence PMR uses a 2 step process of tension and relaxation. Besides his main findings, PMR also helps us again to feel how each state actually feels; we learn how it feels when our back is relaxed, or our shoulders. Also, we learn to recognize earlier when our muscles tense. And it is not the tension under high load exercises, like weight lifting, but the everyday tension we often do not even notice. But when we do, we can fix it before it gets worse.

Think about it; when you realize earlier when your back muscles are tight because you’re fed up at work, you can take counter measures way earlier. Or some people clench their fist when getting nervous or angry; often into the state that they don’t even consciously realize doing this and with tension going up to the shoulders. If you retrain your internal sensation with PMR, you notice it again and can get out of this behavior.

When our muscles relax in the second step, we also learn how it feels to be relaxed. As PMR goes through these two steps for a set of muscle groups individually, we learn exactly how each muscle group feels tensed and relaxed. Best is, it works as several studies showed PMR for stress reductionPMR for test anxietyPMR for stress reduction for nurses. It is also an approved stress management technique in the German health system.

How do You Practice?

There are multiple ways of practicing this technique. While one method works from toes to head, the second one works vice versa – head to toes or even starts at the right arm. Either way, the muscle groups are tensed for a few seconds before allowing them to relax for a few more seconds.

The muscle groups in order of the PMR standard sequence toe to head:

  • Right foot
  • Right lower leg and foot
  • Entire right leg
  • Left foot
  • Left lower leg and foot
  • Entire left leg
  • Right hand
  • Right forearm and hand
  • Entire right arm
  • Left hand
  • Left forearm and hand
  • Entire left arm
  • Abdomen
  • Chest
  • Neck and shoulders
  • Face

Let’s start your training now. Find a quiet place where nobody will interrupt you. Lay down on your back and breathe a few times deeply; inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

  1. Close your eyes and focus on your body. Allow your mind to focus on each of the muscles.
  2. Take a slow, deep breath into your stomach. Hold your breath for a few seconds, and exhale completely. Do it a few times and imagine the tension flowing out of your body when you exhale.
  3. Focus on your right foot and become aware of how it feels.
  4. Pull your toes downwards to tense the muscles of your right foot and hold it for a few seconds. Hold your breath. Focus on what the tension feels like.
  5. Exhale and relax your foot. Focus on how the change feels. Stay here for a few seconds, breathing deeply and slowly.
  6. Now pull your toes upwards and tense your calf muscle. Focus on what the tension feels like. Hold your breath for a few seconds
  7. Exhale and release the tension again. Stay focused on how it feels.
  8. Pull your toes upwards and tense your thigh, hold your breath and concentrate on the feeling
  9. Exhale and relax your leg.
  10. Now slowly, move up towards your face, tensing and relaxing each of the muscle groups as mentioned above, allowing the tension to release completely as you reach the face.
  11. Once you complete the entire sequence, relax with your eyes closed for a couple of normal breaths to allow your body to return to its natural state.

I think you will learn PMR best by following a guided audio session as it is easier at the beginning to just follow instructions in time than reading before. It’s important that you can prelisten to it for checking if you like the guides voice. If you don’t, you will not practice. I use a great German guided session (Minddrops), so if you understand german definitely check this one out. For all others, here is an excellent instruction on youtube I found for you.

How long does it take?

In the beginning, you need more time to learn the whole sequences, but then you can do it in around 10 minutes. Perfectly for doing it on a daily basis or at least three times a week.

There is also a short version of PMR, which covers:

  • The legs
  • Chest and abdomen
  • Arms, shoulders, and neck
  • Face

It focuses on larger muscle groups than the individual muscles, and so makes your session shorter. It is perfect when you do not have enough time. But you should learn the full version before as it is important to feel the tension and relaxation state for each muscle.

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