Foam Rolling vs. stretching – impact on strength and power.

Foam rolling – Is it useful?

Foam rolling is a technique with which, at the time of writing this (it’s 2020), almost anyone interested in reading this physiotherapy blog would be familiar.

Foam rolling involves the use of your body weight over a foam (or at least a foam covered) cylinder to mash your tissues (muscles and tendons and fascia) into submission.

The idea with foam rolling is that the massage type intervention helps to break up the scarred over microtraumas that come over the longer term with regular participation in exercise and sport type physical activity. 

Athletes have been using massage for centuries (if not millenia) as part of a physical maintenance regimen. If traditional massage is useful for maintenance of the athletic body, then why not self massage, delivered in this case via the foam roller? 

Great question I say! That’s what we will explore a bit in this article

Foam rolling is sometimes compared with stretching a muscle dysfunction management technique. Personally, I think stretching is very often inappropriately used. There are many reasons for this. 

First of all, stretching before sport participation has not been shown to reduce the incidence of injury versus a plain jane warmup.

Furthermore,  stretching before strength training has been shown to reduce strength and power in exercise immediately following.

What stretching does do is train flexibility. 

So achieving a goal of increased flexibility is the reason to perform stretching. Stretching should be activity specific. This means that if your sport or activity requires greater range of motion (ROM) than you currently have, Then stretching is a great way to train. It’s no different than the rationale to train strength, power or endurance. If the sport/activity requires it, then you should train it.

Foam rolling is an alternative method for training ROM. Using foam rolling to improve ROM is not uncontroversial, not all researchers agree that it’s an effective intervention, especially when compared to stretching. However, at this point more of the current research suggests that, at least in the short term, foam rolling can improve muscle compliance and by extension, flexibility.

Given this:

  • If stretching a muscle reduces strength and power immediately following…
  • …and if foam rolling can be used as an alternative to stretching for the purposes of flexibility training…
  • …can foam rolling provide benefits that are similar to stretching WITHOUT those unwanted performance losses?

Excellent question!

Interestingly, some researchers have investigated the effects of foam rolling on various measures of strength and power. 

Unsurprisingly to my common sense, research shows no improvement from foam rolling on key measures of strength and power, including short distance sprint times, maximal squat weight and vertical jump height.

But on the flip side foam rolling does not appear to negatively influence strength and power. This stands in contrast to evidence that stretching immediately before strength or power exercise can reduce performance.

Ultimately, if you are looking to train flexibility, focus more on stretching protocols. However, in a warm up, as an alternative to stretching you may consider keeping foam rolling for short term flexibility improvements (eg, during the event that you are warming up for) that will not negatively impact strength and power.

One very interesting outcome from more than one of these studies is that the perception of fatigue after strength training is reduced in those who foam roll compared with those who do not. This is in addition to a reduction in the perception of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is a post-exercise soreness lasting about 48 hours that will be familiar to many athletes.

So if you are looking for  a muscle release technique that is a heck of a lot cheaper than a professional massage and that can improve flexibility in the short term without the unfortunate decrements in power induced from longer bouts of stretching, then foam rolling is a great option for you. And, *Bonus*, foam rolling may also reduce DOMS (exercise induced muscle soreness) and reduce perceptions of fatigue during a workout, which is a huge win!

Have a look at the suggestions in the video above and try it out for yourself. let me know how it goes!

Other reading (if you really want to impress your friends)

Behm, D. G., & Chaouachi, A. (2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European journal of applied physiology111(11), 2633-2651.

Cole, G. (2018). The Evidence Behind Foam Rolling: A Review. Sport and olympic-paralympic studies journal: SOPSJ3(1), 194-206.

Couture, G., Karlik, D., Glass, S. C., & Hatzel, B. M. (2015). The effect of foam rolling duration on hamstring range of motion. The open orthopaedics journal9, 450.

Healey, K. C., Hatfield, D. L., Blanpied, P., Dorfman, L. R., & Riebe, D. (2014). The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research28(1), 61-68.

Hill, H. N. (2018). Does Foam Rolling have a Positive Effect on Performance and Recovery from Post Exercise Induced Muscle Damage: A Systematic Review of the Literature to Guide Practitioners on the use of Foam Rolling (Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Health Sciences).

Miller, K. (2019) THE EFFECTS OF FOAM ROLLING ON MAXIMAL SPRINT PERFORMANCE AND RANGE OF MOTION, Journal of Australian Strength and conditioning, 27(01):15-26

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