A Comparison of Foam Rolling and Static Stretching


This article aims to examine, from the standpoint of a strength professional, two warm-up and cool-down methods; Foam rolling and static stretching. Self-Myofascial release, or foam- rolling, is the new(er) kid on the block, and becoming more and more widely used and accepted every day. Static stretching is the old mainstay; a tried and true method for getting the body ready for any activity and increasing range of motion. Both are founded methods, and are necessary tools for success, but is one better than the other? This article will compare and contrast static stretching and foam rolling, and review the positive and negative aspects of each. It will also explain why both are necessary, and highlight important information for a strength professional to consider when deciding when and why each should be utilized. Performing a proper warm-up and cool-down are an essential part of any exercise routine. From the weekend warrior, to the fitness enthusiast, and all the way to the professional athlete, warm-up and cool-down are necessary to prevent injury and maximize performance. This is true regardless of nature of activity, or activity level (moderate to vigorous.) Simplistically put, this is because the over-arching goals for each are one in the same, 1) to perform a task,(generally at the highest possible level attainable), and 2) to not get hurt doing it. A proper warm-up should prepare the body for physical activity in order to accomplish these two tasks. A cool-down should also be focused on helping the athlete attain the same two objectives, by preparing the body to recover from the activity performed. A cool-down should return the athlete to homeostasis, to recover, in order to be ready to train or compete relatively quickly. To maximize an athletes performance and to prevent injury, a warm-up and cool-down must accomplish multiple objectives. A warm-up should also begin more generally and end more specifically; starting with full body and progressing to activity, sport, and/or anatomical need. For the purposes of foam rolling and static stretching, reference will be given mostly to the general warm-up and anatomical need. In order to judge whether a warm-up is good we must first define performance. Any strength professional would argue that performance is largely sport-specific. That is, improving performance is tied into the specific activity the athlete will be involved in. After all, there are many types of sports and even more training types to go along with them. Rather than confine ourselves to listing individual sports, it may be more efficient for our purposes to categorize them into sport-specific metabolic demand or requirement. These metabolic requirements vary in range from power, to anaerobic power, anaerobic capacity, aerobic power, to aerobic capacity, and in many cases multiple combinations herein. Although activity requirements vary widely between sports, and coaches may argue based on what they specifically need for their athletes, for the purpose herein it is mostly moot point. This point is null in light of the fact that all activity and performance requires force production. Whether running a marathon, training for a bodybuilding competition, testing 1RM, or playing a full length soccer match an athlete must produce a measure of force. There are many attributes within the body that affect force production. These include, muscle size, fiber type, pennation angle, origin and insertion, fuel availability, tissue warmth, tissue distensibility, range of motion, neuromuscular control, stretch reflex, etc.... Some of these are genetic or cannot be immediately affected, but many can be acutely affected through a warm-up. For the purposes of comparing self myofascial release with static stretching, only tissue distensibility, range of motion, control and stretch reflex will be affected. It is also important to define what a good warm-up and cool-down should entail, and what objectives are necessary to accomplish in order to achieve the grand-scheme goal of injury free performance. The main goal of a warm-up is to prepare an athlete physically for activity. Whether that be training or competition, the warm-up should improve athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury to the athlete. In general, a warm-up should raise the core body temperature of the athlete. This can be accomplished through raising heart and respiration rate. In turn, this increases blood and oxygen flow throughout the body. There is an increase in blood flow to the muscles and joints. This increases muscle temperature, and decreases fluid viscosity within the joints. A warm-up should also increase range of motion, more specifically the ROM needed for the activity or sport. A warm-up should not increase range of motion by over- stretching of connective tissues including muscles or tendons. This reduces the ability of the stretch reflex to function properly and reduces force (Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. 2008.) Increased range of motion, temperature, and muscle elasticity reduce the probability of injury. A cool-down should prepare the athlete for recovery to be able to repeat performance. In order to accomplish this the athlete will need to have complete muscle use, range of motion, and flexibility. Now that we've defined the reasons to engage in a proper warm-up, we need to examine our two methods, and how they can affect the pre-activity body change our athlete requires. Static stretching has been the standard for pre-activity warm-up and injury prevention. Static stretching involves holding a position while stretching a muscle or muscle group to increase elasticity. It has been found that the optimum amount of time for a static stretch to be held is 15 to 30 seconds. This causes increased range of motion through a relaxation in the muscle due to an inhibitory response triggered by the golgi tendon organ (Roylance, D. S., George, J. D., Hammer, A. M., Rencher, N., Gellingham, G. W., Hager, R. L., & Myrer, W. J., Roylance, D.S., (2013) also found that the greatest increases in range of motion were found in when static stretching immediately followed self-myofascial release. Static stretching may also help the athlete to “feel” his/her muscles prior to exercise, increasing proprioception and neuromuscular function. A study on 40 yard sprint performance indicated that stretching did not increase performance among healthy recreational runners, and conversely found that lack of stretching (walking on a treadmill for warm-up instead), actually increased performance in 40 yard sprint times (Wallmann, H. W., Christensen, S. D., Perry, C., & Hoover, D. L., 2012.) This indicates that stretching does not acutely increase muscular performance, even though range of motion may be increased. It is important to note that static stretching may also decrease performance. A study on young men examined the effects of static stretching and dynamic stretching on flexibility, counter-movement jump, and drop jump(Behm, D. G., Plewe, S., Grage, P., Rabbani, A., Taghi Beigi, H., Byrne, J. M., & Button, D. C., 2011.) The study found that static stretching impaired counter movement jump height in a pre-post follow up test design. These static stretching results were also markedly lower than overall dynamic stretch performance, which actually increased counter movement and drop jump height. Overall, both dynamic and static stretches improved flexibility similarly.This study indicates that although range of motion is increased acutely, performance may actually decrease when it comes to force production. Not only could static stretching be an impairment to performance, there are other methods that may increase it. Another study on trained versus un-trained subjects involved static stretches of plantar flexor muscles (30s) two times per day, 5 times per week, for six weeks. This study found that both range of motion and peak torque were both increased in plantar-flexion and dorsi- flexion in both trained and untrained groups (Abdel-aziem, A. A., et. al., 2012.) This indicates that although static stretching may not immediately increase force production in an athlete, an overall long-term response to static stretching is seen through greater force production and range of motion. In short, static stretching increases range of motion, which is necessary for sports performance through force production and injury prevention. Acutely, static stretching shows no increase in and even may cause a detriment to performance, as measured by studies involving the 40 yard dash (Wallmann, H. W., et al., (2012) and counter movement jump tests (Behm, D. G., et al., 2011.) However, over a longer period of time static stretching has been shown to increase joint range of motion and peak torque among the trained and untrained (Abdel-aziem, A. A., & Mohammad, W. S., 2012.) Static stretching has been long viewed as the standard of warming up to reduce the risk of injury, and increase performance, but new evidence has indicated that stretching statically before exercise reduces performance. Static stretching does accomplish an increased ROM but fails to increase any other metrics of a proper warm-up, and has been shown to negatively affect performance. The alternative warm-up method of foam-rolling is a newer way to invoke the same muscle tension response of the golgi tendon organ that increases the range of motion desired for activity. Although therapists have used these methods for a while, self-myofascial release is currently becoming more studied within research, and rapidly becoming a self treatment method aimed at accomplishing the same goals (Roylance, D. S., et al., 2013.) Recent research has shown that foam-rolling can increase athletic performance. A study involving eleven athletically trained men found that pairing full body foam rolling with a dynamic warm-up increased power, agility, strength, and speed when compared to just a dynamic warm-up (Peacock, C. A., Krein, D. D., Silver, T. A., Sanders, G. J., & Von Carlowitz, K. A., 2014.) The dynamic warm-ups included jogging 1000m and dynamic movements but none included any static stretching. Flexibility was measured by sit and reach, and agility was measured by 18.3 pro-agility test. Performance was measured by vertical jump, broad jump, 1 RM bench press, and 40 yd sprint. No differences in sit-and reach were measured, but athletes improved greatly, and significantly in all performance measures. Research studying foam rolling and maximum voluntary contraction of the hamstrings found a statistically significant correlation between foam rolling and range of motion among male and female volunteers. No change in voluntary contraction was recorded. It is also notable that a dose response was recorded, and greater range of motion was gained from 10 seconds over five seconds (Sullivan, K. M., J. Silvey, D. B., Button, D. C., & Behm, D. G., 2013.) Overall current literature has indicated that foam-rolling can increase short term flexibility and range of motion without attenuation of muscle performance (Cheatham, S. W., Kolber, M. J., Cain, M., & Lee, M., 2015.) This comprehensive literature review also found that foam rolling may decrease muscle soreness and performance loss post-exercise. In short self-myofascial release has been show in many cases to increase athletic performance based on our two metrics. Foam rolling has been shown to increase range of motion without compromising muscular force production (Sullivan, K. M., et al., 2013.) Research has also indicated that not only will performance remain unchanged and not deteriorate, foam rolling may also increase athletic performance (Peacock, C. A., et al., 2014.) Overall, the current research and literature has shown that, at minimum, foam rolling increases range of motion without a detriment to muscular performance. It has also shown that muscle recovery and subsequent performance can be maintained with post-activity foam-rolling (Cheatham, S. W., et al., 2015.) Returning to the two main goals of maximum injury free performance, an evaluation must be made on how to best utilize the two methods. Some evidence indicates that foam rolling does not decrease muscle performance, and actually has been shown to acutely increase performance, while increasing joint range of motion. It has also been heralded as a recovery method, decreasing soreness, and increasing range of motion and overall muscle use thereafter. Static stretching has been shown to increase range of motion, but at the cost of acute degradation of muscular performance. Static stretching has been shown over a longer period to increase range of motion and increase peak torque within the muscle. Also the greatest gains in short term range of motion have been found when static stretching follows foam rolling. From these summarized data we may draw our conclusion. In conclusion, the evidence that foam rolling, at minimum, increases range of motion without a decline in muscle performance immediately places it above static stretching. Static stretching before activity holds true to the opposite. Performance is not increased acutely, and muscular ability can be lost, although range of motion increases markedly. Short term effects of foam rolling are positive for muscle performance and negative for static stretching. Long term effects for performance for both static stretching and foam rolling are positive. Drawing from the research, it is clear that foam rolling should be included as part of a general warm-up due to the accomplishment of increased range of motion and possibility of increased muscular performance. Static stretching, although good for increasing range of motion, should be left out of any pre- exercise warm-up activity due to the evidence of decreased muscular performance. Research would support that static stretching and foam rolling be used in conjunction post-workout to increase recovery for repeat performance/training and to support range of motion and increased muscular function in the long-term.


References Abdel-aziem, A. A., & Mohammad, W. S. (2012). Plantar-flexor Static Stretch Training Effect on Eccentric and Concentric Peak Torque - A comparative Study of Trained versus Untrained Subjects. Journal Of Human Kinetics, 3449-58. Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Behm, D. G., Plewe, S., Grage, P., Rabbani, A., Taghi Beigi, H., Byrne, J. M., & Button, D. C. (2011). Relative static stretch-induced impairments and dynamic stretch-induced enhancements are similar in young and middle-aged men. Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism, 36(6), 790-797. Cheatham, S. W., Kolber, M. J., Cain, M., & Lee, M. (2015). THE EFFECTS OF SELF- MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), 827-838. Peacock, C. A., Krein, D. D., Silver, T. A., Sanders, G. J., & Von Carlowitz, K. A. (2014). An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release in the Form of Foam Rolling Improves Performance Testing. International Journal Of Exercise Science, 7(3), 202-211. Roylance, D. S., George, J. D., Hammer, A. M., Rencher, N., Gellingham, G. W., Hager, R. L., & Myrer, W. J. (2013). Evaluating Acute Changes in Joint Range-of-Motion using Self-Myofascial Release, Postural Alignment Exercises, and Static Stretches. International Journal Of Exercise Science, 6(4), 310-319. Sullivan, K. M., J. Silvey, D. B., Button, D. C., & Behm, D. G. (2013). ROLLER-MASSAGER APPLICATION TO THE HAMSTRINGS INCREASES SIT-AND-REACH RANGE OF MOTION WITHIN FIVE TO TEN SECONDS WITHOUT PERFORMANCE IMPAIRMENTS. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 8(3), 228-236. Wallmann, H. W., Christensen, S. D., Perry, C., & Hoover, D. L. (2012). THE ACUTE EFFECTS OF VARIOUS TYPES OF STRETCHING STATIC, DYNAMIC, BALLISTIC, AND NO STRETCH OF THE ILIOPSOAS ON 40-YARD SPRINT TIMES IN RECREATIONAL RUNNERS. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(5), 540-547.



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