Is Foam Rolling Better Than Stretching Before a Workout?

foam rolling

Could foam rolling be an alternative to stretching before exercise? Fitness trainers no longer recommend static stretching before a workout because of concerns about how stretching impacts muscle performance. Studies show that static stretching may reduce the muscle’s ability to generate force and power, which is counterproductive if you’ll be doing a strength or power workout. If you’re about to launch into a run, static stretches can reduce your running speed too. Reduced strength and power aren’t what you want if you’re training to build muscle strength and size.

Since static stretches interfere with muscle performance, guidelines now recommend warming up with low-intensity, dynamic movements that raise your body temperature, like running in place, butt kicks, shadow jump rope, high knees and more. Dynamic stretching exercises like arm swings and leg kicks can follow this initial warm-up. But what about foam rolling? Could foam rolling be an alternative to stretching?

Foam Rolling as an Alternative to Stretching

It’s important to be flexible and to have good joint mobility before launching into a workout. What does science say about foam rolling as an alternative to stretching? According to some studies, foam rolling is a better option than doing static stretches before a workout because of the downsides of stretching. As mentioned, static stretching may inhibit a muscle’s ability to generate maximum force and power. Therefore, static stretching could reduce your performance on your subsequent lifts and make your workout less effective. It could even limit strength gains.

However, current recommendations are to static stretch only at the end of a workout and do a dynamic warm-up and dynamic stretching before launching into an exercise session. Do you need to add foam rolling to your dynamic work warm-up? Some fitness pros say that doing so will boost blood flow to the muscles you’re working, improve joint mobility, and relieve muscle tightness. So, if you have tight muscles, foam rolling could help you prepare for a training session. However, if you don’t have orthopedic issues, like tight muscles or reduced joint mobility, a warm-up and dynamic stretch may be all you need. If you foam roll before a workout, experts recommend doing 3 to 5 sets of 30 seconds duration. To get maximum benefits, be consistent about foam rolling. The benefits accrue over time if you do it regularly.

Other Benefits of Foam Rolling

Studies also show that foam rolling enhances flexibility, but the enhancements in flexibility may be short-lived. However, some research suggests that foam rolling regularly can improve flexibility long term. Foam rolling also enhances a joint’s range-of-motion. Stretching does the same thing, but foam rolling doesn’t interfere with a muscle’s ability to generate maximum force and power like static stretching. One study found that foam rolling for four weeks improved range-of-motion of enhanced flexibility of the hamstrings as measured by the stand-and-reach test.

How does foam rolling work? One theory is that foam rolling breaks up adhesions that form on the fascia that encase the muscles. These adhesions develop from wear-and-tear and limit a muscle’s movement and flexibility. But more recent research finds that this likely, not the explanation for why foam rolling is beneficial. It would take powerful pressure to break up adhesions and foam rolling doesn’t provide that amount of force.

So, what explains how foam rolling improves flexibility? Foam rolling stimulates receptors that send feedback to the brain about the degree of tone in a muscle, how contracted it is at rest. These receptors reduce the risk of muscle injury through Golgi tendon organs, entities that limit how much a muscle can be stretched. Stimulating these receptors through the pressure of foam rolling feeds back to the brain and the brain gives the muscle more “give,” so the muscle relaxes more and is more flexible. Foam rolling helps muscles and the nervous system work together in a way that gives muscles more “give.”

How to Choose a Foam Roller

Are you ready to give foam rolling a try? You will need a foam roller. First, choose a roller that offers good stability. For maximal stability, choose a roller at least 36 inches in length. A longer roller is more versatile since you can use one on larger muscle groups such as the muscles in your lower body. The diameter of most foam rollers is around 6 inches, an ideal thickness for rolling muscles with excellent control.

Another factor to consider is the density and texture of the roller. They come in two main varieties–low density and high density. A low-density roller feels more comfortable and is easier on your muscles, but high-density rollers supply more intense pressure, making them more effective but also harder to tolerate if you’re not accustomed to foam rolling. A medium-density is a suitable compromise.

You can buy foam rollers with texture and bumps of various sizes too. Texture rollers may be more effective since the textured surface more deeply presses on the muscles during foam rolling. But if you’re just starting out, a “milder” foam roller is more tolerable. One example of such a roller is a trigger point foam roller that’s gentler on the muscles you’re rolling. You can even buy vibrating foam rollers that emit a gentle vibration that distracts from the discomfort of a foam roller applying pressure to your muscles.

The Bottom Line

If you foam roll before a workout, experts recommend doing 3 to 5 sets of 30 seconds duration before a workout. To get maximum flexibility benefits, be consistent about using your foam roller. You can’t use it occasionally and expect to become more flexible. Many experts recommend foam rolling after a workout too. If you don’t have problems with tight muscles or mobility issues, you may not need to foam roll before a workout. Instead, you’ll do fine with a dynamic warm-up and dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching helps loosen up tight muscles, boost blood flow, and improve joint range-of-motion too. However, there’s no problem with doing both foam rolling and a dynamic warm-up and stretching to gear up for a workout.

 

References:

  • Eur J Appl Physiol.;93(5- 6):530–9.
  • J Strength Cond Res., 18(4):885–8.
  • J Strength Cond Res,19(2):338–43.
  • J Sport Rehabil. 2014 Nov;23(4):296-9. doi: 10.1123/jsr.2013-0025. Epub 2014 Jan 21.
  • Int J Exerc Sci. 2014 Jul 1;7(3):202-211. eCollection 2014.

 

Related Articles By Cathe:

Is Foam Rolling Good for Your Heart?

Does Foam Rolling Reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness?

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