Many studies have shown that stretching is effective at increasing flexibility and range of motion (ROM); unfortunately, static stretching is also associated with immediate declines in performance. For that reason, stretching before athletic events has been discouraged in recent years.

Although used for many years in physical therapy, foam rollers have recently surged in popularity both in therapy and fitness as they are used for ‘myofascial rolling.’ The rolling pressure applied along a muscle is thought to compress the tissue and increase flexibility of the muscle and fascia, possibly ‘breaking up’ fibrous adhesions between layers of fascia. While myofascial release is usually performed by a therapist on a patient, ‘self-myofascial release’ is widely performed using tools such as foam rollers and massage rollers.

Despite its widespread use, there are no peer-reviewed empirical studies on the benefits or effects of foam rolling. Researchers at Memorial University in St. Johns Canada recently published the first such study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research on the effects of foam rolling on the quadriceps muscle.

The researchers hypothesized that knee ROM would increase while neuromuscular activation and force output of the quadriceps would decrease based on previous massage therapy research showing the same effect.

The subjects were assessed for knee joint ROM, quadriceps strength, and muscle activation before and after the foam rolling. They performed foam rolling in a prone position for 1 minute, resting for 30 seconds, then repeating for another minute. The rolling was repeated 3 to 4 times each minute.

The subjects significantly increased their knee joint ROM by an average of 10° (some increased 20°) up to 10 minutes after foam rolling, averaging a 10% increase in ROM compared to the control condition.  These results are similar to results of acute static stretching studies. Interestingly, the researchers found no detrimental effects on muscle activation after the foam rolling. This finding may have significant implications for athletes.

The researchers speculated that the increase in flexibility was due to beneficial effects on fascia, rather than the musculotendinous unit. Macdonald and colleagues provided 3 possible mechanisms responsible for the benefits of foam rolling:

  1. Breaking fascial adhesions
  2. Warming the fascia to increase its extensibility
  3. Providing a strong afferent stimulus to increase stretch tolerance

In conclusion, as little as 2 minutes of foam rolling can significantly increase knee ROM as much as static stretching, but without the negative effects on muscle performance seen with static stretching. There remain many opportunities for research in the mechanisms and effects of different foam rolling.

REFERENCE: Macdonald G, Penney M, Mullaley M, Cuconato A, Drake C, Behm DG, Button DC. An Acute Bout of Self Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. J Strength Cond Res. 2013. 27(3):812-821.

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