I have a love / hate relationship with my foam roller. You may have experienced the “hurts so good” feeling that takes your breath away when rolling over tight muscle knots, or perhaps you have never tried foam rolling and have always preferred stretching muscles that feel tight. Maybe you have tried both methods and wonder which technique is the best for increasing flexibility…
First, let’s talk about what actually happens when your flexibility improves. It has long been thought that increases in flexibility are due to an actual mechanical increase in muscle length, but new research suggests that the changes in muscle extensibility (ability to stretch) are more likely a result of sensory changes than physical length of the muscle.
The body has a defense mechanism designed to prevent a muscle from getting over-stretched. These neuroreceptors – called muscle spindles – are embedded in muscle tissues and signal the muscle to reflexively contract well before it is stretched to a length the body interprets as the point of potential danger for the muscle (ie. an imminent tear). The reflexive contraction keeps the muscle from going past its breaking point and prevents damage to the body. This means in order to improve muscle flexibility, a desensitization of those protective stretch receptors must occur.
This is where stretching and foam rolling come into the conversation. Each of these is a means of reducing the sensitivity of muscle spindles to allow muscles to safely stretch farther, whether it be from gentle prolonged stretching or rolling over the muscle tissues themselves. The ultimate result is the same, so is one method better than another? The short answer is, ultimately, no. But prolonged stretching can take quite a while before seeing results while foam rolling has been shown to improve muscle flexibility with as little as 5-10 seconds of rolling. Additional research even indicates that the greatest improvements in flexibility come from a combination of both techniques.
Try these yourself! If you are solidly entrenched in the stretching camp or the foam roller fan club, switch it up and see how a combination of the two together can produce greater results in flexibility. If you have questions about specific stretches or ways to use your foam roller, do not hesitate to ask your PT for clarification!
Foam rollers can be purchased from the CCPT online store or in the clinic in both 12” and 36” lengths.
Steve Rayner PT, DPT
Effect of Foam Rolling and Static Stretching on Passive Hip-Flexion Range of Motion. Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. Human Kinetics; Volume: 23 Issue: 4 Pages: 296-299 https://doi.org/10.1123/JSR.2013-0025
Increasing Muscle Extensibility: A Matter of Increasing Length or Modifying Sensation? Weppler CH, Magnusson SP. Physical Therapy, Volume 90, Issue 3, 1 March 2010, Pages 438–449, https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20090012.
ROLLER‐MASSAGER APPLICATION TO THE HAMSTRINGS INCREASES SIT‐AND‐REACH RANGE OF MOTION WITHIN FIVE TO TEN SECONDS WITHOUT PERFORMANCE IMPAIRMENTS. Sullivan KM, Silvey D, Button DC, and Behm DG. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Jun; 8(3): 228–236.