The following is a guest post from Yuri Elkaim
Foam Rolling vs. Stretching – Which is Better?
There’s nothing worse than feeling stiff and sore all the time. That’s probably one of the reasons why yoga has become so popular – it just makes you feel really good.
However, there’s a misconception that stretching is the answer to all of your body’s nagging aches and pains. Although stretching has it’s place, I want to argue that the foam roller is potentially even more important to helping you stay supple and feeling your best.
photo credit: Fit Flix
When your body has chronic tightness, tension, or an area with a history of injury or overuse, adhesions usually form in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. These adhesions can block circulation and cause pain, inflammation, and limited mobility.
This is known as the cumulative injury cycle (or cumulative trauma disorder). It means that a repetitive effort such as sitting or lifting a weight causes certain muscles to tighten.
But here’s the dilemma: A tight muscle tends to weaken, and a weak muscle tends to tighten. This creates a vicious cycle.
As a result of weak and tight tissues, internal forces arise. Friction, pressure, or tension can be present at the same time, which then reduces blood flow to the area.
With less circulation, less oxygen comes to the tissue, causing fibrosis and adhesions to occur in the affected tissues. Eventually, a tear or injury occurs, and this restarts the adhesion process.
That’s why lifting the groceries out of the car didn’t tweak your back. It was likely the years of sitting that created weak and tense tissues that were just waiting to snap.
Stretching does nothing to alleviate this. However, deep-tissue work – like foam rolling – does. It’s simply the act of physically breaking down these adhesions, usually by applying direct deep pressure or friction to the muscles.
As these adhesions are broken down by deep-tissue work, blood flow and lymph flow to the affected area are enhanced.
For some additional benefits of foam rolling, read this.
Foam Rolling Also Reduces Post-Exercise Fatigue
A 2014 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research investigated whether foam rolling before athletic performance tests could help reduce post-exercise fatigue and soreness. The researchers found post-exercise fatigue after foam rolling was significantly less than in those subjects who did not do foam rolling before the athletic tests.
In another study, researchers concluded that foam rolling after a squat workout was beneficial in decreasing muscle soreness while improving vertical jump height, muscle activation, and passive and dynamic range of motion in comparison with control the group who did not use foam rolling after their session.
How to Use Stretching Effectively
I don’t want you to get the idea that stretching is useless. Because it isn’t. It should be used after your muscles are warm and ideally on its own, neither before nor after a workout.
Research has also shown that stretching combined with foam rolling is more effective than stretching alone at improving range of motion.
How to Use a Foam Roller
So to improve your range of motion, flexibility, and overall suppleness I would suggest following this simple protocol:
1. Light warm-up to make muscles more elastic
2. Foam rolling to break up adhesions
3. Static (or dynamic) stretching
If you follow that sequence you’ll get the best of both worlds and start feeling and performing a whole lot better.
If you want 5 of my favorite foam rolling exercises, check out this post.
For less than the cost of going to the movies, you can have a foam roller at your fingertips 24/7. Considering its immense benefits, it should be a tool in any exercise enthusiast’s tool kit.
Plus, instead of driving to a massage therapist several times per week, you can whip out your foam roller in the comfort of your own living room and work through your body’s tight spots while watching your favorite TV show.
My foam roller is an integral part of our family. It has its own place in the corner of our living room. It’s almost ornamental. That way, it’s accessible and I see it regularly, which reminds me to use it every day.
There are many types of foam rollers on the market, but I recommend getting one that is very firm. Avoid the cheap ones that are nothing more than glorified flotation noodles like you find in many swimming pools.
You can also get a little more adventurous and use a Rumble Roller, which is essentially a foam roller with protruding extensions that dig deep into your muscles. They’re certainly quite uncomfortable—but highly effective.
With practice you’ll find that the tension in your muscles and connective tissue dissipate and your foam rolling sessions will become more enjoyable. But as with anything, consistency is the key. The good news is that it only takes 5 minutes a day to keep the stiffness away.
Foam Rolling for the Upper Back