Stretching Versus Rolling

Foam Rolling - what is it and how does it compare to stretching?

It seems that every time one ventures to a gym there are two camps; those who roll and those who stretch (let’s ignore those who do neither for the sake of this blog), but what are the benefits of each? Is one better than the other? Why do it at all?

First let’s look at foam rolling:

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a type of self massage, it can involve large or small cylindrical rollers, smooth or spiky that people roll over to put pressure on their muscles, it can also involve massage balls that specifically targets trigger points for trickier areas like hips and feet.

Foam rolling has been claimed to improve range of movement, improve performance, reduce muscle pain and inflammation, breakdown fascia, reduce injury and speed up recovery.

A few small studies support foam rolling for improved recovery and performance, but the mechanisms of how this works is unknown. I will say here, despite what you may hear, the chances are foam rolling does not break down fascia. Fascia is a tough substance that will take something more akin to a steam roller to get anywhere with. Similarly to massage, foam rolling affects change from stimulation; by the sensations we feel when we roll, we send messages to the brain to make changes to the tissue structure (an educated guess here, as the proof on foam rolling is not in).

Rolling prior to working out has been found to temporarily improve range of motion and even sprint times, while foam rolling post working out has demonstrated an improvement in recovery time… if you’re an elite athlete. For the general population the effects are probably too miniscule for us to notice a difference.

However, what is more useful is the effect foam rolling has on muscle soreness, several studies have shown that there is a distinguishable improvement when foam rolling post workouts. We don’t know the mechanisms by which this works, it could be something physiological that the stimulation of the muscle tissue creates, or psychological but, if your aim is to reduce muscle soreness after a heavy workout, foam rolling post a workout is beneficial.

To foam roll effectively, make sure to focus on the groups you have worked, ie: legs, quads and hamstrings, hips think about the front, side and back. Don’t just think a muscle hurts so it’s the one to roll, sometimes it really helps to roll the muscle groups that don’t hurt day to day.

Now, let’s look at stretching:


Stretching has been found to improve flexibility and thus mobility. Despite popular belief, research that suggests stretching is good for injury prevention is lacking, but there is a school of thought that stretching, as it helps to improve mobility, will help keep us in better general working order.

We don’t all need to be doing the splits, however. Stretching for mobility should be about keeping us able to move our joints in all the directions we need to move them in. It should be about being able to run, jump or swing our arms up in the air easily and without hindrance. Being able to twizzle ourselves up into some wild yoga pose is less important. It is important that you are aware of how far you can move through each range of motion and note any changes as everyone’s range is different, don’t force a stretch, it could cause an injury and it can actually slow flexibility down in the long run, as the body senses danger and stiffens up to prevent itself.

What we do know is that we shouldn’t cold static stretch, this was big in the 90s and led to quite a few injuries, what is recommended pre training though is dynamic stretching, this is where you move your legs or arms about in an active way that helps warm up the muscles in an environment that won’t push the muscle fibres too far, helping to improve the range of motion without force. Performing static stretches when warm is safer, so dynamic stretching pre work out and static stretching post work out.

Dynamic Stretching - active movements that stretch muscles to their full range of motion

Static Stretching - stretching a muscle to its farthest point and holding for 20 - 30 seconds

Similarly to foam rolling, it has been thought that stretching post exercise can help reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery, however research supporting this is lacking.

One of the problems for research is that we all respond to stretching differently and so although there is evidence that stretching can help injuries, how, when and who should be stretching is quite individualistic.

What we do believe is that staying nimble will put you in a good place for injury prevention and so maintaining an all round stretching programme and/or stretching the muscle groups you’ve been working out could help keep the niggles away. For example, we’re all guilty of over using our pec muscles in the front of our chests, but underusing our rhomboids in our backs, so stretching our arms forward and rounding our backs may feel good but probably won’t do much, while stretching our pecs, using a door frame and pulling our arms behind us is going to help keep your shoulders more open.

So Which is Best?

Ever the diplomats here at Muscle Medicine, there is no magic bullet, and a combination of foam rolling and stretching will probably put you in the best place to improve recovery and allow you to move well.

Stretching can help with your range of motion and put you in a better place to use your body effectively while the evidence shows that for faster recovery times foam rolling is the place to go.

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