Foam rolling and stretching have long been seen as interchangeable to many avid gym goers- but, the latest research shows that this may not be the case.
Static stretching occurs when you take a muscle through its maximal range of motion and hold there to elongate the muscle fibres.
Dynamic stretching is a continuous movement of a muscle into its full range of motion. To make these definitions easier to understand, picture an individual holding one shoulder in their other arm and pulling to the side, to statically stretch their rotator cuff, rhomboids, and middle fibres of trapezius.
Now picture someone doing arm circles to stretch the same muscles. That is the difference between static and dynamic stretching.
Foam rolling, on the other hand, is a self myofascial release technique. Foam rolling loosens the fascia in our bodies. Picture fascia as a loose connective tissue scaffolding inside our body- it wraps around muscles and organs, and connects different structures to others.
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When our fascia gets tight, our muscles do as well. By relaxing the fascia in our bodies, we simultaneously will relax the tight muscle that it surrounds.
Static stretching, dynamic stretching, and foam rolling are best used in different contexts: there is a time and a place for each type of release! Some techniques are more comfortable than others, depending on the individual and their past medical history, activities, and pain tolerance. Below is a general guide for when each type of release is most advantageous.
Benefits of Both Foam Rolling and Stretching
Static stretching and foam rolling also have been shown to increase muscle length, which translates to an increase in flexibility. When used together, the greatest range of motion gains occur, since foam rolling helps relax and loosen the fascia, while a static stretch elongates the muscle fibres and holds them at their end range for a prolonged period of time.
Is One Better Than The Other?
Both stretching and foam rolling are beneficial in their own contexts, and should be utilized at specific times to optimize their effects. One is not better than the other overall, but static stretching, dynamic stretching, and foam rolling each have a time and a place.
There are two ways to warm up before your workout: with foam rolling and with dynamic stretching. Although both are effective on their own, they are most effective when paired together.
Foam rolling before a workout is advantageous because it improves the extensibility and length of fascia, allowing your muscles to lengthen and be used more effectively during exercise. It also increases blood flow, meaning that your muscles can be more easily and more efficiently activated during exercise.
To be most beneficial, foam rolling should be done before dynamic stretching during your warm up. It doesn’t have to take much time; aim for about a minute of foam rolling on each muscle group that you will be using during your workout.
Before your workout, aim to warm up with five to ten minutes of dynamic stretches. Dynamic stretching allows you to warm up your muscles most efficiently. If ten minutes seems unachievable, even three to five minutes of dynamic stretches can be beneficial.
Warming up before physical activity is meant to prepare your body for exercise, so the most logical way to do so is to mimic the exercises that you are planning on performing. Therefore, you want to increase your body temperature and heart rate!
Dynamic stretching also activates the neurophysiological response, otherwise known as the brain-body connection. This connection optimizes the speed, efficiency, and timing of muscle activation for different movement patterns.
Lastly, dynamic stretching increases your speed, acceleration, anaerobic performance, power, and muscle strength during your workout, which can improve your athletic performance. On the other hand, doing static stretches before your workout can actually reduce your endurance and power.
Foam rolling before dynamic stretching does not have the same effect, and will not impact your muscle’s power or endurance if done during your warm-up.
As is the case with your pre-workout, there are two options for post-workout stretching: foam rolling and static stretching. And, as was the case for pre-workout regimes, a post-workout cool down is most effective when foam rolling and static stretching are done in conjunction with one another.
Foam rolling post workout helps increase blood flow, which brings nutrients to your tired muscles, helping you recover faster. With these nutrients come anti-inflammatory properties, which can reduce muscle soreness. Spend about two minutes on each muscle group that you worked for optimal results.
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Static stretching is an effective strategy to maintain the length of your muscles. Ideally, static stretching should be done after your workout, when your body is warmed up and your muscles have more blood flow. This results in greater elasticity, making it the perfect time to increase your muscle’s length and flexibility.
Ideally, static stretches should be held for 15 to 30 seconds, and repeated about four times for each major muscle group that you exercised. This equates to 1-2 minutes total for each muscle group. This seems like a long time, but the benefits of static stretching cannot be underestimated.
Static stretching also evokes the relaxation response, which can help minimize physical tightness in the body. If paired with mindful deep breathing it can have a positive psychological effect, meaning that you are hitting two birds with one stone after your workout!
Both static stretching and foam rolling are advantageous for recovery and reducing muscle tension after exercise. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, is best done pre-workout rather than post.
Static stretching and foam rolling can both help with a reduction in muscle pain. With an increase in blood flow also comes the reduction of lactic acid buildup in your muscles after activity, which can decrease the phenomenon known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
DOMS usually occurs one to two days after your workout, but about ten minutes of static stretching or foam rolling can help reduce this effect. Releasing tight muscles also leads to a faster recovery time, allowing you to keep up with your fitness regime and not be limited by soreness or stiffness.
To Target Key Muscle Groups
Targeting key muscle groups is possible with both stretching and foam rolling. This being said, foam rolling may be the better option in this scenario. This is due to the fact that targeting key muscle groups throughout stretching requires specific anatomical knowledge of the origin, insertion, and action of muscles in order for the muscle fibers to be optimally stretched.
Foam rolling can give a similar effect to targeted muscle stretching, and is much simpler and more accessible for individuals to achieve. It can almost feel like a massage! It is quick, easy, and does not require specialized training or knowledge for you to be effective in releasing tight or sore muscles.
Similar to foam rollers, other self-release tools exist on the market that may target tight muscles more specifically than a foam roller. For more information on for general suggestions we have you covered. If you would like more specific recommendations for , our in depth review article on those items can also provide you with more detailed information.