The use of so-called self-myofascial release (SMR) techniques during warm up prior to exercise has become popular in sports and exercise settings. Either foam rollers or roller massagers (stick rollers) are being used for this purpose. The obvious difference between the two is the amount of pressure being applied to the soft tissue, which is considerably higher in case of foam rolling due to individual’s body weight. Most of us have tried both techniques and have a certain practical experience about their effectiveness in sports and clinical practice. In general, we feel much looser after rolling our body, although foam rolling of some parts of the body could be quite uncomfortable (or even painful). But is there any evidence that foam and stick rolling is really effective – either short-term or long-term? I have reviewed the available scientific literature. I also conducted one experiment myself (it is currently under review). Here are the main findings of this literature review (also submitted for publication).

Foam rolling

McDonald et al (2013) showed that 2-minute foam rolling of quadriceps significantly increased knee joint range of motion (ROM) by 10%, without modifying knee extensor muscle strength. Mohr et al. (2014) demonstrated that six 1-minute sessions of foam rolling of hamstrings increased ROM in passive straight leg raise by 7° (p = 0.06). Healey et al. (2013) showed that 1 session of foam rolling of the lower extremities and back (each muscle group was rolled for 30 s) had no significantly different effect on strength, vertical jump power, and change-of-direction speed compared with planking exercises. Our recent study (under review) revealed a significant acute increase in knee flexion and straight leg raise of 5-9% following 2-minute (per muscle group) foam rolling of quadriceps and hamstrings in soccer players; however, after 24 hours, those values returned to pre-treatment level. Canadian group of researchers conducted 2 studies (MacDonald et al. 2014; Pearcey et al. 2015) in which they evaluated the effectiveness of foam rolling as a recovery tool following strenuous strength training (10 sets of 10 reps back squat with 60% 1RM). In the first study (MacDonald et al. 2014), they applied a randomized, parallel-group design (control and foam rolling group), and showed that foam rolling of lower body for 20 minutes immediately after, 24 hours and 48 hours after strength training session significantly reduced muscle soreness and augmented the recovery of vertical jump performance, muscle activation and range of motion in comparison with control group. In the second study (Pearcey et al. 2015), the authors applied a crossover design (same group performed the same strength training session with and without foam rolling within 4 weeks), and showed that (compared with control condition) foam rolling of lower body for 20 minutes immediately after, 24 hours and 48 hours after strength training session significantly reduced the negative effects of delayed onset of muscle soreness on movement performance – it enhanced the recovery of sprint performance, power and dynamic strength-endurance within the first 72 hours after strenuous resistance exercise.

Roller massager and stick roller

In 2002, Mikesky et al. (2002) reported that, compared to control and placebo conditions, 2-minute stick rolling of quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus and calves had no significant effect on sprint and vertical jump performance, hamstrings flexibility and quadriceps strength in college athletes. More recently, a Canadian research group evaluated the acute effects of roller-massager application to the hamstrings, quadriceps, and plantar flexors and reported (a) a 4.3% increase in sit-and-reach ROM after 10 s hamstrings rolling (Sullivan et al. 2013), (b) a 16% increase in knee flexion ROM after 60 s quadriceps rolling (Button et al. 2014), and (c) ~4% increase in dorsiflexion ROM after 3 × 30 s rolling of plantar flexors (Halperin et al. 2014).

Conclusions and practical implications

Training: this brief literature review suggests that there is good evidence that short-duration (10-120 s) foam rolling or massage rolling of lower body muscles increases hip, knee and ankle ROM by ~4-15% in recreationally active adults. Less evidence is available for athletic population. Our recent study suggests that these effects are short-lasting. Available evidence suggest that foam rolling and massage rolling have no acute effect on muscle strength, power, and athletic performance. Based on these results I recommend using a foam roller or roller massager to increase ROM during a warm-up or as a complement to stretching during flexibility training sessions.

Recovery: two recent studies with different experimental design proved that foam rolling for 20 minutes immediately after, 24 h and 48 h after strenuous strength training significantly speeds-up the recovery of strength, power and athletic performance. Although additional studies are needed on athletes, particularly to see if this also applies to other strenuous activities including actual competitive matches, I recommend using 20 min foam rolling on a high-density roller immediately after, as well as 24 hours and 48 hours after strenuous exercise as an effective recovery modality.

P.S.

I myself was not very happy with short-lasting effects of foam rolling and massage rolling on ROM. I therefore developed a new way of application of these two SMR techniques. First practical impressions are very promising and we will soon test the effectiveness of this novel modality. If you would like to learn these techniques, I recommend one of our Functional training seminars on mobility (http://www.motus-melior.hr/edukacija/seminari-i-radionice/)