Sportspeople should consider replacing static stretch warm-ups with foam roller routines in a bid to maximise performance, a new study by the University of Stirling has suggested.
The research found that foam rolling – a self-massage technique which involves an individual applying their body weight to a neoprene-coated cylinder – leaves muscles less fatigued, compared to static stretching, and helps maintain strength when used as a warm-up routine.
Significantly, it is the first study to show that foam rolling alone – when not combined with any other warm-up routines – can have a positive benefit on muscle performance.
Dr Lewis Macgregor, Lecturer in Exercise Physiology in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, led the work. He said: “Foam rollers have arguably become the ‘must have’ gym accessory, but scientific evidence to support their use is lagging behind.
“Our research – for the first time – suggests that foam rolling offers a viable alternative warm-up technique that does not result in diminished muscle strength, which is often associated with static stretching. It shows that foam rolling may be a useful technique in helping to reduce stress and strain on muscles during exercise and, therefore, could reduce injuries.”
The research involved 16 healthy, recreationally active, male participants. Prior to the experiment, scientists measured the mechanical and contractile properties of the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris muscles in the participants’ quadriceps. They also tested for knee flexion range of motion and carried out isometric strength assessments.
Following the baseline measurements, participants either rested for two minutes – the control study – or performed two minutes of self-massage with a foam roller – the intervention. Participants were tested again immediately, and then after 15-minute and 30-minute intervals, and this process was repeated for three consecutive days.
The study concluded that the effort required to exert a pre-determined amount of muscle force reduced following a foam rolling warm-up and, as a result, the muscles were less fatigued at the end of the three days, meaning strength was maintained.
Dr Macgregor is now extending his research into the benefits of foam rolling into the clinical environment, focusing on its impact on health and pain management.
“I surmise that foam rolling prior to exercise helps to light up the pathway between the brain and the muscle, providing a better understanding of what is required,” Dr Macgregor said.
“Although speculative at this stage, this research has the potential to be applied to non-sporting applications too – offering a protective intervention against injury and muscle deterioration in ageing and clinical populations,” he added.
The study, The Effect of Foam Rolling for Three Consecutive Days on Muscular Efficiency and Range of Motion, was funded by the Scottish Institute of Sport and is published in Sports Medicine – Open.
Dr Angus Hunter and Ryan Bennett, of the University of Stirling and Dr Malcolm Fairweather, of SportScotland, collaborated on the work.