Foam Rolling and Self-Myofascial Release, A Deep Dive. Do they really work?

Walk into any gym or training facility today and you will undoubtedly see a pile of foam rollers.  They may be lined up against a wall, neatly stored in a rack or strewn about throughout the facility.   Staring at you like a lonely girl at a high school dance.  “I’m here for a reason, come discover what wonders I hold”.  Like bunnies, if you leave two of them together you are likely to come back and find more magically appeared overnight.  Often a hybrid of their parents, now showing a new combination of colors and ridges and bumps.  Evil offspring mutating in countless variations.  There seems to be no end to the proliferation of rollers on the market, and the floors of your local gym.  Not to mention the three rollers cohabitating with me in my living room.  I’ll get off the sofa and roll on you while we watch Netflix, I promise.

With so many rollers invading our gyms and homes there must be something to them, right?  They are not just the latest fad hoisted upon us by money grubbing fitness manufacturers eager to separate us from our hard earned dollars and embraced by uneducated trainers whose idea of continuing education is Jonny Daredevil’s latest YouTube video showing how he can balance, one footed on an exercise ball while doing heavy kettlebell swings.

The good news is there really is something to them and yes, you should be using one.  And this is going to be the first of many articles looking at self-myofascial release (SMFR), foam rollers, what they do, how they really work on the body and what you should be doing with them.

Today we are talking about the effect of foam rollers on range of motion (ROM).  The first issue to get out of the way is the difference between flexibility, mobility and ROM.  For many people all three are considered the same thing.  In the olden days, say before 2010, flexibility was considered the ability of a joint to move through a full range of motion.  More recently you will find many professionals referring to flexibility being the ability of a muscle to lengthen.  Only one factor that can impact the ability of a joint to move through a full range of motion.

Neurological factors, joint capsules, ligaments, bone and other soft tissues can all be elements that limit the ability of a joint to move.  When all taken together, along with the capacity of muscles to lengthen, you get mobility, the ability of a joint to move through a range of motion.

So what’s different then between mobility and ROM?  In my humble opinion, nothing really.  Range of motion is just more of a clinical term that you see used in research and medical/rehabilitation settings describing the measurement of the motion of joint, the degree of angular motion.  Mobility is more of an applied term talking about the ability of the joint to move through a functional range of motion in everyday life and activity.  Of course this is open to endless debate and a bunch of drunken trainers sitting around a bar at night during a convention will argue how wrong I am and distinctly different the terms are.  What will it mean to you the exerciser, the trainer, the coach, absolutely nothing.

What does matter is how effective foam rollers and self-myofascial release (SMFR) are on increasing mobility/ROM/Flexibility/that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you can actually touch your toes.  So let’s take a look at what the research is really telling us.

The Research

Su et al. (2016) compared the effects of foam rolling, static stretching and dynamic stretching on ROM and peak torque for a knee extension and a knee flexion movement.  They used a Thomas test to measure quadriceps flexibility and a sit and reach test to measure hamstrings flexibility.  To test peak torque they used an isokinetic device at 60°/per second.  What this means to the non-research geek is they used a machine that allowed the subject to extend or flex their leg at the knee at a constant speed of 60°/per second, as hard as they could.  So what did they find?  Flexibility improved significantly more with the foam rolling as compared to the static or dynamic stretching.  Score one for foam rolling.  As for muscle strength the foam rolling and dynamic stretching groups improved on the knee extension.  This did not happen for the static stretching group and none of the groups saw improvement or a decrease in flexion performance after the intervention.  Why does this matter?  It says that foam rolling before activity does not reduce strength and performance afterwards, making it a beneficial warm up/prep activity.

Halperin et al. (2014) looked at range of motion and force production at the ankle and compared foam rolling to static stretching.  They used three 30 second bouts of either a hand held foam roller massager or static stretching.  There were flexibility improvements in both groups immediately after the intervention as well as ten minutes later.  Similar to the previous study there was an improvement in peak force in the foam roller group while the static stretching group saw a decrease.  This difference was significant 10 minutes later.  Again suggesting that foam rolling improves ROM while preserving or improving strength.

One of the interesting aspects of static stretching is that there is a measurable effect in the limb that was not stretched.  This is called a cross-over effect.  Kelly and Beardsley (2016) performed a study to determine if SMFR via foam rolling would create the same sort of cross-over effect as static stretching does.  They measured dorsiflexion (think pulling your foot and toes back towards your shin) on 26 subjects and had half of them perform 3 bouts of 30 seconds of foam rolling on their planter flexors (think calf muscles that make you point your foot down, like stepping on the gas or going up on your toes) on their dominant leg.  They took repeat measurements at 5, 10, 15 and 20 minutes after the subjects either performed the rolling or rested.  Significant increases in ROM were seen for at least 20 minutes in the leg on which SMFR was performed and up to 10 minutes on the uninvolved leg.  While the changes were not large they were statistically significant and suggest that a cross-over effect does exist.  This could mean that when a limb is injured/restricted, some positive impact can be had upon it through rolling the uninjured side.

Murray et al. (2016) looked at the effect of a single, 60 second bout of foam rolling on flexibility, muscle contractility and temperature.  The authors did find a statistically significant improvement in flexibility following foam rolling but they felt that the change was small enough as to not be of much practical relevance.  They did not find any changes in muscle contractility or temperature.

While the research up to now how shown a ROM benefit to using foam rollers for SMFR not all studies are in agreement.  Couture et al. (2015) found no improvements.  They used both short sets of rolling for 10 seconds as well as multiple longer 30 second bouts.  As we will discuss, the type of roller, amount of pressure, length of time and how ROM was measured can all be factors why this study found different results then other research.  They were one of the only studies to perform a pure knee extension measurement independent of contributions of the low back or other joints to hamstring flexibility.

Vigotsky et al. (2015) examined the effect of foam rolling on knee flexion and hip extension along with rectus femoris length during a modified Thomas test.  The authors did find changes in hip extension but not in knee flexion or muscle length.  Although they did find a statistically significant change in hip extension they did not feel comfortable concluding that foam rolling was responsible for the change.  The lack of change of muscle length suggested to the authors that the measured improvements in hip extension were more likely due to changes in stretch tolerance instead of changes in tissue length.  It was also noted that there was considerable variation between test subjects.  Some experienced hip extension increases, some didn’t and some had decreases.  This is complicated by variable changes in knee flexion.  Again some subjects had an increase while others saw decrease or no change which posed the question, were changes in knee flexion responsible for changes in hip extension (did reducing knee flexion allow for greater hip extension).  The type of force that was applied could also account for variations between this study and others. In the Thomas test it is only the weight of the subjects leg that was used to elicit a measurement, no outside force was applied by the examiner.  There was also a lengthy warm up period that could have impacted the results. The variation in warm up from study to study could be a major factor in difference in results.

Behara and Jacobson (2015) were the first researches to use the Rumble Roller as the SMFR tool.  The Rumble Roller has raised nodules that are designed to stimulate deeper layers of muscle tissue and stretch muscle and fascia is multiple directions.  It can be a more intense rolling experience for individuals new to foam rolling.  The authors found significant increases in ROM of 15.6%, similar to the results they found in subjects using dynamic stretching.  They did not find any significant changes or reductions in muscle force or power, similar to other studies.

Up to now the studies reviewed have looked at the acute effects of SMFR.  Junker and Stoggl (2015) looked at the impact of a four week foam rolling program as compared to contract-relax PNF (CRPNF) and a control group.  They found that a treatment dose of 3 times per week for 3 bouts of 30-40 seconds of rolling produced long term improvements in hamstring flexibility.  The results were similar for subjects who performed CRPNF.  This suggests a longer term cumulative flexibility benefit to incorporating foam rolling as a regular part of a training program.

Skarabot and Beardsley (2015) compared foam rolling to foam rolling in combination with static stretching and static stretching alone in resistance trained adolescent swimmers with at least six months experience foam rolling.  While a variety of different subject pools have been used in other studies this was the first to use individuals experienced in foam rolling.  The greatest improvements in flexibility were found in the foam rolling in addition to static stretching group.  The benefits of all test groups were found to only be significant immediately following treatment.  At ten minutes there were no differences from the baseline measurements.  This study raises the question of if a combination treatment approach with a reduced volume of static stretching could be used to maximize flexibility improvements while limiting the performance decreases seen with static stretching.

Bushell et al. (2015) looked at the effect of foam rolling on hip extension when there is a stretch placed on the rest of the frontal plane, meaning when the subject is in a dynamic lunge position.  While it is great to see improvements in ROM in passive stretch positions, the impact on flexibility interventions on actual dynamic movement, when multiple muscle groups and their associated firing patterns are in play is far more impactful in real life and activity.  After an initial treatment and measurement day the experimental group rolled for five days before retesting.  There was no long term benefits from rolling but at the second testing date the rolling subjects did show improvement in their second measured lunge immediately after rolling. This supported the idea that the benefits of rolling are limited to the short term.  The increased immediate improvement from the first day of testing to the second day of testing suggests that a week of rolling in between allowed the subjects to get used to the discomfort of rolling and this allowed them to achieve greater immediate benefits from rolling at the second session.  The test group also reported positive feelings

Peacock et al. (2015) were the first to compare different foam rolling techniques.  They had half their subjects roll along the mediolateral axis (sagital plane; low back, medial glutes, hamstrings, posterior calf, pecs and quads) and half their subjects roll along the anteroposterior axis (frontal plane; lats, obliques, lateral hip, iliotibial band, lateral calf and adductors).  Subjects were then tested in a serious of performance drills similar to the NFL combine (vertical jump, broad jump, shuttle run, bench press) as well as the sit and reach test.  They did not see any significant differences in any of the performance tests.  There was a difference in the sit and reach test with the mediolateral axis subjects showing more improvement.  While this study did not determine if foam rolling improved testing performance it did suggest that the approach towards rolling may not make any difference and subjects can roll whatever axis/plane they prefer.

The difference between five rounds of 20 second repetitions of rolling and five rounds of 60 second repetitions of rolling was investigated by Bradbury-Squires et at. (2015). The authors used a roller massager as opposed to a foam roller.  They found their subjects had 10% and 16% greater ranges of motion at the knee in the 20 second and 60 second groups as compared to a control group, suggesting that longer periods of rolling may elicit greater immediate improvements in ROM.  EMG activity was also measured during a lunge after the rolling and muscle activation levels were lower in both then 20 and 6o seconds groups as compared to the control subjects. The authors interpreted this as increased neuromuscular efficiency with the 60 second roller group showing greater changes then the 20 second group.  While this is a very interesting and useful study, the biggest problem I find with it, as in many of the other studies is that in the real world very few individuals do multiple rounds of rolling.  You may be able to program someone to do 6o seconds instead of 20 seconds but rarely will individuals follow directions to do multiple rounds of rolling on the same body part.  I am left asking what would the results be with just a single round of rolling?

Halperin et al. (2014) looked at ankle ROM and force production when a hand held roller massager was used.  They compared static stretching to the roller massage and found that while both improved ROM at 1 min after treatment there was a statistically significant improvement between the two approaches at 10 min with the roller group showing greater ankle ROM. They also found that the roller group had significantly improved force production at 10 minutes as compared to the static stretch group.  This study used three sets of 30 seconds with a 10 second rest in between.

Mohr et al. (2014) looked at passive hip flexion when comparing static stretching, foam rolling, both performed together and a control group.  Their subjects performed the interventions daily over the course of six days.  All three of their test groups saw significant improvements with the combined rolling and static stretching group showing the greatest change.  What was particularly interesting about their subject population was they had less than 90° of passive hip flexion prior to the study.  This raises the question of the impact of rolling and other interventions on individuals who are showing deficiencies before treatment as opposed to well trained individuals who have more optimal ranges of motions.  Perhaps the amount of benefit someone sees from SMFR may have to do with their individual state and the trained, flexible athlete should expect a smaller overall improvement then the inflexible average person who is new to training and self care.

One of the common uses of foam rolling is to reduce muscle soreness and improve function after activity, especially in the days that follow an intense bout of exercise.  Macdonald ET at. (2014) explored this notion of foam rolling as recovery tool.  After a 10×10 squat protocol designed to create exercise-induced muscle damage test subjects performed a foam rolling protocol immediately after, at 24 hours and at 48 hours.  They found that foam rolling significantly reduced muscle soreness/pain at all time points along with improving ROM.  The authors also found improvements in tests of power and muscle activation in the FR group as compared to their control group.  They concluded the improvements were achieved primarily through the impact of the rolling on connective tissue along with neural responses.

Pearcey et al. (2015) also looked at the effect of foam rolling on exercise induced muscle soreness.  Also utilizing a 10×10 squat protocol to induce muscle damage, the authors had subjects perform 20 minutes of foam rolling of the lower extremity after the squat session and at 24, 48 and 72 hours.  The subjects also retested on a measure of pain, sprint speed, power, change of direction speed and dynamic strength endurance before each foam rolling session.  Improvements in pressure-induced pain were found at all time points for the foam rolling group.  Subjects also saw increased performance measures in all tests except for change of direction speed.  While retesting each measure at each time marker seems to be a bit overkill to see if foam rolling improved recovery the results do strongly show that at all times there are benefits to rolling.

In another study MacDonald et al. (2013) measured knee ROM and quadriceps muscle performance.  At 2 minutes post intervention they found 10.6° improvements in ROM and at 10 minutes there were still 8.8°improvements.  Those values represent a 12.7% and 10.2% improvement.  Individual results varied from a minimum of 4° to almost 20°.  They also found no decreases in any of their measures of muscle power and performance.  This study utilized two 1-minute bouts of rolling.

One of the biggest questions regarding utilizing rollers is how long should one roll?  Most studies have utilized multiple bouts of 30 or 60 seconds in their studies.  While this is fine in a research setting, in reality most people are not going to do 3 to 5 sets of rolling of the same body part.  Sullivan et al. (2013) attempted to answer some of this question in their study utilizing either one or two sets of 5 or 10 seconds of rolling with a hand held roller-massager.  They found ROM improvements of 4.3% with a trend towards the 10 second bouts having a greater effect.  To the casual reader 4.3% may not sound like a lot but it is a significant change and to achieve it with only 10 seconds of rolling suggests a real world intervention that is quick, easy to do and effective.

Most foam rolling studies that examine performance measures compare the rolling group to a static stretching group.  Healey et al. (2014) compared the a foam rolling group to a planking group and then measured vertical jump height and power, isometric force and agility along with muscle soreness, fatigue and perceived exertion.  There were no improvements in athletic performance in the foam rolling group as compared to the planking group.  This continues to support the notion that while rolling may not improve performance, unlike static stretching it will not decrease performance.  This study did not look at range of motion improvements so if that is an objective of the individual rolling this study in combination with those that did measure ROM supports utilizing SMFR to avoid negative impacts on performance.  The rolling subjects in this study did report lower perceived fatigue after their testing which could allow for extended workout times and volumes leading to more performance enhancements over time.

In an entirely different physiological arena, Okamoto et al. (2014) looked at the impact of foam rolling on arterial function.  Stiff arteries are associated with increased cardiovascular risks.    They contribute to elevated systolic blood pressure and left ventricular hypertrophy.  The researchers examined if SMFR with a foam roller would have any effect on arterial stiffness and vascular endothelial function, a related measure that impacts stiffness and can be accessed through plasma nitric oxide (NO) concentrations.  Measurements taken after a 15 minutes roller session showed significant decreases in arterial stiffness and increases in plasma NO concentrations (a good thing).  These results suggest a meaningful beneficial impact of foam rolling on cardiovascular function.  In theory long term benefits from rolling could improve baseline arterial stiffness though longer term studies need to be conducted to determine this.  This study also utilized young healthy subjects so the impact of rolling on other populations also needs to be examined before to broad of an interpretation of the results is made.

Limitations of the research:

While the overall trend in the research shows that foam rolling clearly has benefits there are many factors which limit the extent to which we can interpret the results from the research.  Most of the studies are done with a fairly small number of subjects.  There are enough to find statistically significant results but there are limitations to how powerful the results are from a study with 10-20 subjects as compared to one with hundreds of subjects.  While these studies have lower subject numbers, the consistent results across a number of studies helps balance this limitation and suggest that the results are valid.

There may also be issues with the gender of subjects.  Studies done on one gender may not have the same results on the other gender and studies done with a mix of genders may not have enough subjects of any one gender to have enough power to be generalized to all individuals.

Most of these studies are done on younger subjects who are fitter and have less history of injury.  The results of a study on adolescents or young adults may not be the same with older adults.  There are also issues of the level of training/fitness in the subjects as well as previous experience with foam rolling.  Fit, athletic individuals, who are usually subjects, can respond quite differently then out of shape, untrained individuals.

Then there are issues pertaining to the specific variables of the study.  How many sets of rolling were done and for how long?  If a study used three sets of rolling but in real life someone is only doing one set will they see the same results?  How long did the subjects in the study roll?  Are the results transferable to shorter times?  Are the benefits greater for longer rolling periods?  Some studies did show benefits from very short duration interventions which is quite promising but there are limits to how far those results can be extrapolated.  There are questions regarding the amount of force used in the rolling, the amount of rest time between sets, the pace of rolling, length of rolling (short strokes over part of the muscle vs. long strokes the length of the muscle), the type of roller used and the particular muscles rolled.

While it wasn’t discussed in this article, most of the studies had subjects perform some form of warm up prior to rolling.  Many of the benefits of rolling are also seen in various warm ups and we need to ask if particular warm ups prior to rolling impact its effectiveness or if a warm up should even be done prior to rolling or after.  And if warm ups are a factor the type and duration of warm up needs to be considered.

Then the issue of what type of measurement is being taken and if it accurately reflects the results of rolling.  For the same joint and muscle groups more than one measurement technique can be used and different studies used these different measurements.  Are some more appropriate than others?  While a measurement technique may have previously been shown to be valid, showing a result in that particular type of measurement doesn’t necessarily mean an improvement in mobility during dynamic training activity will be found.  Some medications can be shown to lower blood pressure but they do not lower the risk and rate of heart attack and stroke.  Some rolling techniques and measurements may show positive results in the lab but that doesn’t mean they have the same benefit during actual training.

There are also questions regarding the long term results of a rolling intervention.  Immediate changes were well measured as were a number of time intervals after the intervention but there is very little material regarding the long term permanent benefits.  Does a regular rolling program over a period of weeks result in lasting changes in mobility or are the results only applicable in the shorter term and should be viewed primarily as pre-event activity.  Some of the research did start to look at longer term recovery factors and the results are positive but there still needs to be a good deal of investigation of the impact of rolling on recovery and how it should be used post activity.

Now after asking all those questions about the research you are probably sitting there saying, “Did I just waste my time reading all of the summaries?  There are so many issues not answered in the research”.   Yes there are a lot of questions left to answer but there are always are.  The general trend in a fairly sizeable body of literature suggests that foam rolling is the real deal and worth considering as part of a well rounded training program.  Does it mean you should stop doing other types of mobility, warm up and recovery work?  No, there are still benefits to other interventions but you can’t ignore that rolling has a place and in some instances may be a better choice than other activities.

How it works:

If your eyes aren’t glazed over from reading everything up to now you may find yourself asking, “Seth, I get it, foam rolling works but how does it work?”  Well, I’ll take a long pause here while you prepare to hit your head against the wall, we aren’t entirely sure.  There are a number of different theories as to what mechanisms are at work that seem to be physiologically sensible and it would be a safe bet to say that a combination of the following mechanisms are behind the benefits but we cannot say for certainty which mechanism is really responsible.

Mechanisms of action are primarily broken down into either mechanical or neurophysiological.

Mechanical actions

The first explanation has to do with the material nature of fascia.  A simple explanation is that fascia consists of collagen and elastin fibers along with ground substance which acts as a lubricant around the other fibers.  Ground substance is a viscous material that can go from a very fluid state to a firmer more jelly like character.  When tissues are injured, little used or often just old the ground substance can become a harder, more solid like gel and even dry up, limiting motion.  When heat or pressure is applied to tissue, specifically ground substance, it can make it less dense and more fluid like.  This process is called thixotrophy and a roller is a mechanism through which the necessary heat and pressure can be applied to create this affect.

Foam rollers also act on the tissues by compressing them like you would squeeze a sponge, allowing them to rehydrate as the force is taken off of a location.  The roller can also mechanically create motion between layers of fascia, break collagen bonds through mechanical force, break down fascial adhesions, release fascial trigger points and increase blood and lymph flow.

Neurophysiological actions

The pressure applied from a roller can influence various neural receptors.  Through a process known as autogenic inhibition the roller can stimulate Golgi tendon organ receptors which will inhibit signals from the muscle spindles, resulting in a decrease in muscle tension.  Rolling can also stimulate other neural receptors resulting in a reduction of pain and a relaxation of muscle tissues.  Rolling appears to improve stretch tolerance similar to static stretching allowing for greater ranges of motion.

Improvements in performance are suggested through decreases in neural inhibition as well as better communication from afferent receptors found in connective tissue.  The phosphorylation of myosin regulatory light chains has also been suggested as an explanation for improvements in performance.  This means an increase in the rate of engagement of cross bridges resulting in increased force development and contraction magnitudes on subsequent contractions.  Essentially an increased contractile response.

While we cannot pinpoint the exact mechanism for change with rolling for any given individual, our understanding of these various tissues, receptors and mechanisms of action allow us to say with a fair degree of confidence that some combination of these factors are responsible for the benefits we see with SMFR and rolling.

So there you go.  A pile of research strongly suggesting self myofascial release and foam rolling are beneficial activities to add to your training programs.  Now go out and explore that ever growing pile of rollers in your local gym or training center.  There is no reason to be afraid of them and you just may find yourself feeling and moving better.

Works Cited:

Behara B, Jacobson BH. (2015). The Acute Effects of Deep Tissue Foam Rolling and Dynamic Stretching on Muscular Strength, Power, and Flexibility in Division I Linemen. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jun 24.

Bradbury-Squires DJ, Noftall JC, Sullivan KM, Behm DG, Power KE, Button DC. (2015). Roller-massager application to the quadriceps and knee-joint range of motion and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge. J Athl Train. Feb;50(2):133-40.

Bushell JE, Dawson SM, Webster MM. (2015)Clinical Relevance of Foam Rolling on Hip Extension Angle in a Functional Lunge Position. J Strength Cond Res. Sep;29(9):2397-403.

Couture G, Karlik D, Glass SC, Hatzel BM. (2015). The Effect of Foam Rolling Duration on Hamstring Range of Motion. Open Orthop J. Oct 2;9:450-5.

Halperin I, Aboodarda S.J., Button D,  Andersen L, Behm D. (2014). Roller Massager Improves Range of Motion of Plantar Flexor Muscules Without Subsequent Decreases in Force Parameters. Int J Sports Phys Ther. Feb;9(1): 92-102.

Healey KC, Hatfield DL, Blanpied P, Dorfman LR, Riebe D. (2014). The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. J Strength Cond Res. Jan;28(1):61-8.

Junker DH, Stöggl TL. (2015). The Foam Roll as a Tool to Improve Hamstring Flexibility.  J Strength Cond Res. Dec:29(12):3480-5

Kelly S, Beardsley C. (2016). Specific and Cross-Over Effects of Foam Rolling on Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Aug;11(4):544-51.

Macdonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. (2014). Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Jan;46(1):131-42.

MacDonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, Cuconato AL, Drake CD, Behm DG, Button DC. (2013). An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res. Mar;27(3):812-21.

Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. (2014). Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion. J Sport Rehabil. Nov;23(4):296-9.

Okamoto T, Masuhara M, Ikuta K. (2014). Acute effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roller on arterial function. J Strength Cond Res. Jan;28(1):69-73.

Peacock CA, Krein DD, Antonio J, Sanders GJ, Silver TA, Colas M. (2015). Comparing Acute Bouts of Sagittal Plane Progression Foam Rolling vs. Frontal Plane Progression Foam Rolling. J Strength Cond Res. Aug;29(8):2310-5.

Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG, Button DC. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train. Jan;50(1):5-13.

Škarabot J, Beardsley C, Štirn I. (2015). Comparing the effects of self-myofascial release with static stretching on ankle range-of-motion in adolescent athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther. Apr;10(2):203-12.

Su H, Chang NJ, Wu WL, Guo LY, Chu IH. (2016). Acute Effects of Foam Rolling, Static Stretching and Dynamic Stretching During Warm-Ups on Muscular Felxibility and Strength in Young Adults. J Sport Rehabil. Oct 13:1-24.

Sullivan KM, Silvey DB, Button DC, Behm DG. (2013). Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments. Int J Sports Phys Ther. Jun;8(3):228-36.
Vigotsky AD, Lehman GJ, Contreras B, Beardsley C, Chung B, Feser EH. (2015). Acute effects of anterior thigh foam rolling on hip angle, knee angle, and rectus femoris length in the modified Thomas test. PeerJ. 2015 Sep 24;3.

A Roadmap To Fitness

Olympic weight lifting, running, powerlifting, cycling, CrossFit, yoga, Pilates, swimming, body building, high intensity intervals, classic strength training, functional training, kettlebells, bodyweight, suspension training…the list goes on for different training techniques and approaches.  It’s difficult enough for an experienced professional to determine the best path for a client.  For the average individual it’s a confusing mix of names and sometimes very conflicting approaches to achieving fitness, or whatever someone’s individual goals are.

Most trainers/coaches tend to take the “I have a hammer, every client is a nail” approach and train whoever comes through the door with whatever techniques they tend to emphasize and practice.  If they teach yoga everyone needs yoga, if they coach kettlebells then that is tool that everyone is going to be driven towards.  Even multi-modality approaches like crossfit which use a mix of bodyweight/gymnastics/Olympic/power lifting still have a particular flavor that uniquely defines them. More educated and experienced trainers will have a larger variety of tools and approaches to pull from and have a more flexible approach towards training different types of clients but still tend to have approaches that define how they work and train clients.

If professional coaches have a hard time successfully adapting their training style to best meet the individual needs of a client, how do we expect the general public to intelligently pick the right trainer for them, let alone pick the right type of fitness practice to pursue either with a coach or on their own?

After nearly 25 years of coaching a wide range of clients I’ve begun thinking of choosing the right path to fitness like my drive to work.  I drive approximately 18 miles from my home to my gym.  That distance allows for a variety of different routes that I can choose.  Of those countless choices, there are three main highway routes that I can most logically take.  Regardless of all the other options, the quickest, most efficient path is always going to be one of these three routes.

For each of these routes there are multiple ways I can get from my home to the highway however for each main highway route, there are usually two most logical, efficient routes to the highway.  Under normal circumstances picking any way except one of the two main routes just doesn’t make sense.  Still, there are many times that local traffic blocks my first choices and I have to circle around another way.

Once I’ve made my way to my preferred highway path I may encounter any number of problems.  Heavy traffic, an accident, road work, bad weather, flooding or a lack of visibility (ok my drive to work isn’t that fraught with danger but in theory it could be and there is a great chance that traffic and accidents will certainly be a factor).  So on any given day I could choose to get off at any number of exits and take any of dozens of surface streets around the delay and get back on the highway further along or even take those surface streets all the way to my final location.

Usually I will get to work fastest if I stay on the highway but other times one of the side routes on surface streets will be a quicker, more sensible path for me to take.  Now that you’ve all learned about my horrible commute to work, what does it have to do with choosing the right type of exercise for you?  Well, it has a lot because whether you are choosing a type of exercise, a specific trainer for that technique or are coaches choosing the right approach for your client that decision is just like my decision about how to get to work.

Instead of starting from geographical location, your home, you are starting from your current level of fitness, or lack of it.  And instead of heading to work, your final destination is your fitness goal.  It may be a clearly defined objective like losing 25 lbs, running a marathon, bench pressing 225 lbs or a more subjectively defined goal like not having back pain, being able to go for a run without losing your breath, fitting into clothes that used to be tight, performing your favorite sport better or just feeling stronger and fitter.

Now that we have a starting point and a destination the first big question is what main route are you going to take?  If your end objective is a clearly defined activity like running or swimming then it is pretty clear that the path you should be taking most of the time involves performing that activity (don’t worry, there are still reasons to use the other routes to support your main path, we’ll get to that in a further down).  If you happen to love doing a particular type of exercise and are drawn to it than that will be the main path.  If you want to do yoga then any reason I give for doing a different form of exercise is secondary to your desire to do yoga and you should be on that route.

If your fitness goals would best be served through some form of resistance training then you are going to follow those routes but there are still multiple ones to choose from leaving the question, which one is most efficient?  Which one is right for me?  Unless your final location clearly reveals that one path is the optimal one or you happen to have enough knowledge on the subject to analyze the options then you are probably going to be steered onto a particular path by whatever outside influence you happen to consult .  It could be a friend, family member or trainer at your local gym.  Whatever approach they prefer using is the path you are going to be put on.  For the professional coach deciding what to do with a new client we would like to think that they would do a careful analysis of your situation and choose the route best suited to you but in reality they are going to put you on a path and train you based on whatever their education, experience and personal preferences are.  It might be a great path for you, it might be totally wrong for you or more likely will have some benefits but not necessarily be the quickest or optimal path for you.

The reality is there probably isn’t going to be one optimal route to follow but like my choice of three main routes to get to work, there will be a number of different main routes that get you from your starting point to your objective and they will all be roughly equally effective.  It doesn’t matter which one you take but you will probably find a preference for one over the other.  Now you are most likely sitting there thinking “Seth, you just spent two pages telling me it doesn’t really matter which path I take.  I want those five minutes of my life back”.  Yes, we just took a non-optimal route getting to this point but don’t worry, things are about to get much more complicated.

Even though I’ve just said you can pick any of a few main routes to get to your objective, and that you are going to pick one primary path there are still benefits to sometimes taking the time to drive one of the other routes.  Just like an event at a the local arena or road work may make you choose to drive a different way to work, you are often best served by getting off your main exercise approach and spending some time using a different approach.  Just like an alternative driving route to work avoids certain temporary problems and has different scenery, a different training path offers different stimulus to your body that may allow you to work around problems, emphasize some other elements that improvement in will serve you on your journey and the variety, the different scenery, is helpful in keeping things mentally stimulating.  Sometimes you just need to spend a short period of time driving this other fitness route, sometimes it will be a longer period of time and often you will be choosing to drive one main route some days of the week and another route other days.

Now what about those multiple routes to get on the highway in the first place?  Just like you need to take a little time getting from your house to the highway, you can’t just get in your car, step on the gas pedal and start driving highway speeds in the middle of your residential neighborhood you can’t go from sitting on your sofa to exercising at full intensity with great form.  You may have injuries that need to be addressed before you can do certain exercises.   You could have movement limitations that need to be addressed.  There might be painful issues that need to be first corrected and you need to learn the basic techniques of the movements you are going to be doing.  And don’t forget your muscles and neurological system need time to adapt to the new demands you are placing on them.  We’ve all been sore from doing more than we were ready to do at some time.

Is there just one way to do this preparatory work?  Of course not.  There are a few main ways to get to the highway from your house and there are going to be a few ways to break yourself back into exercise.  They will probably involve the activities you are going to ultimately be performing, the exception being correcting movement limitations and addressing necessary rehabilitation prior to regular exercise.  For most people this drive to the highway, the preparatory work is going to be a fairly quick process lasting just a few weeks though for many individuals these activities are going to be the main routes to their goal.  There are no shortages of people with significant injuries, pain and limitations and resolving them is the big final destination.

Now let’s say you have done your preparatory work and have made it to the highway of fitness.  Some days you take you main route; in this example let’s say it is a classic strength training approach.  Because you are smart and carefully read everything above, one day a week you take a different highway route, perhaps a yoga class.  There are also days when you are only doing the short drive to the highway and not actually getting on.  These would be days that we might consider “recovery days” where you are focusing on just that preparatory work, mobility and taking care of your body.  But we mentioned that you can get off the highway at any point and take any number of surface streets.  In this example if classic strength training utilizing barbells and dumbbells are your main highway path, those surface streets might be a workout designed around suspension training, bodyweight or kettlebells.  It could be using the same tools (barbells/dumbbells) you were using but applying them differently doing a period of powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting.

For the experienced athlete or coach these changes would be planned out and part of a periodized training program.  Planed periods of time in the overall training plan that are designed to train different elements.  Elements that are related but still different and ultimately build upon each other to help the person maximize their results.  Traditionally we talk about hypertrophy (muscle growth), muscular endurance, strength and power but as time has gone by the list of objectives has grown to include other elements.  For the average person trying to improve their fitness there are benefits to training these different skills and objectives but they can be a bit more relaxed as to how they are integrated into the overall program. Instead of a carefully planned detour onto another path for a prescribed set of weeks it might just be the occasional change in route to mix things up and present something new to the body.

So even if you drive a particular main road to work, take a different highway once or twice a week for different stimulus, there still may be times you pull off to take those surfaces streets.  It would be great if it was always like the above paragraph and a well planned detour onto those roads but very often it is the result of unplanned consequences.  Just as weather and accidents and the like force me off the highway on the way to work, gym closings, holidays, work and family conflicts and injuries will force you off of your chosen path.  Force you to take some surface streets.  Change your training focus for a day or period of time.  You can be upset and curse at the traffic gods or see this as an opportunity to address something different.  To pay some attention to some aspect of training that you normally would not focus on so much.  If you are lucky it is just a short term detour and you get back on the highway fairly quickly, hopefully better for your detour.  Sometimes however you can’t get back on the highway.  Perhaps your make and model car are suddenly forbidden from driving on that highway (yes I know, that doesn’t happen, just go with the analogy for now).  No matter how much you want to drive that Jeep Grand Cherokee on the highway you are just not allowed and every time you get on it the police pull you over and force you off.  On your path to fitness it won’t be a car model that is forbidden but perhaps an injury that changes things for you on a permanent basis.  You might have been a runner before, or enjoyed heavy squatting and deadlifting but a particular knee injury could mean that you can never do those activities again or do them at the intensity and frequency with which you previously did.  Usually with an injury we hope the temporary detour onto surface streets allows you to rehab and get back to normal but sometimes there is a new permanent normal that doesn’t allow you back on the previous road.  For some people this injury might have happened before they even began their exercise program and certain routes are off limits to them from the beginning.  In these cases you either need to be on other highways or able to get off of a particular highway at the same point all of the time and take those surface streets the rest of the way to your destination.  It may be slower driving but you will still get there.

Many people never get off their main highway path.  Doing the exact same things day in day out, week after week, month after month.  Something we are starting to clearly see is a problem.  Many trainers have the opposite problem and they never clearly define a route for their clients to take and every day is a new search through the map and a totally random path taken.  As there has been a proliferation of new, less educated and experienced trainers/coaches coming into the field, many without a solid background in exercise science this has become a bigger and bigger problem.  It is not difficult to pick some exercises and make someone do them.  It is not difficult to make someone work hard and feel intense effort.  Doing those things for clearly defined purposes, with a clear path towards an objective however is becoming a rarer and rarer thing.  You don’t generally drive somewhere without knowing where you are going and how you are going to get there.  Your training shouldn’t be completely random either.  Now this doesn’t mean that general workouts, random boot camps and the like are all bad. Quite the opposite, they can be very stimulating, fun and contribute towards reaching your objectives.  You just have to recognize them for what they are, a stand alone good workout.  If you want to get somewhere specific you can have some of them as part of your plan but to do nothing but them, while still a particular highway path, is not going to be the most direct or effective one or even get you all the way to where you want to be.  And if you are choosing a trainer, one who only trains this way, is probably not the most educated, experienced or effective trainer.  They may make you feel like you are working hard but we’ve established, that is not difficult to do.  This doesn’t mean that younger and less experienced trainers aren’t good. I’ve met countless amazing ones.  What separates them from the pack, their desire to know not just things to do, but also why they are choosing those exercises/movements, how they work on a physiological level, how they are applying those exercises for specific objectives and how they are best integrated into a well thought out plan.

So there you have it, a roadmap to fitness.  Long, complex, often confusing and full of different elements that sometimes seem conflicting (sounds more like a relationship then an exercise plan).   Is there one best way to go?  Absolutely not.  Do different people need different paths?  Without question.  Do the best plans include different routes and a plan to use them?  Yes.  Do you have to be flexible and able to change routes for unforeseen issues? You better be.  Do fitness professionals know the best way to get you where you need to be?  Sometimes but often not, they can be as lost and confused as you.  The best of them, and there are plenty of good ones, do know how to read the map and more optimally guide you.

Now get up and get moving.  You can’t reach that destination sitting there.