We all know there are approximately a million ways to work out. And all those ways have die-hard fans eager to tell you that their way is the best. Inevitably, there are lots of controversies about how athletes and non-athletes should work out and train. One thing that actually has a universal agreement is that all workouts should begin with a warm-up. But hey, there are probably even detractors of warmups. In case you are a naysayer, let’s go ahead and establish that warmups are a good idea. When executed properly, warmups are proven to benefit the cardiovascular system and improve bone, joint, and muscle health. Warmups for every workout and before every practice and game are always a good idea.
The best ways to warm up are, of course, hotly debated. Luckily, that’s why we have research. The field of strength and conditioning has exploded in the past couple of decades. Technology that measures health and performance has dramatically improved, which has allowed for much progress in groundbreaking research. Athletes are, without question, bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before. Much of that is credited to science.
For decades now, stretching, primarily static stretching, has been a go-to method to prepare muscles and joints for competition. Stretching is intuitive. It literally brings length to muscle, increases the joints’ ranges of motion, and feels good. However, recent scientific revelations have pointed out that stretching may not be a great idea. Prolonged static stretching has been proven to slow you down. It can reduce speed and power output and even increase the risk of injury. However, when programmed properly, it can still have its place at times. Instead, dynamic stretching has been shown to be a superior alternative to static stretching most of the time. In short, dynamic stretching is all static stretching tries to be, but without the negatives. It improves mobility, yet it’s been shown to IMPROVE strength and power, as opposed to the other way around.
If you pay attention to the strength and conditioning world at all, you’ve heard of a foam roller. You may have used one before. Foam rolling is basically a poor man’s massage. Foam rolling (and all other massage or “myofascial release” tools) allow for increased blood flow and improved range of motion to muscles and their related joints. Foam rollers have proven to be a safe and perhaps just as effective tool as stretching if one so chooses to warm up that way.
As you can guess by the title of the article, I’m about to advocate for foam rolling. Sort of.
Every morning when you wake up, your first move is to intuitively stretch. That’s because you haven’t moved in a long time. Motion is lotion, and your body ain’t lubricated. You are also dehydrated. All that creates stiff muscles and swollen joints. Not a bad thing, but it isn’t good for the movement. Those problems quickly go away once you start moving around, for the most part. But, over time, those muscles and joints can become really stiff, no matter how much you move. That’s because we all have poor postures and movement habits. If you never move in one particular direction, that part of you becomes chronically dehydrated, inviting scar tissue-ey adhesions and faulty movement patterns.
Foam rollers and the like can be practical tools for releasing these movement-ignored body parts. Foam rolling can help break up these adhesions and force new blood and hydration into these soft tissues. This allows the user to effectively warm up the area by improving its range of motion and helping it recover from various traumas.
However, a study in Germany shed a not-so-bright light on the topic of foam rolling. The study demonstrated that while foam rolling did improve ranges of motion, it was the least effective method between static and dynamic stretching. It did not have an effect on strength levels. However, some research shows that, like static stretching, prolonged foam rolling relaxes muscles and can be detrimental to athletic performance.
It is theorized that foam rolling partially increases the range of motion because it reduces the pain receptor signals to the brain, which is why it often feels good to the body. Reduced pain levels can be good or a bad thing; I’m not going to speculate.
I don’t believe that there should be a foam rolling vs. stretching debate. They are two different things, and I’m a big advocate of both dynamic stretching and foam rolling. I think they complement each other well when used properly.
Moral of the story: foam rolling is great. I advocate its use for all my personal training clients. It helps warm muscles up, improves ranges of motion, and helps release muscle groups that are tight or overactive, making it very useful for corrective exercise. It can also be used for recovery, stress relief, and better sleep. It promotes both short and long-term health. However, prolonged use, probably longer than 1 minute per muscle group and 5 minutes total, can relax the muscle group(s) too much and literally slow you down. Being slow is never good in any sport. I recommend around 30 seconds per muscle group, with the athlete doing about 3-5 muscle groups. Doing more is usually too much of a good thing. But doing none of it can leave a big hole in your programming. Following the foam rolling, I highly recommend a proper dynamic stretching routine to further warm up the joints and prepare the body for high-level activity. And that is what the absolute perfect warmup looks like.