The (Spotty) Science of Self Myofascial Release

It’s Sunday evening, around 10:30pm and I’m having a cup of decaf coffee and a healthy brownie that my wife made from her Dessert Angel Heavenly Recipes collection I just finished up some foam rolling and I thought to myself, “I wonder what the science says about self myofascial release?”

So I did a quick search over at Pubmed and found a couple of studies.

Here’s the abstract from study #1:

Macdonald G. et al. An Acute Bout of Self Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012, May, ePub Ahead of Print. 

ABSTRACT: Foam rolling is thought to improve muscular function, performance, overuse and joint range of motion (ROM), however, there is no empirical evidence demonstrating this. Thus, the objective of the study was to determine the effect of self-myofascial release (SMR) via foam roller application on knee extensor force and activation and knee joint range of motion. Eleven healthy male (height 178.9 ± 3.5 cm, mass 86.3 ± 7.4 kg, age 22.3 ± 3.8 years) subjects who were physically active participated. Subjects' quadriceps maximum voluntary contraction force, evoked force and activation, and knee joint ROM were measured prior to, two minutes, and 10 minutes following two conditions; 1) two, one minute trials of SMR of the quadriceps via a foam roller and 2) no SMR (Control). A two-way ANOVA (condition x time) with repeated measures was performed on all dependent variables recorded in the pre- and post-condition tests. There were no significant differences between conditions for any of the neuromuscular dependent variables. However, following foam rolling, subjects' ROM significantly (? < 0.001) increased by 10 and 8% at 2 and 10 minutes, respectively. There was a significant (? < 0.01) negative correlation between subjects' force and ROM prior to foam rolling, which no longer existed following foam rolling. In conclusion an acute bout of SMR of the quadriceps was an effective treatment to acutely enhance knee joint range of motion without a concomitant deficit in muscle performance.

While this study doesn’t have many participants (any study with less than 30 is suspect) and it’s done on an obviously homogenous population (drunken college males) , the results show that acute ROM is increased through SMR, without affecting muscular force output.

That’s a good thing.

However, the question remains, what is more effective for a warmup, SMR or dynamic mobility exercises?

My opinion is dynamic mobility, because you’ll not only get increased ROM, you’ll also get increased activation. 

That’s why nowadays, I do my SMR after workouts, especially after reading the study by Tarnopolsky out of McMaster university showing how massage post-workout increases mitochondrial regneration and decreases inflammation.

Here’s the little routine I do:

If you want to make the hArDCoRe roller I was using, check this link here.

Let me share 1 more study for you geeks in the house:

Curran et. al. A comparison of the pressure exerted on soft tissue by 2 myofascial rollers. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 2008, Nov;17(4):432-42.

CONTEXT: Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a technique used to treat myofascial restrictions and restore soft-tissue extensibility.

PURPOSE: To determine whether the pressure and contact area on the lateral thigh differ between a Multilevel rigid roller (MRR) and a Bio-Foam roller (BFR) for participants performing SMR.

PARTICIPANTS: Ten healthy young men and women.

METHODS: Participants performed an SMR technique on the lateral thigh using both myofascial rollers. Thin-film pressure sensels recorded pressure and contact area during each SMR trial.

RESULTS: Mean sensel pressure exerted on the soft tissue of the lateral thigh by the MRR (51.8 +/- 10.7 kPa) was significantly (P < .001) greater than that of the conventional BFR (33.4 +/- 6.4 kPa). Mean contact area of the MRR (47.0 +/- 16.1 cm2) was significantly (P < .005) less than that of the BFR (68.4 +/- 25.3 cm2).

CONCLUSION: The significantly higher pressure and isolated contact area with the MRR suggest a potential benefit in SMR.

Basically, the bumpy foam roller results in greater pressure with a smaller contact area.

Pretty obvious if you ask me. Or her.

How exactly do studies like this that go on to show the obvious like get funding?

It’s beyond me…

I mean shit, a harder object with little bumps is obviously going to exert more pressure than a big round piece of foam.

But I digress.

So that’s my review of the science of SMR.

Regardless of what the science says, I’ll do it and continue to do it because I just feel better doing it.

That’s gotta be worth something nowadays, don’t ya think?

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6 years ago

The topic: vibromassage vs foam rolling.

Hi, Eric.

Studying your Hip Flexibility Solution program now. So far it looks amazing to me, about to start doing it within several days.

I consider bying myself a foam roll. But before I do it I want to clearify one question.

I assume that vibromassage addresses same issues as foam rolling does. I’m nowhere near sports physicyan, but in my experience, vibromassage makes sore and tired muscles feel much better. So I have a habit of vibromassaging after workouts and I’m pretty used to it.

After I checked out your program, I figured out that it probably related to a thing called myofascial release. As well as foam rolling does.
Is it correct and, if so, which one of the two is more effective? Should I change my habit and switch to foam rolling or I may leave things as is?

6 years ago

If what you’re saying is true about increased mitochodrial regeneration and decreased inflammation from a post workout massage I might be inclined to avoid it after a Strength/Power/Speed session as increased Mito Regeneration could mean increased PGC-1-alpha, meaning possible decreases in MTOR and negative effects on Strength/Power.

8 years ago

I love SMR but do not like doing it after my workout (i.e. I’m tired and it hurts more). However, I am able to easily do several rounds of contrast therapy post-workout and am curious if I am doing myself a disservice by not rolling as well.

I understand everything in this post and appreciate your logic for suggesting to perform SMR post-workout. However, as I mentioned when I’m done my workout I just want to get out of the gym!

So, the question remains…which is better: SMR or contrast therapy or do I just suck it up and do both?

7 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Hey man. You don’t have to do everything based on science – if SMR works for you before a workout, then do it then.

Contrast therapy is great for recovery PWO so you’re probably fine.

7 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Thanks for taking the time to reply! Much appreciated 🙂