Monday, March 10, 2014

Stretching, Foam Rolling, and the Warm-Up

Dat Polovnikov stretch

Back in November, my friend sent me this wonderful message,

"yo niel
whats good, playa
i was thinking about your blog
and myself
and i was like id love for niel to post on stretching
and foam rolling
what are your thoughts"

Delays aside from writing this, stretching and foam rolling are topics I generally avoid. Over time, I've found there is a ridiculous amount of information on each. Dive into the subjects and be wary of "paralysis by analysis." I'll take it step-by-step, but will only have a superficial discussion without getting into the minute details that are outside my scope. 

First, I'll cover types of stretching and joint mobility, then move on to foam rolling, and wrap it up with application.


There are various forms of stretching. I believe the original question was in regards to passive/static stretching. For a set amount of time, a person holds a fixed position - with or without external assistance - to place the muscle into the end range of extension and/or flexion. Often, this is performed before or after a training session in the warm-up/cool down or outside the workout window for recovery or flexibility purposes.

The planted foot is held down to stretch the calf muscles

Usually, static stretching is associated with increased flexibility and was the popular method for of warming up for athletic activities. To some extent, the latter has fallen out of style in favor of dynamic stretching (explained below). In respect to flexibility and muscle lengthening, it's not 100% accurate. Static stretching a muscle won't impose any permanent effect, especially not a substantial change under short durations. The body is a complex system. Inflexibility at one site might be due to an issue elsewhere on the body. For instance, "tight" hamstrings can be due to a combination of the hamstrings and abdominal muscles' weakness in comparison to the strong quadriceps and hip flexors. By strengthening the appropriate muscles, said "tightness" would be reduced without the incorporation of static stretching.

Likewise, becoming proficient at exercises - like the squat - naturally enhances flexibility. Better flexibility improves positions in the exercises (developed ankle and hip mobility = a deeper squat). Progressing on exercises and spending time on them creates a positive feedback increasing your stretch tolerance.

Greg Lehman puts it very well here:
"You will have a greater range of motion after you stretch for a bunch of weeks BUT this does not mean the muscle is less stiff or longer.  Rather, that muscle (more accurately your nervous system/brain) has increased its stretch tolerance.  Your brain and nerves just let you move further."
Also before stretching, it's important to be aware of what is going to stretched. Stretching an area that doesn't need it or has an underlying issue can aggravate it.

I wouldn't write off static stretching altogether. Personally, I've found - and have read elsewhere - that a regular static stretching routine prior to bed improves sleep quality. If you like your static stretching, pre-bedtime might be the time to do it.

Similar to static stretching, dynamic stretching takes the muscles through a range of motion for a prescribed number of repetitions. Dynamic stretching usually involves specific drills which vary according to the training session movements.

Now the static stretch above is 
demonstrated here as a dynamic stretch

Chosen well, dynamic stretches in terms of execution relate better to the upcoming training movements. Dynamic stretching engages more coordination working from simple to complex moves up to the point when training begins.

In a dynamic warm-up, mobility drills overlap with dynamic stretches. Mobility is the amount of available movement at a specific joint. Therefore, ankle mobility means how well the ankle joint can move and an ankle mobility drill is done to improve ankle mobility. It can be measured in degrees, but most individuals can do a general check through an ankle mobility drill such as this:

Poor ankle mobility won't allow your knee to travel close to the wall
Good ankle mobility will allow your knee to get near the wall and 
you can set up further away from the wall to increase the challenge

Later, I'll expand more on how you select what to do for a warm-up. Let's discuss foam rolling first as my recommendations for it overlap with warming up.

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (SMR). "Self" because it's performed by one's own hands with whatever tool of choice versus the myofascial release done by a manual therapist. A manual therapist can use their own hands or a preferred system of myofascial release (e.g., Gratson). The prefix "myo-" means muscle coming from Greek origin while fascia refers to the body's fascia system which is a single continuous fibrous connective tissue system. Therefore, myofascial release is aimed toward working on the body's muscular system and fascial network.

Illustration of superficial fascia

I find myofascial a tricky topic to pin down. The general idea is that over time, fascia becomes "wound" up and it needs to be untangled for optimal functioning or to remedy any muscle-related issues. Adhesions and scar tissue built up from exercise are removed during the release process. Manual therapy is very specific and looks at the individual's posture and restrictions. During an assessment, it focuses in alleviating those issues found and results in better posture and soft tissue. This highlights enough of the basics for the purposes of this post.

Back to the foam roller, I typically see it used before or after the training session. Because it's a form of self-massage, I didn't quite understand the purpose of it in the warm-up. Massages reduce muscular tension and that's good, but I've questioned its effectiveness pre-workout. However, I haven't read anything that says foam rolling before strength training reduces force output or has negative implications.

I've found foam rolling beneficial in the recovery window, especially when combined with static stretching. Recently, John posted this very relevant study:
"Compared to the control group, the foam rolling group experienced “less” muscle soreness.  For example, at 24 hours post the foam rolling group had a muscle soreness level that was almost 550% greater than baseline, but the control group was almost 720% above baseline.  This is consistent up until 48 hours post, where both groups are essentially equal.
Foam rolling reduced twitch force during recovery, increased quadriceps and hamstring range of motion during recovery, reduced rate of force development compared to the control group (which slowed it down), foam rolling increased vertical jump height during recovery."
If you're not fond of using it before you train, foam rolling as a cool down may yield benefits.

After my initial experience with foam rolling, I was skeptical about its effectiveness. I never saw any changes from it except my muscles turn painful and tender which did not cause any previous discomfort. This with the ENORMOUS market for SMR products - there's an array of outlandish rollers and tools available for purchase - I saw it as hype.

While commonly done with a foam roller, their are other SMR tools available such as the Theracane.
Albeit, I don't know anyone who enjoys it as much as this guy.

Contrary to how I sound, it does have its advantage in the warm-up. I realized it when I worked with someone who had terrible mobility. They weren't strong enough to support themselves on the roller and use it. Fortunately, I thought of an alternative. I had them lie face down while I firmly rolled a medicine ball on their calves. We then proceeded to a few ankle drills to improve their mobility. This was an instance where foam rolling proved to be very valuable. This finally brings me to.....

Use & Application

I like training to be specific to the individual. When it comes to the warm-up protocol, I adhere to a similar thought process. Stretching and foam rolling need to be individualized to the person and training session.

Take into consideration a person's skill level. Someone untrained can't grab a foam roller and go at it. As I mentioned, individuals who don't participate in regular activity may be unable to support themselves on the roller, let alone use it. If stretching is not necessary or, even worse, someone has hypermobility, it can create joint issues. Inappropriately employed, stretching and foam rolling can worsen problems. I've come across forums when a user will ask for suggestions on treating an injury. Frequently, I've read the suggestions of others was to, "roll out or stretch the area." This advice doesn't take into account the injury. It's akin to hitting a TV remote because it stopped changing channels - aimless. Maybe the batteries are dead, something's blocking the receiver, an internal component is broken, or it could be a number of other things.

This is one reason why assessment-based practices work well - various forms of manual therapy, Z-Health, biofeedback, and so on and so forth, individualize their treatments. During the assessment, data is collected based on the client' muscular characteristics. That data in turn helps prescribe the movements for their plan to optimize performance.

The same thought process should go into the warm-up. Make it specific. Any of the above methods can be combined and used. When applied together, it can be a great warm-up. To give some direction, I'd suggest it in this order,
  • Foam Rolling
  • Static Stretches
  • Dynamic Stretches/Mobility Drills
*If preferred, foam rolling and static stretching can be done post workout in the cool down instead.
Before or after the session, foam roll the trained muscles. In the warm-up, perform quick passes on the muscles, but reserve the slower deeper rolling for the cool down. Avoid going over joints and connective tissues (like the IT band). More importantly when doing SMR, pain is NOT a positive indicator. Pain tells the brain something is wrong and to induce pain is not the objective. Accordingly shift your weight on the roller to adjust pressure on your muscles. If it feels too hard and hurts, ease off of it.

For a general dynamic warm-up, you can consider giving attention to these areas:
Lower Body
  • Ankles
  • Hips
  • Glutes
  • Asymmetrical/Single Leg Movement
  • 2-3 Training Session Related Exercises
Upper Body
  • Wrists
  • Elbows
  • Shoulders (Glenohumeral Joint)
  • Shoulder Blades (Scapulae)
  • Upper Back
  • Asymmetrical/Single Arm Movement
  • 2-3 Training Session Related Exercises
For example,
Lower Body: Main Exercise - Deadlift
  • Wall Ankle Mobilization
  • Hurdle Step Over [hip mobility + single leg drill + coordination/balance]
  • Thoracic Spine Extension
  • Light Good Morning
  • Single Leg Deadlift
Upper Body: Main Exercises - Pull-Up & Overhead Press
  • Overhead Band Pull Apart
  • Shoulder Dislocation
  • Reverse Curl
  • Lat-Pulldown
  • Light Behind the Neck Press
- Total time for everything (foam rolling & drills) = No more than 10 minutes max
Ultimately, you can warm-up however you choose to and include/exclude whatever you wish. For example, there are lifters who warm-up with their training session's exercises. They start with light sets and gradually work up to their working sets. When it comes to warming up - and lifting - there is no "one size fits all." Rather, it comes down to the way that works best for you and your goals.

When asked a question in weightlifting, "it depends" is a very common answer. But, in the end it really does depend - specifically, on the day's session and your own training levels. Neither stretching nor foam rolling are inherently good or bad. If they are used erratically, they can be both. It instead revolves around individualizing them to your own personal needs. Utilize a variety of movements that relate to the training session. It can be a mix of stretches and mobility drills. What is perfect for one person, can be pointless or detrimental for another trainee.

Examined in depth, the warm-up and its associated activities can appear complex. Understanding a few fundamentals clears up the subject.

But the bottom line? Do a warm-up!

Further Reading,

Related articles,

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