Myofascial release, a type of massage, improves range of motion to the same extent as static stretching in the short term, a new study shows.
And in a separate study, contract–relax stretching was shown to weaken muscles more than static stretching.
The results from both studies were presented here at the American College of Sports Medicine 61st Annual Meeting.
The head-to-head comparison of static stretching and myofascial release showed that, "at least in terms of a single day, myofascial release was as effective as static stretching," said researcher Rebecca Kudrna, MS, an instructor at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania.
Traditionally, athletes have practiced static stretching, in which they hold a stretched muscle or tendon group in 1 position for several seconds. Previous research has shown that this type of stretching over a period of at least 3 weeks can increase range of motion by lengthening muscles.
In addition, static stretching can relax nerves, which can increase range of motion in the short-term; however, it also temporarily weakens the stretched muscles. Previous research has suggested that myofascial release is less likely to have that effect on strength, Kudrna reported.
In fact, many athletes are now using myofascial release instead of static stretching, and some trainers and physical therapists have promoted its use to treat joint and muscle pain.
Some practitioners of myofascial release massage their patients; others teach patients to massage themselves using foam rolls, balls, or other instruments.
But at least 1 previous study found myofascial release ineffective for improving hamstring range of motion over the long term (UW-La Crosse JUR. 2006;IX).
Short-term Benefits, But They Diminish Quickly
To determine the effectiveness of myofascial release, Kudrna and her colleague Zachary Kaminski assessed 12 male and 12 female physically active college students.
After a warm-up period and a baseline assessment, the subjects were randomly assigned to a 14-minute period of static stretching, myofascial release, or sitting still.
The researchers reassessed range of motion 3 minutes and 10 minutes after the 14-minute intervention.
There was a significant increase in range of motion after static stretching and myofascial release at the 3- and 10-minute assessments (P < .05), but not after sitting still for either time point.
Myofascial release was significantly more effective at 3 minutes than static stretching (P < .05), but not at 10 minutes.
In both exercise groups, range of motion diminished between the 3-minute assessment and the 10-minute assessment.
This study supports myofascial release for athletic warm-ups, Kudrna reported. But she acknowledged that short-term benefits to range of motion diminish quickly. "Usually between 10 and 15 minutes, all of your effects go away," she said.
Myofascial release is "very trendy," said Trevor Cottrell, PhD, professor of exercise science and health promotion at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. "Foam rolling is really popular."
Dr. Cottrell said that his own research has shown that myofascial release does not benefit athletic performance over the long term. "You do tend to get more range of motion," he told Medscape Medical News. However, "when you objectively measure performance, it does not improve."
Kudrna noted that other options are available for warm-ups, such as dynamic stretching, in which subjects move gradually from one position to another rather than holding a single position. "Dynamic stretching is very well researched," she said. "It’s very clear that it increases mechanical flexibility without affecting power."
She and her colleague are currently conducting a study to see whether myofascial release can produce the kind of long-term muscle-lengthening achieved with static stretching.
In the study of contract–relax stretching, Sidse Balle, MD, from the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma in New York City, and her colleagues compared the effects on strength of this approach with static stretching in 20 healthy volunteers.
In contract–relax stretching, a clinician places the subjects muscle into a position of stretch. The subject contracts the restricted muscle, then relaxes that muscle and contracts the opposing muscle.
"We found that both stretching interventions result in muscle strength loss," Dr. Balle told Medscape Medical News, but contract–relax stretching weakened muscles even more than static stretching.
Ms. Kudrna, Dr. Cottrell, and Dr. Balle have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) 61st Annual Meeting: Abstracts 603 and 744. Presented May 28, 2014.