Stretching, Foam Rolling, and Myofascial Release

Foam Rolling, Myofascial Release and Stretching: What’s the Difference?

Foam Rolling, Myofascial Release, Stretching…What’s the difference really?  Most of us will instinctively try to loosen a tight muscle.  This is especially true when it causes pain.  Many different techniques have been developed to fulfill this need.  They fall into two broad categories: things that we can do to ourselves and things that are done to us by someone else (such as massage).  Let’s focus on things that we can do for ourselves.

Stretching and self-care are ubiquitous in the Animal Kingdom.  You don’t have to look beyond your favorite four-legged friend to see an example.

People love to bandy about terms as though we know what they are talking about.  Let’s get into some of the specifics.



Most people, when they refer to stretching, are thinking of a static stretch.  This basically means that you put your body into a certain position which forces a muscle to lengthen.  Muscles get tight from overuse, underuse, repetitive stress, and injury.  Needless to say, at some point you have most likely experienced a tight muscle. 

Tight muscles often result in pain.  In the neck tight muscles can result in tension headaches.  Tight muscles in the low back can contribute to low back pain.  The list is long, but you get the idea.

When we perform a static stretch, the force of the activity is distributed across the length of the muscle, tendons included.  This makes it hard to isolate a specific section of a muscle, especially if the muscle is long. 

The hamstrings are a great example.  They run from the very top of the back of the leg down past the knee.  Not only are they long, but they are also bulky.  The hamstrings are comprised of three large muscle bellies and their associated tendons.  You may have noticed that bending down to touch your toes doesn’t always do the best job to stretch the hamstrings. 

One option is to rotate the leg so that you isolate a single aspect of the hamstrings.  This is known as doing the stretch “with isolation.”  Now the stretch is spread across a smaller section of the muscle, but it still doesn’t single out a specific part.

Need some ideas on how to stretch? Learn more…

What if you have a knot in a specific section of the muscle.  Doing a static stretch is like stretching a rubber band that has a knot tied in it.  This is where myofascial release comes in.


Myofascial release is the application of direct force to a specific section of muscle fibers (or tendon) to address the myofascial tightness or scar tissue in that area.  You can use your hands, a massage tool, a shoe horn, or whatever happens to be within grasp.  The idea is that you are working on a small section of the muscle rather than the whole thing.  Many different myofascial techniques exist, but at the end of the day they all have the same goal: to release tension in the muscles, tendons, and fascia.  You also wind up getting improved flexibility, decreased pain, and improved circulation in the area.  This is also known as a good thing.


Foam rolling is a type of myofascial release that uses a specific tool…you guessed it!  A foam roller is a cylindrical piece of dense material.  You lay your body across it and use your weight to apply pressure to specific areas of muscle.  It is very effective for longer, more expansive structures such as the IT Band.  However, if the area is cramped or far from your center of gravity the effectiveness is diminished.  People often overcome this limitation by augmenting such areas with a smaller stretching prop such as a tennis or lacrosse ball.

Simple Right?!


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