Wednesday 17th January, 2024

Stretching vs foam rolling: which should you do?

Foam rollers vs stretching
In this article we share which are the best, plus some excellent alternatives

Foam rolling and stretching are both used to

  • increase flexibility,
  • prepare for a workout, and
  • recover afterwards.

However, which should you use? For this article we reviewed 49 studies and clinical trials to find out which is the best at doing each. We found that while there are excellent benefits to be had, a lot of the advice put out by marketers and "experts" is misleading and can even hurt you. Please allow us to share with you what is safe and does work.


Warm ups
Post exercise recovery
The best alternate therapies

What is the best way to increase flexibility?


Conventional stretching is probably the “benchmark” procedure for increasing flexibility. It gives a significant and prolonged increase in the length of muscles, allowing for and increased range of joint movements (1,2)

Foam rolling

The trials also show that foam rolling will initially increase flexibility, but this increase only lasts less than 10 minutes (3–5)⁠⁠. It seems pointless spending 10-15 minutes foam rolling only to have the increase in flexibility disappear by the time you compete.

Our recommendations

General flexibility

For generally increasing flexibility (eg. a gymnast or martial artist) conventional stretches would be the best choice.

Stretching as a “warm up”

If using conventional stretching before competition or a workout there is a risk of overstretching.

  1. Allowing joints to move beyond their normal range increases their risk of injury.
  2. Excessive stretching will reduce the performance of your muscles.

If you do stretching before competetion or a workout only do "light" stretching not exceding normal movements, However, according to the clinical trials the best ways to increase flexibility during a warm-up are a dynamic warmup (6)⁠ vibration massage (not a massage gun) (7).

What is best as a “warm up” before competition or a workout?

The goals of stretching or foam rolling before a workout or completion are to increase performance and help prevent injury.

Injury prevention

The theory behind injury prevention is that if tight muscles are forced to lengthen they may tear. Likewise a restricted joint may be injured if forced too far. Lengthening muscles to their normal operational length and ensuring all joints are able to move fully is said to reduce this risk.

Increasing performance

Advocates claim performance can be improved by things such as increasing blood flow and raising the temperature of muscles.


Clinical trials have not shown that stretching decreases the rate of injuries (8,9)⁠. Scientists speculate that any benefits are counteracted by the risk of overstretching as discussed above Clinical trials also show that conventional stretching will actually decrease performance rather than increase it (1,9)⁠.

Foam rollers

To our knowledge there have been no trials where foam roller have been used to decrease injuries, and as discussed above any increase in flexibility is very short lived. Also, most clinical trials show that foam rolling either gives no increase in performance, or a very small reduction (3,10–14)

Our recommendations

As well as helping increase flexibility genuine vibration massage, (not massage guns)⁠ will enhance strength (15,16)⁠, and increase the time taken for muscles to fatigue (17)⁠⁠. Dynamic warmups were also shown to help performance, with one trial actually increasing the height an athlete could jump by 2” (5cm) (18)⁠.

Video summary: warmups

What is best for post exercise recovery

After strenuous exercise you will likely feel feel a bit stiff and sore, and your muscles will not be capable of their normal performance. This happens because strenuous exercise will do microscopic damage to the muscle’s fibres.


Clinical trials show that stretching has only a miniscule affect on post exercise soreness (19)

Foam rollers

Despite being heavily marketed a recent review of 21 studies concluded the effects of foam rolling are minor or negligable (20)⁠. Other studies express concern about the damage they can cause (21)⁠.

Our recommendations for post exercise recovery

You need a complete strategy

Rather than just do a bit of foam rolling or stretching we recommend that you use the simple but effective more complete strategy as discussed in our guide The practical, science based guide to post exercise recovery . Here we discuss the basics such as rest, sleep, hydration and nutrition, plus the pros and cons of the various therapies said to help.

Next we will give a brief run down on the two most helpful therapies to include in this strategy.

Video: The practical, science based guide to post exercise recovery

The best therapies for recovery

Vibration massage

Of these additional therapies vibration massage- (not massage guns) has produced by far the most benefit in clinical trials. We found nine studies where vibration massage was used after exercising. They consistently showed that this:

  • reduces post exercise soreness (DOMS) (22–30)⁠⁠
  • reduces the loss of function and speed recovery (31,32)⁠, and
  • blood chemical analysis shows that unwanted chemical are removed much faster (25,26,28,30)⁠.

Conventional Massage

If you are a member or a sports club that provides massage after your game or workout clinical trials have produced the following results.

  • in over half showed no benefit at all (33–41)⁠⁠ ,
  • a small percentage showed massage to reduce post exercise soreness (42–44)⁠⁠,
  • a small percentage the massage reduced the post exercise stiffness and loss of function (45–47)⁠⁠.

The better alternative therapies we mentioned

Above we mentioned two alternative therapies that can be a far better option than using foam rollers or conventional massage: a dynamic warmup and genuine vibration massage.

Dynamic warm-up

Dynamic warm-up means doing movement or activities that take the muscles and joints though their normal movements. The idea is to “warm them up” but not cause fatigue. Examples include walking or exercising. This has been shown to increase flexibility and strength (6)⁠⁠. The most beneficial dynamic warm-ups involve activities and movements that mirror the requirements of your sport rather general movements (18)⁠⁠.

Vibration massage

This is where a vibrations are used to penetrate and have their therapeutic effects. It is very similar to the way ultrasound works. For more information please see our article The sports and exercise guide to vibration massage .

This is not percussion massage or massage guns

As discussed in our article Why most massagers are a waste of money , massage guns do not deliver appropriate amounts of vibration, and that is usually at the wrong frequency. Also, they can easily hurt you. For how to get an appropriate massager please see our article How to choose a massager .

Video showing why massage gus are ineffective and can hurt you
Professional at desk


DrGraeme massagers were originally built by Dr Graeme for use in his clinic, and to prescribe to his patients for additional self use at home. Now these are used by colleagues and other professionals for similar purposes. If you are a professional and wish to know more about this therapy, or possibly get a sample massager to trial please check out our practitioner page .


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  3. Beardsley C, Skarabot J. Effects of self-myofascial release : A systematic review. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2015;
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  6. Aguilar AJ, DiStefano LJ, Brown CN, Herman DC, Guskiewicz KM, Padua DA. A dynamic warm-up model increases quadriceps strength and hamstring flexibility. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(4):1130–41.
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  16. Pamukoff DN, Ryan ED, Troy Blackburn J. The acute effects of local muscle vibration frequency on peak torque, rate of torque development, and EMG activity. Vol. 24, Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. 2014. p. 888–94.
  17. Otadi K et. a. A prophylactic effect of local vibration on quadriceps muscle fatigue in non-athletic males : a randomized controlled trial study. J Phys Ther Sci. 2019;31:223–6.
  18. Frant TL, Rui MD. Effects of dynamic warm-up on lower body explosiveness among collegiate baseball players. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(11):2985–90.
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  23. Imtiyaz S, Veqar Z, Shareef MY. To compare the effect of vibration therapy and massage in prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). J Clin Diagnostic Res. 2014;
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  28. Koeda T. A trial to evaluate experimentally induced delayed onset muscle soreness and its modulation by vibration. Environ Med. 2003;47:26–30.
  29. Rhea MR, Bunker D, Marín PJ, Lunt K. Effect of iTonic whole-body vibration on delayed-onset muscle soreness among untrained individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(6).
  30. Lu X, Wang Y, Lu J, You Y, Zhang L, Zhu D. Does vibration benefit delayed-onset muscle soreness ?: a meta-analysis and systematic review. 2019;
  31. Lau WY, Nosaka K. Effect of vibration treatment on symptoms associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;
  32. Percival S et al. Local vibration therapy increases oxygen re-saturation rate and maintains muscle strength following exerciseinduced muscle damage. J.Athl Train. 2021;Aug 17.
    . J Athl Train. 2021;Aug 17.
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  34. White GE, West SL, Caterini JE, Di Battista AP, Rhind SG, Wells GD. Massage therapy modulates inflammatory mediators following sprint exercise in healthy Male athletes. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2020;5(1):1–11.
  35. Hart JC. Effects of Sport Massage on Limb Girth and Discomfort Associated With Eccentric Exercise. J Athl Train. 2005;24(2):181–5.
  36. Pinar S, Kaya F, Bicer B, Erzeybek MS, Cotuk HB. Different recovery methods and muscle performance after exhausting exercise: Comparison of the effects of electrical muscle stimulation and massage. Biol Sport. 2012;29(4):269–75.
  37. Robertson A, Watt JM, Galloway SDR. Effects of leg massage on recovery from high intensity cycling exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2004;38(2):173–6.
  38. Lightfoot JT, Char D, McDermott J, Goya C. Immediate postexercise massage does not attenuate delayed onset muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res. 1997;11(2):119–24.
  39. Dawson LG, Dawson KA, Tiidus PM. Evaluating the influence of massage on leg strength, swelling, and pain following a half-marathon. J Sport Sci Med. 2004;3(1):37–43.
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  41. Young R, Gutnik B, Moran RW, Thomson RW. The effect of effleurage massage in recovery from fatigue in the adductor muscles of the thumb. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2005;28(9):696–701.
  42. Farr T, Nottle C, Nosaka K, Sacco P. The effects of therapeutic massage on delayed onset muscle soreness and muscle function following downhill walking. J Sci Med Sport. 2002;5(4):297–306.
  43. Bender PU, Luz CM, Feldkircher JM NG. Massage therapy slightly decreased pain intensity after habitual running , but had no effect on fatigue , mood or physical performance : a randomised trial. J Physiother. 2019;65(2):75–80.
  44. Selim KAPLAN A. Effect of sport massage on pressure pain threshold and tolerance in athletes under eccentric exercise. Int J Sci Cult Sport. 2014;2(6):136–136.
  45. Naderi A, Aminian-Far A, Gholami F, Mousavi SH, Saghari M, Howatson G. Massage enhances recovery following exercise-induced muscle damage in older adults. Scand J Med Sci Sport. 2021;31(3):623–32.
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  49. Chen J, Zhang F, Chen H, Pan H. Rhabdomyolysis After the Use of Percussion Massage Gun : A Case Report. 2021;1–5.

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Dr Graeme

About Dr Graeme

Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more

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