Think Foam Rolling and Breathing Training Don’t Work? Think Again! BIG new research studies that you need to be aware of!

A couple of awesome studies have recently emerged and I want to alert my fitness friends about the news. One of the article pertains to foam rolling, and the other pertains to breathing training. Many folks in the S&C industries have been skeptical about these methods, and finally we have some good support for their inclusion in our programs. Bravo to some of my colleagues for being “ahead of the research.”

1. Foam Rolling Increases ROM without decreasing Muscle Activation or Force

First off, I’d like to mention that THIS ARTICLE (the link takes you to the abstract – it’s not on Pubmed yet), just published ahead of print, includes an excellent write-up on how foam rolling is proposed to work. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Fascial restrictions often occur in response to injury, disease, inactivity, or inflammation, causing fascial tissue to lose elasticity and become dehydrated. When fascia loses its elasticity and becomes dehydrated, fascia can bind around the traumatized areas, causing a fibrous adhesion to form. Fibrous adhesions are known to be painful, prevent normal muscle mechanics (i.e. joint range of motion, muscle length, neuromuscular hypertonicity, and decreased strength, endurance and motor coordination) and decrease soft-tissue extensibility (5, 15, 36).

Myofascial release (MFR) therapy is a manual therapy technique developed by John F. Barnes (5), to help reduce restrictive barriers or fibrous adhesions seen between layers of fascial tissue. A new technique of MFR termed self-induced myofascial release (SMR) has become of increasingly common practice for treating soft-tissue restrictions. SMR works under the same principles as myofascial release. The difference between the two techniques is that instead of a therapist providing manual therapy to the soft-tissue, an individual uses their own body mass on a foam roller to exert pressure on the soft-tissue. The SMR technique involves small undulations back and forth over a dense foam roller, starting at the proximal portion of the muscle, working down to the distal portion of the muscle or vice versa (28). The small undulations place direct and sweeping pressure on the soft-tissue, stretching the tissue and generating friction between the soft-tissue of the body and the foam roller. The friction generated from the undulations causes warming of the fascia, promoting the fascia to take on a more fluid-like form (known as the thixotropic property of the fascia), breaking up fibrous adhesions between the layers of fascia and restoring soft-tissue extensibility (32).

The authors hypothesized that foam rolling would indeed increase joint ROM, but that it would also decrease muscle activation and force due to prior research they’d seen involving the effects of massage on EMG and spinal motoneuron excitability. The authors were surprisingly wrong about their second hypothesis.

Methods

They had subjects foam roll their quadriceps like this (the one leg method) for 60 seconds, rest 30 seconds, the repeat for 60 seconds.

The authors measured maximum knee extensor force production, rate of force development (RFD), rectus femoris muscle activation via EMG, and knee flexion ROM when in a half-kneeling lunge position with the rear hip extended (sort of like what’s seen in the position shown in the video below).

Findings

This is the very first peer-reviewed study that examined the effects of foam rolling. Here’s what they found:

  • Two minutes following the foam rolling, flexibility was increased by 12.7% (11 degrees), and ten minutes following the foam rolling, flexibility was increased by 10.3% (9 degrees).
  • Foam rolling did not impede voluntary muscle activation, force or evoked contractile properties. This cannot be said of regular massage or static stretching.
  • Following foam rolling the negative correlation between ROM and force production no longer existed.

Thoughts

Obviously this is only one study and more research is needed, but to me this lends a TON of credibility to what the best practitioners already knew instinctively; which is that foam rolling enhances ROM without diminishing neuromuscular performance.

I’d like to see research showing the effects of foam rolling on subsequent sprint performance.

Somewhere out there, Mike Boyle is doing the Carlton dance.

On a personal note, my favorite foam roller is the Rumble Roller (no affiliate link).

2. Breathing Training Improves Posture

There have not been many studies in the literature showing how posture can be improved, though many coaches and therapists have their theories. Lately, breathing training has become more popular in the industry. In particular, diaphragmatic breathing has received a lot of attention. THIS STUDY (click to download the full paper) recently emerged showing that breathing into a SpiroTiger (no affiliate link) improves posture and trunk flexion strength. Here’s a SpiroTiger in action:

Methods

Subjects breathed into the SpiroTiger for 10 minutes three times per week. This trains the inspiratory muscles and expiratory muscles.

The researchers measured the spinal curve (thoracic and lumbar), pulmonary function (forced vital capacity and forced expiration volume in 1.0 seconds), and isometric trunk flexion and extension strength.

Findings

This is the first study of its kind to be conducted. Here’s what the authors found:

  • Thoracic kyphosis decreased by 13.1% (5.5 degrees)
  • Lumbar lordosis decreased by 17.7% (3.1 degrees)
  • Pulmonary function improved (force vital capacity from 4.1 to 4.3 Liters and forced expiratory volume in 1.0 seconds from 3.4 to 3.7 Liters)
  • Trunk flexion strength improved by 10.6% (from 695 to 769 Newtons), whereas trunk extension strength was unchanged

The authors offered some explanation as to the findings in this excerpt:

Abe et al (32) reported that the transverse abdominal muscle is the most powerful in the abdominal muscle group with respect to respiration. The transverse abdominal muscle may have been specifically targeted in this exercise. This important muscle is a keylocal stabilizer. Contraction of the transverse abdominis increases intra-abdominal pressure, which leads to lumbar straightening (33). In addition, a rise in intra-abdominal pressure presses the rib cage upward and effectively allows the extension of the thoracic vertebrae (34). In addition, we attribute the decrease of thoracic curvatures to a stretching effect on the thorax. In a previous study, Izumizaki et al (35) reported that thoracic capacity and rib-cage movement were changed by thixotropy, which is the exercise of maximal expiration from maximum inspiration. The stiffness of the rib cage leads to thoracic kyphosis (3). In this study, repetitive deep breathing resolved the stiffness of the ribcage and straightened thoracic kyphosis. This process maybe responsible for altering the spinal curvature.

Thoughts

I’d like to see this study duplicated…I’m a bit skeptical. The study design and findings looked legit though. If this is indeed true, this is huge.

It suggests that spinal posture can be improved by simply training the breathing muscles! It is not easy to alter spinal posture, so this could become very important over time if future studies repeat the findings. And the study duration was only 6 weeks long; which is short for a training study.

The authors didn’t pay specific mention to the diaphragm, which is incredibly important and could explain some of the findings through various mechanisms.

Perhaps the improved posture that strength coaches and personal trainers see with their athletes and clients isn’t so much attributable to increased trunk strength but inner unit strength instead.

This type of breathing training shouldn’t be confused with diaphragmatic breathing “re-education” that is popular these days. This was more like maximal endurance breathing training.

Furthermore, the study shows that you can increase trunk flexion strength by 10% without even training trunk flexion!

I’d like to see the effects of different protocols on posture and different types of strength. For example, breathing into the SpiroTiger for 10 sets of 30 seconds five times per week for six weeks and its effects on posture, pulmonary function, IAP capabilities, and isometric deadlift strength.

That’s all folks!

44 thoughts on “Think Foam Rolling and Breathing Training Don’t Work? Think Again! BIG new research studies that you need to be aware of!

  1. Jon-Erik Kawamoto

    Those are my Newfie boys! We also did a study on foam rolling with Dr. Behm last semester and are in the middle of analyzing the data. Very interested to see the results. Thanks for posting this Bret.

    -Jon

    Reply
    1. Feike

      Hello Jon-Erik,
      I am a student fysiotherapy, working on my thesis. I am doing research about foam rolling and after this I will do a study myself.
      Do you have any results yet?
      I would really appreciate it if you could tell me more about your study and results!

      Reply
  2. Will Levy

    Awesome Bret. And I was waiting for the Boyle reference! And equally, not naming names, but there’s a couple of people in particular who may now have to concede on this one.

    I’m skeptical on the findings re breathing too. That seems WAY too easy a training protocol to achieve such dramatic postural alterations. Will be very interested in follow up research on this.

    Reply
  3. Neal W.

    Why would massage decrease muscle activation and force but SMR would not? That’s odd.

    So, the SMR alone increased ROM? Do you think ROM could be continually increased by chronic SMR applications? If so, I wonder how far one could take their ROM with SRM alone. Doesn’t seem like it would be as effective the various stretching methods.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      The researchers speculated about this…perhaps the SMR wasn’t long enough in duration to negatively effect the neural aspects. And sure you can get more ROM with stretching, but along with it comes negative impacts on performance (diminished strength/power temporarily).

      I’ve always been a fan of the foam roll/stretch/mobility/activation methodology that most coaches use.

      However I believe that full range strength training gives you more bang for your buck in terms of everything…posture, breathing, mobility, stability, strength, power, endurance, hypertrophy, etc.

      Reply
  4. OKtav

    This is quite an article Bret… I’ll definitely try and check out the breath training. Thanks for posting!

    Reply
  5. Derrick Blanton

    Great post. Nice to see science confirming the art.

    More serious adhesions may require more drastic measures than foam. A few years ago, I posted on your blog that I found much better success with SMR after graduating to a PVC pipe from the foam roller.

    Foam rolling provided modest results, with mild discomfort. Soon it stopped hurting, and no longer seemed to have much effect. The area of emphasis was the TFL, ITB, VL sticky adhesive conglomerate which was causing all manner of pain downstream at the knee. Perversely, the more pronounced the dysfunction, the more medieval the solution needed.

    So I took a leap and bought a $5 PVC pipe from Home Depot. It hurt so bad, that it just couldn’t be helping right? But it absolutely was.

    I think the mechanism is twofold: Breaking up adhesions, and restoring sliding surfaces, and ALSO, inhibiting a constantly switched on muscle. If one muscle is too loud, then you can’t hear the others!

    Latest SMR success story: Barbell smashing the subscap/proximal bicep/pec interchange, and “flossing” through the restriction. Again, very painful at first. Now, strangely pleasurable, and I can bench again with no pain! Note that both of these issues were YEARS in the making, so maybe not everyone needs to take such a militant approach, ha ha..

    RE: the breathing study, I do know that if I really focus on pushing my diaphragm down with an enormous breath, that my spine feels bulletproof stable on squats and DL’s.

    Keep on doing work, BC, you’re a one man wrecking crew at this point! Love it..

    Reply
  6. george

    The breathing study fascinates me hopefully there the study will be replicated to improve credibility but those are amazing results for that time period. One question about the spirotiger- does it train the breath via forced/resisted exhalation or inhalation? I imagine via exhalation as you say the subjects breathed “into” the device but wanted to be sure. If this is the case then it may seem to back up breathing techniques like power breathing (whatever pavel tsatsouline calls it? I noticed once practising the technique consistently that my bracing improved in heavy lifting. I seem to remember that one of the primary functions of tva is forced exhalation? In which case this study make sense but the results are very dramatic!

    Reply
  7. Robert

    Hi Bret,

    Great stuff as always, I am always interested in learning more specially if science back it up.
    I am very interested in learning more about “right” breathing. It seems now days that a lot of people forget how to breath properly.

    great stuff, looking forward for more from you

    Reply
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  9. Kelly

    Great article especially the foam rolling stuff. As a neuromuscular massage therapist I encourage my clients to self treat with it all the time…I get great relief especially in my back, quads, and glutes and hammies from using it.

    Reply
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  11. Deb

    Great article. I must get back into foam rolling (hip replacement surgery left me unable to get on the floor, or back up for a while).

    The breathing study is interesting, but how to apply this information to the real world -where that equipment isn’t readily available. Maybe it would help me with my tendency to forget completely to breathe?

    Reply
  12. Greg

    I’ve been in the industry for just a little and have been lucky enough to begin learning these types of techniques from the “ahead of the research” group of pro’s I work with from day 1.

    PRI stuff works too well to ‘not work’ and the proper breathing stereotype that goes along with it (as well as DNS) is the resounding message from from both schools of thought. Breathe properly and forcefully and you’re making strides in rehabilitation and performance enhancement.

    I really like this article, thanks Bret.

    Reply
  13. Bodhi

    The results are very preliminary as the N=11. The study is moste likely under powered for any conclusion being taken from it.
    Its important to keep research results in perspective. This article makes claims about the foam rolling study that is highly inaccurate and misleading. That is unfortunate as this study is interesting and a good step forward in looking at foam rolling.

    Reply
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  15. eugene s.

    Re: breathing, at this point it’s little more than a sales pitch (not from Bret certainly) as I would bet those who made the apparatus did the study..
    So this is much ado about nothing. Without further study it’s not something we can or should act on at this point.
    As far as SMR is involved, I use it EVERY workout. thanks, Bret

    Reply
  16. eugene s.

    Bret, have you any thoughts on how we can incorporate deep breathing with specific exercises, say supine pull-overs with light to medium weight for reps being effective in facilitating lung/ diaphragm / rib-cage expansion? I would think the weight would have to be light enough to allow the expansion without other muscular compensations kicking in to restrict full movement. Perhaps it’s time to look at pull-overs as old timers seemed to believe they could expand the rib-cage or change the appearance of the rib-cage to make it appear higher, bigger?

    Reply
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  18. Jeroen

    Thanks for this reminder: have to practise the Carlton dance again. BTW, he has great hip mobility. Maybe he could do a guest post?

    Reply
  19. Abbey

    Love to read the whole foam roller article. Would be very beneficial for my future dissertation testing to see if incorporating foam rollers into a warm up decreases 20m sprint time!

    Reply
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  21. Steve

    Hi Brett, i would be interested in your thoughts on this referenced from a poliquin article…http://www.uwlax.edu/urc/jur-online/PDF/2006/miller.rockey.pdf

    Do you think the pressure of both hamstrings on the roller was not sufficient to ellicit any significant increase in ROM? If so do you have any thoughts as to why? (in comparison to the Macdonald et al study that used one leg on the roller for the quads and saw an increase in ROM?)

    Cheers,
    Steve.

    Reply
  22. Jason

    I am trying to determine something. Is is 60 seconds on onGe leg, and the following the rest another 60 on the same leg? This would be far different in terms of time on each area that I have my clients use the foam roll for, unless they have other needs. It was a great article. I inherently feel not just for clients but myself that SMFR is a key part of the pre workout preparation, but it is nice to see it backed up by research.

    Reply
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  29. Martha Peterson

    I’d like to share an article I wrote about foam rolling that comes from a different perspective – one of Somatic Education (neuromuscular movement re-education: http://essentialsomatics.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/foam-rollers-do-they-really-help-sore-hips-gluts-and-muscle-pain/

    Rather than needing to use foam rollers or other gadgets to release tight muscles or perceived fascial adhesions (which tight muscles can mask as – especially if they are stuck in the feedback loop of sensory motor amnesia), I teach clients to pandiculate. This is what animals do and here’s how it works: contract the tight muscle slightly tighter than it is, then slowly lengthen out of that contraction into a full and complete rest.

    What this does is re-set the muscle length (and the alpha gamma motor neurons) at the level of the CNS. It literally re-engages the brain in taking back sensory and motor control of both the muscles and the movement. Pandiculate the full body pattern of tightness that is present (optimum) and the result is…pretty extraordinary. This is sensory motor re-programming at its best.

    The name of this method is Hanna Somatics, the work of Thomas Hanna. It’s what I teach and what even Dan John has said is a missing link for athletes. I would be very happy to share what I know that can help athletes recover from injury and muscle dysfunction and that is as simple and straightforward as possible.

    Foam rollers are fine – but they’re really just the poor man’s self massage. So many athletes have sensory motor amnesia (involuntarily contracted muscles that the brain has lost physiological sensation and control of) due to the stresses of their sport. There’s a simpler tool to reduce muscle tension/fascial tightness and there’s plenty of scientific studies to back up its use: our brain. Retrain our brains to retrain our muscles and movement. It’s simple, straightforward and you can learn to do it yourself.

    Reply
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