The performance-based philosophies of strength and conditioning have been widely investigated and researched. Particularly, warm-up technique research has emerged as a current topic of interest within the strength and conditioning community (6,16,18,25,30,32,33,37). These warm-up techniques include but are not limited to static, dynamic, mobility, and foam rolling. Many of these techniques individually, as well as in conjunction with one another, have been researched in regards to differences in muscular performance, flexibility, and subjective scaling (6,16,18,25,30,32,33,37,38). As investigations advanced, strength and conditioning professionals have gained scientific-based warm-up technique research and options for achieving optimal athletic performance.
Previous foam rolling research including myofascial release techniques has explored rolling progressions as a rehabilitation cooldown technique. Multiple studies have reported these techniques as resulting in different physiological changes including vascular plasticity, soft tissue restoration, recovery, myogenic dilation, endothelial dilation, motor recruitment, and nitric oxide availability may be taking place (1–3,13,21,24,29,31,36). Recently, strength and conditioning research has explored foam rolling as a prehabilitation warm-up technique, which may elicit the aforementioned physiological changes and/or myofascial release before performance and range of motion (ROM) testing (25,26,31). Although research has investigated localized and full-body rolling, there is a lack of research comparing common foam rolling progressions.
Foam rolling has demonstrated effects on performance with no unanimity, and it is uncertain whether different commonly used rolling progressions will promote differences in performance. Strength and conditioning programs typically implement a specific foam rolling progression; however, it is common to see different rolling progressions between strength and conditioning professionals and/or sports. A commonly used foam rolling progression within the strength field includes large musculature along the mediolateral axis of the body. This rolling progression incorporates spine, medial gluteal, hamstring, calf, and the quadriceps regions to stimulate physiological processes such as increased blood flow and nitric oxide stimulation (29). Another commonly used progression involves rolling insertion sites and deep fascia tissue along the anteroposterior axis of the body. This rolling progression incorporates lat, midaxial, hip, iliotibial, calf, and the adductor regions to stimulate motor recruitment and pain alleviation (13,36). The purpose of this study was to compare and investigate the aforementioned foam rolling progressions and the acute differences in performance they may elicit. This will be determined by a testing battery including National Football League (NFL) combine drills, flexibility testing, and subjective scaling. It was hypothesized that different rolling progressions acutely impact performance variables differently as a result of physiological stimulations.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
A counterbalanced, crossover, within-subjects design comparing 2 separate experimental conditions, including mediolateral foam rolling (FRml) and anteroposterior foam rolling (FRap), was used to investigate the problem. The FRml condition tested acute performance effects of foam rolling along the mediolateral axis (sagittal plane) of the body, whereas the FRap condition tested the acute performance effects of foam rolling along the anteroposterior axis (frontal plane) of the body (FRap). The performance effects included post–foam rolling performance drills targeting power, explosion, agility, muscular strength, and flexibility.
Sixteen athletically trained adult males (age: 21.9 ± 2.0 years; height: 177.7 ± 6.7 cm; weight: 78.0 ± 9.3 kg; body fat: 10.8 ± 2.2%) ranging from 19 to 24 agreed to participate in the study. The athletes were asked to maintain a normal diet and to avoid physical activity 24 hours before testing. Before experimentation, health history data were collected from each athlete to avoid medical contraindications for physical activity. Athletes both read and signed informed consent documentation after the procedures were explained. After obtaining written informed consent, trained research personnel measured each athlete for physical demographics including height, weight, and body composition. Height and weight were measured using a standard stadiometer and balance beam scale (Health O Meter, Chicago, IL, USA). Body composition was calculated using the 7-site Jackson Pollock body fat equation measured from the thigh, abdomen, suprailiac, midaxillary, chest, triceps, and subscapular skinfold sites (4,20). The Nova Southeastern University Institutional Review Board approved the human subjects study.
On completion of the physical measurements, the athletes participated in 2 experimental counterbalanced condition trials (FRml and FRap). A washout period of 7 days existed between each. Each trial began with a total-body foam rolling session specific to each designated condition. The rolling sessions used a conventional foam roller (High Density Molded Foam Roller—6 × 12 inch Round; Perform Better, Cranston, RI, USA), as it has been documented previously effective in covering adequate surface area (9,31).
For the FRml condition (Figure 1), athletes were instructed through a foam rolling session at an application rate of 5 rolls per 30 seconds targeting the inferior spine region (erector spinae, multifidus), the medial gluteal region (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus), the hamstring region (semitendinosus, semimembranosus, biceps femoris), the posterior calf region (gastrocnemius, soleus), the pectoral region (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor), and the quadriceps region (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, and vastus medialis). During the experimental condition FRap (Figure 2), athletes were also instructed through a foam rolling progression at an application rate of 5 rolls per 30 seconds targeting the lat region (superior latissimus dorsi, teres major), the midaxial region (external abdominal obliques, inferior latissimus dorsi), the hip region (piriformis, sartorius, gluteus medius), the iliotibial band region (tensor fasciae latae), the lateral calf region (peroneals), and the adductor region (longus, brevis). Foam rolling was completed bilaterally during progressions when necessary. After the foam rolling sessions, both conditions included the same generalized dynamic warm-up targeting full-body musculature and joint mobility. The warm-up included techniques of shoulder joint mobility, hip mobility, knee mobility, and scapular mobility. Each was instructed for 20 repetitions. After the mobility techniques, the athletes were guided through a series of frontal, sagittal, and transverse dynamic techniques including high knees, butt kickers, lunging, log jumps, thoracic rotations, and clapping push-up techniques. Each was instructed to cover a total of 20 m in planar displacement or 20 repetitions. After each conditional warm-up routine, the athletes were tested in a series of performance drills similar to the NFL combine. These tests included the vertical jump, broad jump, shuttle run, and bench press. Other tests included subjective scaling and the sit-and-reach testing. Tests of nonfatiguing performance (sit-and-reach, vertical jump, broad jump) were tested first, followed by tests of agility (shuttle run) and maximum strength (bench press) (4). Subjective scaling was obtained at the duration of each conditional testing period.
Acute Performance Testing Series: National Football League Combine Drills, Other Measures
The NFL combine uses the vertical jump as a measure of lower-body power and explosion. The athletes performed the vertical jump using a commercial vertec device (Sports Imports, Columbus, OH, USA). After using the stack of adjustable horizontal vanes to determine the flat-footed standing reach, the stack of vanes was raised to an estimated height so that the athletes were capable of reaching the lowest set of vanes but incapable of reaching the highest vane. After the athletes generated power and jumped as high as possible vertically, the difference between standing reach and vertical reach was computed. The highest vertical difference trial was used as the vertical jump measurement (8,10,15,22,26,39).
Also known as the standing long jump, the NFL combine uses the broad jump as another test of an athlete's power, explosion, and strength. The athletes began each testing trial with both feet behind a designated starting line while maintaining an athletic balanced stance. Once in place, the athletes performed a countermovement followed by an explosive jump for maximum distance. A countermovement is allowed to demonstrate true power performance (11,28). The test differs from the vertical jump as the jump also tests horizontal displacement and balance as landing under control is crucial. The best of the 3 trials was recorded as the athletes broad jump distance.
Also known as the 18.3-m proagility test and the 5-10-5 cone drill, the NFL combine uses the shuttle run as a test of lateral quickness and explosiveness. An athlete's ability to produce greater power and balance will ultimately lead to better agility results (35). The athletes began the shuttle run in a 3-point stance. They then exploded 4.6 m (5 yards) to a line right of the center line. Once contact was made, the athletes then exploded to a line 9.1 m to the left (10 yards) and made contact with his left hand. They then pivoted and exploded another 4.6 m (5 yards) through the center line. The best trial time was recorded as shuttle run result (14,39).
The NFL combine uses the bench press rep-out test of 103 kg (225 pounds). This test is not only used to assess strength but also to assess muscular endurance. Multiple methods of bench press testing have been used for research purposes (7,19,23), so this particular testing series used an indirect 1 repetition maximum (RM) bench press procedure. This also used both strength and endurance, as a maximum rep-out was also used, but at 90% of the estimated 1RM. The Adam's equation [kg/(1−(0.02 × number of repetitions))] was calculated to determine an indirect 1-RM bench press value for each athlete (17).
Using a sit-and-reach box (Baseline Evaluation Instruments, White Plains, NY, USA) and standard protocol, the athletes were tested for lower trunk and flexibility testing. While seated, the athletes placed their feet 30 cm apart, while contacting the standard box. The athletes leaned forward slowly reaching as far as possible while keeping their hands adjacent with one another. The best trial was recorded to the nearest 0.05 cm (33).
Ratings of Perceived Exertion and Preference
Athletes were asked to indicate their undifferentiated rating of perceived exertion (RPE) using a validated Borg scale at the duration of each condition (5,27,34). The athletes also indicated which foam rolling condition they preferred between FRml and FRap. Preferences of condition have been used as a measure of potential motivation, in this case, a possible motivation to include foam rolling into individual workouts (5).
Mean and measures of variability (i.e., SD) were computed for all variables studied. After the Shapiro-Wilk normality assessment, an analysis of variance was used with post hoc t-test analyses to evaluate mean differences in performance measurements (sit-and-reach [cm], vertical jump [cm], broad jump [cm], shuttle run [sec], and indirect 1RM bench press [kg]). A t-test was also utilized to evaluate differences in RPE between conditions (FRml vs. FRap). All statistical analyses were performed using SPSS for Windows (version 20.0; SPSS, Inc., Evanston, IL, USA).
All performance variables and comparisons are given in Table 1. There was a significant difference in sit-and-reach performance following the FRml condition (FRml, 36.3 ± 5.9 cm; FRap, 34.4 ± 6.1 cm; p = 0.003). There were no significant differences between experimental conditions for the vertical jump (FRml, 70.7 ± 10.2 cm; FRap, 68.4 ± 9.3 cm; p = 0.129), broad jump (FRml, 240.2 ± 23.4 cm; FRap, 239.7 ± 26.3 cm; p = 0.814), shuttle run (FRml, 4.8 ± 0.2 seconds; FRap, 4.8 ± 0.2 seconds; p = 0.149), and bench press (FRml, 107.8 ± 22.6 kg; FRap, 113.4 ± 35.6 kg; p = 0.244). A trend toward significance was observed for RPE at the duration of each experimental condition (FRml, 12.1 ± 1.7; FRap, 13.5 ± 2.6; p = 0.064). It is worth noting that when preference was reported following the experimental conditions, 8 athletes preferred FRml compared with FRap, whereas 8 athletes preferred FRap compared with FRml.
The current research is unique as it was the first study to compare differences in performance as a result of foam rolling techniques and progressions. The FRml foam rolling progression examined the acute effects of foam rolling passes along the mediolateral axis of the body. Commonly, strength and conditioning professionals have recognized this progression to stimulate blood flow and nitric oxide release to the targeted muscular system (29). The FRap foam rolling progression examined the acute effects of foam rolling passes along the anteroposterior axis of the body. Strength and conditioning professionals have used this progression to stimulate neural factors such as recruitment and pain tolerance (1,2,13,24,36). Along the same lines, professionals have suggested that FRap may also improve lymphatic functioning; however, this is yet to be researched. It was hypothesized that different rolling progressions acutely impact performance variables differently (FRml vs. FRap). Results obtained during this study suggest that FRml has the potential to improve sit-and-reach testing ability when compared with FRap; however, no other performance or subjective scaling improvements existed. This evidence has recently been suggested, as studies have exhibited improved sit-and-reach scores as a result of direct application of the foam rolling device on the hamstrings muscle group (37). Other studies have also demonstrated self-myofascial release and direct application foam rolling to enhance ROM and flexibility in the hip, knee, and lumbar joints (12,25,32,33). This may be physiologically in part because of the dilation response of the direct application of the foam roller to the hamstring muscle. FRml showed an improved sit-and-reach value as the progression included direct hamstring application. No direct application of the foam rolling device with the hamstring groups existed during FRap and may have contributed to sit-and-reach testing differences.
Conflicting data on the effects of foam rolling as it relates to physical performance testing have recently been reported (18,31). Healy et al. (18), along with other studies, have demonstrated no evident foam rolling warm-up effects as it applies to performance testing. Other research by Peacock et al. (31) has demonstrated foam rolling effects in performance testing when combined with a dynamic warm-up (31). The purpose of this study was not to investigate performance improvements but rather to investigate the differences in performance as a result of 2 different rolling progressions. Aside from flexibility testing, there were no additional differences in testing variables including measures of power, strength, agility, and subjective scaling. These results suggest both FRap and FRml demonstrating to performance effects in regards to NFL combine drills and preference.
Although this was the first study to measure the acute performance effects of different foam rolling progressions, it is not without limitations. With any maximum-effort physical performance study, there is no real control group it may create an unnecessary risk of injury for subjects. It is worth noting that no athletes were injured during the performance variable testing. Further testing is currently underway examining the relationship between football specific strength and conditioning movements and foam rolling progressions. This may prove beneficial to not only improve performance testing but also on-field abilities.
Foam rolling may elicit physiological adaptations beneficial for performance, ROM, and recovery. Although conflicting research exists, there have been many positive effects as a result of foam rolling warm-up and cooldown techniques. Based primarily on this study, we suggest direct foam rolling application on the targeted musculature for isolated testing, as this may prove beneficial. Because there were no differences within our athletic population in regards to NFL combine drills and subjective measures, we suggest using a progression of choice. With the many benefits associated, it is reasonable to incorporate foam rolling into any prehabilitation and/or rehabilitation strength and conditioning program, as both progressions may be equally beneficial. Our results demonstrated that athlete preference exists between foam rolling progressions, and preference could then be considered when programming a warm-up. Furthermore, motivating an athlete to properly warm-up with a foam roller device may increase if they have a preference and choice (5). Further research is necessary as foam rolling is a topic of interest within the strength and conditioning field.
The authors take this opportunity to acknowledge the important supporting role of our performance colleagues Robert Fioritto and Kyle Von Carlowitz of Elite Sports Performance, Mentor, OH, for their advanced knowledge in prehabiliation and performance battery testing.
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