Foam Rolling Doesn’t Do What You Think (And Other Mobility Myths busted by Dr. Quinn Henoch)

Foam rolling or mashing with a lacrosse ball before training isn’t lengthening your muscles or breaking up adhesions. Yet, chances are you, your friends or plenty of people you see at the gym daily are grabbing one and giving themselves a few minutes of random soft-tissue work either as a major part of —or as your only— warmup.

“Not only is there no evidence to support [rolling to break up scar tissue and adhesions], there’s some to refute it because we can’t create the force to create those types of changes,” said Quinn Henoch, who has a Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Indianapolis, is head of sports rehabilitation for Juggernaut Training Systems and recently released the cutting-edge book Weightlifting Movement Assessment & Optimization: Mobility & Stability for the Snatch and Clean & Jerk.

“You can’t lie on a foam roller for 60 seconds and expect things to change. We aren’t made of clay. If that was the case we’d have permanent dents in our body from a heavy barbell.” Think about it: your body is tough. Consider how hard we need to strength train to see changes.

So mashing, smashing, flossing and static stretching isn’t going to make a significant long-term change. It isn’t going to translate into better functional movement. It may make you feel better, Hencoch concedes, but it’s not enough on its own.

Then how do you make real mobility changes and become a better mover and stronger lifter? How do you get past nagging aches and pains and assess and correct yourself, your athletes or your patients?

Henoch was kind enough to take the time to help get you on the right track and stop wasting time on ineffective mobility. This is Part 1 of our two-part series with the Clinical Athlete founder (who will delve into more specific clean and jerk and snatch work in a follow-up piece.)

For much more detail on assessment, scientific principles, mobility and stability solutions and a ton of drills, we highly recommend you check out his his book on Amazon.

Now you’re probably thinking “Do I have to throw away my foam roller or lacrosse ball?”

Not necessarily. There’s some effect –foam rolling has been shown to help with perceived soreness (DOMS) after a workout, for example.  There’s also the theory that it helps with pain perception (So, you do actually FEEL better.) But any range of motion change in mashing, smashing and rolling is short term.

“The effect of rolling doesn’t warrant sacrificing time to do it over the actual movement. But I know it’s popular stuff, people are going to use them. If you want to do it, do it in short bouts,” Henoch said. “You want the minimum dose to see an effect and you want to do it in very close proximity to the movements you are training. If 30 seconds of laying on a log makes your quad feel better, than don’t spend 5 minutes rolling out your quad. You want to take that window after 30 seconds and use it.”

Stretching or creating space without using that added range of motion immediately is a colossal waste of time. (Like hitting control + alt + delete on your mobility effort.) 

“Stretching increases your tolerance to the position rather than creating a permanent length change in the movement. If that helps you get more comfortable I’m all for that but your expectation is, ‘This is a short term strategy and I need to load it right away’,” Henoch said.

“If you just wait 10-15 minutes you probably lost it already. Make your change in range of motion and perception and then load it. If you do 3-4 rounds of that you’re greasing the movement pattern for later.”

Instead of doing 10 minutes of releasing tissues, 10 minutes of stretching and 15 minutes of activation work before a barbell warmup, try to take those  elements and loop them into a circuit to reap the short-term benefits of your stretching.

Henoch calls this kind of loop clusters and uses it often as a way to maximize mobility and prime you for the actual movement(s) you’re training that day.

Example of a Movement Cluster, 2-3 rounds, 3-5 minutes total:
1. Supine Knee Hugs, 6-8 reps
2. Manual Ankle & Great Toe Dorsiflexion, 6-8 reps
3. Barefoot Air Squat with Ankle Focus, 6-8 reps

Instead of a banded shoulder stretch or passive bar hang, maybe you add in some slow negative pull-ups with a pause at the bottom to ensure you’re engaging the right muscles. You do it a couple times, with control and purpose, and you’re putting your tissues through much more of a load than any mobility tool can provide.

Key tip: weights and eccentric movements are your warm-up friends. 

You body responds to external loads. That’s why if you squat 100 lb. as a beginner, eventually you adapt so that 100 lb. is not heavy any more.

Henoch says using the eccentric portion of adding load to a stretch has been shown to get athletes range of motion improvements quicker and helps to improve strength within that range of motion. This is important for those of us who need mobility work and the hyper-mobile athletes who have the range of motion but lack the ability to control it.

The Shoulder pull over is an example of not only stretching tissues that impede overhead strength, but gaining some strength —through a light load— through the same stimulus. Keep your back flat against the ground, play around with grip here and stop where you feel restriction.

One of Henoch’s favorite hamstring stretches is weighted Romanian deadlifts.

Grab a kettle bell and sink into the stretch, stopping when you reach end range of motion and taking 3-4 breaths. You want to think quality reps here, you don’t need to do more than a few of these to get your posterior primed for lifting. Plus, you are mimicking an actual movement and creating mobility in that lift.

We know. You’re still thinking “but putting the lacrosse ball on a knot makes me feel better.” 

If you poke an area for a while, eventually you are going to perceive to have less tenderness. If it makes you feel better, great. No one is saying you have to stop using it all together.

But maybe make it part of a cluster. Do a quick 30 seconds and move on to something else.

If you take anything out of this story, we want you to approach your warm-up with focus and intent. You want to be doing the same movements -even if it’s just with a barbell— that you are going to do in training that day. Get comfortable. That’s how you truly make positional changes and gain mobility that you can use for better performance..

“The biggest issue honestly is that people want the quick fix. ‘I want to be an Olympian yesterday’. They want the easier fix, the less strenuous one,” Henoch said. “But the body responds to stress and it needs a sufficient stress. Our bodies don’t like change and it’s not going to make one unless you make it. That’s why training needs to be hard.

Foam rolling and stretching don’t provide the stimulus to create a change. We know the barbell does. We know external load does. If we are going to try to make our corrective drills or mobility drills a significant stressor- it has to be enough to create a change.”

Asymmetry In Your Squat? Tightness in your hips ? Enter the Front Foot Elevated Split Squat for today's #ADailydose via @clinicalathlete's @quinn.henochdpt. I've been doing these a lot to correct my hip imbalances/hip shift in my squat and they're AMAZING. ⠀ ____________________⠀ You can use this drill to correct a shift in someone's squat, or for a loading strategy when rehabbing the knee. If you want to correct an asymmetrical quirk, then we need some asymmetrical loading. This drill forces the lifter to sink into the front hip. Keep the hips square, and keep the tempo slow, since the weight is light. You can also use these for ankle mobility, with emphasis on dorsiflexion (moving the knee over the foot) without lifters. You can use dumbells or barbells for this too. ___________ Got some GREAT content coming to you guys very soon from Quinn. Legit. ? #athletedaily #clinicalathlete #movelikeugiveadamn

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Another popular movement Henoch prescribes to athletes is tempo work. Tempo counterbalance squats where the athlete stops when they feel restriction and holds just above there. He also uses pause counterbalance squats and elevated split squats, where the back knee lowers to the ground at a deficit (see above.) You are going into full range of motion with an external stimulus, getting the benefits of unilateral work and priming your body for any kind of squatting motion.

“I think people miss the point that the training exercises themselves can be used as mobility if they do it appropriately,” Henoch said. “Slow down the tempo and just hang out in those positions. Add pauses. That can be incredibly effective.”


Ready to make lasting mobility changes and PR your  lifts? Read Part 2 of this series here.