What is the most effective way to release tight muscles? Stretching or Rolling

Should you consider a third option for your long-term movement health?

Whenever we plan a blog the main aim is to help you, so essentially we try to take on board the research and keep the message simple so you can walk away with a clear and easy plan to follow and put into place immediately. The comparison of stretching and rolling should be no different, so drawing on the best information we have gathered, knowing that this is a huge subject these are the points that will best guide and influence the time you spend on these activities as part of your training. Along with the added third option allowing you to put your movement health, for injury prevention, for performance, for well-being at the heart of your training plan.


Rolling on a foam roller is the new kid on the block, the latest way to ‘release your muscle tightness’, by inducing various levels of pain while completing this task. You are not alone in wondering why it must hurt so much and what is it actually doing that helps. The good news is you generally feel better as a result so find yourself rolling again next time going through the same pain levels again.

Why does it have to hurt so much every time? Why does it never get easier to roll? Essentially this is twofold, although the research is more limited on the exact effects of rolling at this stage. Firstly in the most basic form you are completing a movement similar to a massage, rolling across the soft tissues. It doesn’t matter if the effect is to release the muscle tissue, calm down active trigger points or improve fascial (the casing around all of your muscles) mobility. The effect is that you notice an improvement in your range of movement and ease of movement having completed the rolling. Secondly it hurts because you are essentially squashing the soft tissues, generally against the underlying bone, like anything this will set off the nerve receptors and you will notice pain but this is only part of the story. A muscle that is tight and overactive will always be more painful and so regular release work should help release the tension and calm the effect, this is probably the reason why we feel we move better after rolling. In time this can help us improve our movement patterns for our workout, better range, better muscle activation, better results.

The understanding of why it hurts again next time is a little trickier as there are several factors at play. The ideal would be we release the muscle and it stays released building a better long term movement pattern and less pain each time we roll. The things that prevent this are all playing a roll to different levels, so our habitual postures come into play. How we move, sit and behave changes our muscles activity and repeated postures can create loading that is constantly tightening muscles – so it hurts each time we roll. Maybe it is DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) from our previous workout and our body is still recovering. This is a dark alley to head down as latest research discusses the potential for DOMS to be a neural related effect. Finally, there is the loading of the fascial system and the increased sensitivity of this system to the compression forces of rolling creating the pain we experience. The good news is that rolling works and with more research we will understand the effects more fully. In the summary we discuss the time required for rolling to be most effective for you.


So we move onto stretching, the one we all know about, we all know we should do more of it but invariably it is the area that we drop off our workout or post run as time is short and we need to get on with our day. Plus, it is just a little boring. The hardest part with stretching is understanding what effect we are having; we don’t feel the instant effect of better movement. Aside from this when we stretch correctly it can tend to hurt too. The majority of stretching is targeted at the muscle structures; however, we should not forget the better terminology of mobility work which feels like it addresses the muscles, joints and neural system more fully. For the sake of this comparison we will focus on the muscle structures. The concept is to improve the resting position of the muscle fibres, when we train muscles and the connected neural system are fired up and reduce the natural range we have access too, which can be further inhibited by our habitual postures either from activity or rest.

So, to maintain good length in muscles we should complete effective stretching as part of our training programme, for the best effect at the end of the session to prevent restrictions building over time. The key to effective stretching is to make sure the origin of the muscle and the insertion are maintained in a controlled distance.

Take a basic thigh, or quad, stretch if you let your back arch and your hip flex while your knee wants to straighten you are effectively releasing the stretch. Try it, right now using the picture below as a guide for the position, hold it. Now try to engage your abdominal muscles to flatten your back, drive your hip forwards engaging the glut (don’t lose the back position) and take the knee back so it lines up with the standing knee. More intense stretch and a more effective stretch. That is the key to good effective stretching you need to really control the areas around to be effective, stretching should not be a passive exercise. Make sure you are stretching effectively to obtain the best results for your time input.

Stability Training

So how is there a third option? As you can see from the information above the long term benefits tend to be lacking from rolling and stretching. Generally, you find yourself back where you started at the next session, and this is one of the common statements from my client base. This is where our muscle stability comes into play, where the deeper muscles that help us with posture and day to day tasks are inhibited by the postures and movement patterns we adopt throughout our lives. If we can identify and effectively train these stabiliser muscles then there is an ability to change the loading on our power, or mobiliser, muscle groups. These are the muscles that get tight, the ones we are constantly rolling and stretching, so by reducing the workload on the mobilisers. Essentially restoring balance to the movement system allowing the muscles best designed to complete the task to do so, preventing the build-up of your tension and tightness. As this type of training requires specific targeted training for you as an individual, generally you will need to be assessed by a professional to identify your specific weaknesses.


As discussed at the start we want to make this easy for you. So what should you do right now? In the short term I would look at rolling being most effective before a training session, whether that is running, swimming, gym or Pilates. Get in there but pick out only four muscle that you know are tight for you and roll them for no longer than one minute, slowly targets trigger points but slightly shorter and quicker helps release and get the muscle moving so would be our preference.

At the end of your workout focus on stretching. The muscles are warm so you will be able to obtain good range and work on a simple basis of three to five sets of holding for about thirty seconds. As discussed above make sure you hold good form throughout the stretch to maximise the effectiveness.

Start to work on improving your stability, these can be targeted at both the start or end of your run or training session and can be incorporated into your gym session as part of your rest phase of your gym workout. Maximise your time for the best benefits. To get the very best benefits you will need to be assessed to make sure you are targeting your weak links and making them into strengths, and our Movement Screen is one of the best ways to do this, you can find out more here –

Enjoy your training, use your time effectively for the best results.

Build A Better Athlete


Rolling – Max 1 minute on one area or muscle, pre your training, using relatively quick movement across the area to help active the muscle. It will hurt but shouldn’t be more than about 4/10

Stretching – Most effective post training to maintain muscle length, target your key restrictions, holding good form to improve the stretch completing x3-5 sets of 30 second holds.

Stability Training – this should be completed as activation work pre your training session and can then be incorporated into your training or focused at the end, targeting your key weaknesses to improve neural pathways and stabiliser strength. This will be followed up separately in a future blog.