Case Study: Stretching vs Foam Rolling – Relaxing Tight Hamstrings, Specifically the Semimembranosus and Semitendinosus Groups

If you have ever had a muscle group in your body that feels like it’s being pulled to the limit when you’re stretching, then you need to read this article.  This a case study of the approach I took to mitigate my injury, and it may work for you, too.

A couple years ago, after relaunching my workout routine after a brief hiatus, I was in the sauna at my local gym doing my post-workout stretching (I love to get my sweat on and get my stretching done at the same time).  I have a basic routine, where I start with my forward bend with the feet together.  When I folded forward for this stretch, nothing felt out of the ordinary.

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Forward fold to begin stretching the hamstrings.

I will typically then move my feet wide apart and repeat the same forward bend, reeeeaching out to the floor with my hands.

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Feet wide apart forward fold.
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Feet wide apart, fold to one side.

“Wuw”, I said to myself as I bent down with my feet apart.  My left hamstring felt like a tightly stretched band that might break at any moment.  It was a muscle group on the inner side of my hamstring, connecting the inner side of my thigh to my calf.  This was the first time in my life I had felt this pain.  I began to think back and try to remember what could have caused this – a basketball pick-up game, a run, a bike ride – some incident that I can remember and point to as the cause of this torment!  I could not remember anything specifically that I could point to.  Maybe I’m just getting old, I thought to myself.

Call me insane, call me hopeful, call me whatever you want, but I was beginning to lose hope in the power of stretching.

Feeling these, what seem like random pains, has become more and more common for me.  I’m only 27 years old, but BOY has my body changed exponentially in the last few years.  I usually have at least one part of my body that is not functioning at 100%, usually two or three parts, actually.  I’ve always had a tight muscle framework, and have never been exceptionally flexible.  I have had lower back pain since my childhood.  But these days, I will get what seems like a random shoulder injury, a random trigger point in my back that literally feel like a knot made out of stone, a sharp pain in my buttocks that feels like pinched nerves, and other similar injuries that make me feel like my body is constantly breaking down.  As I was sitting in that sauna, sweat dripping off my nose and splashing on the wooden floor, I made the decision to take action and start seriously addressing my injuries.

I decided that if I make sure to have an intense stretching session every time I work out, this hamstring had no choice but to loosen up.  So that’s exactly what I did.  Every time I stood in that sauna, tired from my 45 minutes of cardio and light weight lifting, before stretching my inner hamstring out for the first time that day, I would say to myself, “Today is going to be the day I bend down and feel nothing.”  They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions but expecting different results.  Call me insane, call me hopeful, call me whatever you want, but I was beginning to lose hope in the power of stretching.  I was certain stretching could be the only solution to the problem.  I mean, it’s a tight muscle.  Stretching relaxes a tight muscle, right?  I learned that in my case, it did not.

So I began to experiment with foam rolling.  I had never foam rolled in my life, and I was skeptical how effective it would be.  My philosophy was that if I hadn’t already heard of it or done it, then it cannot be something that actually works.  Makes a lot of sense, right?  I went to the local Wal-Mart, and I bought a generic looking, big-ass roller for around $15.  It was made of solid foam, which I later found out to be Polyethylene (PE) after a late night research session at the University of Google.

Recall how the pain only occurred when I spread my feet out.  This is because the muscle groups that were abnormally stiff were the Semimembranosus and Semitendinosus groups.  They run along the inner side of the back of the leg.  This is where I felt the pain, on my left leg, and so I targeted this area in my rolling sessions.  I would brace myself with my right hand, and I would twist my body slightly such that the roller applied pressure to that targeted area.  I did this for about a week, and….nothing.  I quickly realized this was not the proper roller for the issue I was trying to fix.  It was not nearly firm enough, and I felt like it was doing nothing for me.  But I wasn’t nearly ready to quit on my dreams of full range of motion!

I headed back to my local Wal-Mart.  Why Wal-Mart, you ask?  I’m not a big fan of the “jungle inside a box”, where there is a register for every person in the store, but only two that are open at any given time.  However, I did like the idea of going into a store and touching, feeling, holding, even smelling the different foam rollers.  This was important for me as I was still in the experimenting stage.  I did go to Academy Sports and Outdoors, but it appeared I could get essentially the same roller at Wal-Mart for half the price.  Literally.  Half.

This time I spotted a hollow foam roller that looked like a PVC pipe with foam wrapped around.  It felt firm and looked like it could hold its own against the pressure I needed to apply.  This one was made with ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam – the same stuff most athletic shoe absorbers are made of.  I took it home with me (after I paid for it, of course!).

I repeated the same procedure with this roller, and I fell in love.  After a session, I could FEEL the circulation under my skin!  It did a tremendous job at penetrating deep inside my hamstring and working the fascia, the fibrous tissue that connects your body’s muscles and organs.  I tried to focus on applying sustained pressure and simultaneously twisting my leg side to side as I rolled back and forth.  I would roll, then stop and twist side to side, then roll some more, stop, and so on.

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Rolling – note that for maximum pressure, I would put my right leg on top of my left.

 

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Twisting from side to side was just as important if not more important than rolling back and forth.

I felt the results the very next day.  My hamstring was sore – but this time, in a good way, like the next day after a deep tissue massage.  When I went down for my stretch the next afternoon, I could already reach a little further without feeling pain.  I continued rolling my hamstring for the next few weeks, every other day.  It was definitely not an overnight fix, and it took several weeks for me to feel that I had full range of motion back.  My left hamstring finally matched the flexibility of my right hamstring, and I can without a doubt say it was due to the foam rolling.

On a side note, that foam roller brand that I purchased at Wal-Mart licenses TriggerPoint Performance’s “patented” Grid design and is still available at Wal-Mart, but the manufacturer has replaced the high density EVA with a low density foam.  TriggerPoint has done the same, and in my humble opinion, they have completely devalued their design.  The difference between the previous version and the new watered-down version is day and night, but they have kept the price the same!

Anyway, let me conclude by summarizing what I learned from this experience.  If you have a similar problem as I did, then remember the following takeaways:

  • Stretching warms the muscles up by increasing blood flow, but it does not penetrate the fascia like foam rolling or massage does
  • You need a firm roller, preferably one made of EVA foam
  • A hollow roller with high-density EVA is ideal
  • Foam rolling should not be 2-dimensional – side to side motions are just as important is back and forth rolling
  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint – take your time when you roll, and anticipate small improvements every day, not an overnight fix
  • Focus on the trigger points and problem areas, but work on the entire body every week to maintain circulation and loosen stiff muscle groups

Twisting from side to side was just as important if not more important than rolling back and forth.

I will be writing another blog about what I did when the foam rollers in the market did not satisfy all my needs.  SPOILER ALERT – I put a team together that helped me develop my own foam rollers.  Peace of Muscle’s Honeycomb Set has all the features you need in a foam roller to mitigate the issues described in this article.  And since you’ve made it this far in the article without losing focus, that tells me you are sincerely interested in mitigating your injuries or maintaining your current muscle health.  So we are offering you 10% OFF on our Honeycomb Set.

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P.S. Look for more blogs like this where I’ll take you through the strategies that worked for me in my muscle therapy efforts against the effects of time and nature.