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Does Self-Massage Improve Sports Performance?

25 Apr 2017
Randall Cooper
Massage has long been a staple component of the preparation and maintenance of sports people. Whilst there’s plenty of research yet to do, there’s an emerging body of evidence that sports massage is an effective tool in optimising athletic performance. Health professionals have traditionally been the custodians of sports massage, however in recent times self-massage using hands, foam rollers and tennis balls has increased in popularity with people of all athletic abilities. But does ‘doing it yourself’ work?

A study recently published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy1 looked into whether self-massage could improve the quality of a Functional Movement Screen (FMS™) deep squat. Before people start going crazy in the comments section about the FMS™ squat as a method of assessment, it’s not the most important part of the study or this blog so hear me out.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with FMS™ squat, see the figure below. Each squat is given a score of ‘quality’ as follows;

0 – presence of pain

1 – unable to perform the movement

2 – can perform the movement but with compensation/s

3 – perfect


Figure 1 - FMS™ Deep Squat, Monteiro et al, 2017

Twenty active and fit (regular resistance training) females participated in two studies;

Experiment 1 – assessed the impact of self-massage to the lateral thigh. Two baseline measures were taken (with 96 hours between each), then the experiment consisted of foam rolling on the lateral thigh/quads for 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds, and 120 seconds. Fifteen-minute intervals were taken between each bout of self-massage.


Image – Foam Roller Lateral Thigh

Experiment 2 – the participants came back after a 2-3 month break, and went through the same protocol as above but this time ‘rolled-out’ either the lateral torso (targeting the lats and ribs/intercostals) or the plantar surface of the foot with a tennis ball.


Image – Foam Roller Lateral Torso

To keep this blog nice and brief I’ll skip the stats and just cut to the chase. Self-massage to any of the lateral thigh, lateral torso, or plantar surface of the foot improved the squat performance. Furthermore, the longer participants' self-massaged, the better the improvement (90 seconds or greater).

The research here isn’t perfect. It’s a small study with a bunch of limitations, but it does raise a few interesting questions;

Self-massage to all three areas improved the squat. Why?

The self-massage presumably reduced global muscle tone (tightness) via a neurophysiological (nervous system) mechanism. The reduced muscle tone would then allow a greater range of motion, and what I like to call ‘ease’ of motion. In turn, this would allow better flexibility in the hips, knees, ankles and upper back/shoulder region, and a better/lower squat.

Whether those neurophysiological changes are spinal or supraspinal is interesting and up for debate, however it’s clear that self-massage of one area has a systemic effect. Great bang for buck!

Why is 90-120 seconds superior to 30 seconds?

For any one who’s either given or received a sports massage, I’m sure you’ve all experienced the point in time where a muscle or you ‘release’. It takes a while, and this research goes some way to suggesting that at least 90 seconds of manual pressure is required to elicit that response. One current theory is that this point of release is when the Autonomic Nervous System shifts from a sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest) drive.

This quick change in tone is nothing new to a manual therapist, however the ‘art’ in the technique in a sporting context is getting a desired effect on muscle tone, or range of motion without putting someone to sleep before the game or race.

What are the take home messages?

  • Common self-massage techniques can be used to quickly improve muscle tone and range of motion
  • Self-massage of one area is likely to have a global effect on the body
  • A minimum of 90-seconds is required
  • Areas of the body that are persistently tight and/or painful should be assessed and treated by a suitably qualified health professional

 There are pros and cons for the use of foam rollers versus tennis balls versus self-hand massage (using Premax of course!) for self-massage. I’ll tackle this issue in a future blog. Stay tuned!


  1. Monteiro, Estêvão Rios, et al. "ACUTE EFFECTS OF DIFFERENT SELF‐MASSAGE VOLUMES ON THE FMS™ OVERHEAD DEEP SQUAT PERFORMANCE." International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy12.1 (2017): 94.
  1. Bradbury-Squires, David J., et al. "Roller-massager application to the quadriceps and knee-joint range of motion and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge." Journal of athletic training50.2 (2015): 133-140.

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