THE TRUTH ABOUT FOAM ROLLING
Emily R Pappas, MS Exercise Physiology
Tight muscles are NORMAL, especially if you are training hard and pushing your body to excel both on the field and in the gym
BUT tight muscles can affect how you FEEL…
…..how you MOVE…
….and how you PERFORM.
Foam rolling is a GREAT way to feel less restricted, improve your range of motion in movement, and pave the way for higher performance.
At least- in the short term.
Foam rolling is NOT the key to changing your tissues to improve your range of motion and movement quality in the LONG TERM.
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) techniques (like foam rolling) can be used at the moment, as a short-term way to help you feel better. They’re a good alternative to an ibruprofen…but ultimately do not change your tissues like other modalities.
Let’s dig into…
- What the heck foam rolling actually is!
- Does foam rolling change your range of motion (ROM?
- When foam rolling works.
WHAT THE HECK IS FOAM ROLLING (…and…is it really that important?)
Let’s talk SMRs. Or… “Self-Myofascial Release.”
Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release.
“Ok…” so you’re thinking… “What’s myofascial???”
Myo-fascial refers to the FASCIA surrounding your muscles
Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle, blood vessels, and nerves. Your FASCIA can be thought of as the GLUE that holds all other body tissues together!
Fascia may be responsible for REDUCING the range of motion (ROM) if it becomes restricted. (1)
Repetitive movements or high volume loading patterns (like during an athlete’s season) creates a dysfunction within the fascial system which leads to an inflammatory response (see figure below)
When your muscles spasm, they result in knots or trigger points (microspasms) that create weak adhesions in your soft tissues. These adhesions produce pain and possibly contribute to the reduction in your ROM and performance! (2)
Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a common way to alleviate the pain and decrease the ROM associated with the overactive muscle and fascial restrictions.
But HOW does SMR like foam rolling actually help….and does it?
Think of using a foam roller as a type of personal massage.
When you have a tight painful muscle, rubbing on that muscle seems to help it FEEL better right?
Well….foam rollers are meant to work the same way!
Using a foam roller is a way to help tell your muscles to RELAX when in spasm. By providing mechanical stress to your muscles, it signals to your body to DECREASE muscle tension and bring blood flow to the fascia.
At the moment, it brings relief and can help stop the feeling of pain or discomfort!
BUT WHAT ABOUT MY FASCIA ADHESIONS?
When you wear a backpack all day, do your shoulder muscles get permanently pushed down because “adhesions are broken” and your fascia is getting released?
So using a foam roller isn’t doing that either!
Some fitness gurus will say that foam rolling can create long-term changes in your tissue. But the truth is: there is NOT enough evidence to support this view. Using a foam roller or a massage is NOT going to “break adhesions” resulting from muscle spasms.
But does it really matter? Are this adhesions really affecting my movement anyhow?
Although research shows us foam rolling does not really change these “adhesions”…what we know is changing is our PERCEPTION OF PAIN.
When an athlete perceives discomfort, her range of motion is going to be affected…
Foam Rolling and RANGE OF MOTION
When your muscles are in spasm, that tightness is going to cause discomfort when you move!
Think about this:
If you have TIGHT hip flexors, performing a squat or sprinting at max speed is going to hurt.
So what do you do?
Rolling on a foam roller or a lax ball on your hip flexors can definitely HELP decrease this discomfort.
A number of studies have shown SIGNIFICANT acute improvements in ROM as a result of SMR (2,3).
This makes sense when we remember how the mechanical pressure of the ball or roller is going to tell your muscles to CHILL OUT.
Muscles that are less tense move in a way that allows you to improve your ROM discomfort free!!
However, it is important to note that these ROM improvements are ACUTE or fleeting.
Numerous studies have shown a return to previous ROM after 10-min post foam rolling (3)
Simply put: Foam rolling is NOT a way to change your tissues in the long run (2)
And of course it doesn’t! Sitting on your butt all day isn’t going to make your butt permanently flat. Your tissues do not CHANGE in the long run based on pressure.
So how do you get your tissues to “change”? How can you REALLY improve your mobility/ flexibility?
“By definition, full range resistance training is a form of dynamic stretching that challenges flexibility” (1)
“Every strength session an athlete does is a flexibility-strength workout, and as such will lead to increases in not only ROM over time, but more importantly concurrent increases in strength over that full range” (1)
Strength will provide the necessary stability and motor control required to safely realize any new ROM (improved mobility and flexibility) in a sport-specific movement pattern (1)
Improving your ROM and STRENGTH in that ROM not only INCREASES your performance but DECREASES your risk of injury!! (3)
Considering WHY you want to improve your ROM, it is pretty obvious that foam rolling alone is not going to adequately deliver the range of motion and STRENGTH in that range of motion needed for female athletes.
So… when can foam rolling be useful to the female athlete?
When does Foam Rolling fit in?
So we know that foam rolling is NOT a way to improve your flexibility or mobility in the long term.
But we do know that foam rolling helps RELIEVE a feeling of discomfort and tightness.
Here’s the key:
For an athlete who is feeling discomfort or tightness, foam rolling is a way to alleviate discomfort BEFORE implementing other training methods that will help her in the long run.
So when should you foam roll?
Let’s consider an athlete about to perform a back squat in her strength training session but her knee is feeling super tight and restricted.
Step one: prepare her tissues for the session through MOVEMENT.
Having an athlete perform slow split squats will help introduce a type of ECCENTRIC STRETCH to help her hip flexors relax, and alleviate some pulling on her knee (4)
This type of MOVEMENT is going to help prepare her tissues to perform a similar movement pattern LATER but with a heavier demand or load
But what if you are hesitant to move because of the pain??
Step two: foam roll her hips!
Remember, foam rolling is going to help alleviate the perception of pain or discomfort.
If this pain is inhibiting her from MOVING (your goal!), foam rolling her hip flexors for a couple of minutes can help her body’s perception of pain to CHILL OUT
Now that the pain is decreased, it’s time to….
Step three: MOVE!!
Now that the pain is decreased, its time to re-introduce those split squats to help eccentrically stretch her hips through slow and controlled movements.
Step four: Load the tissue and BACK SQUAT
Now that our athlete is pain-free and her tissues are better prepared for the higher load of a back squat, it’s time to LOAD the movement!
Remember, “by definition, full range resistance training is a form of dynamic stretching that challenges flexibility” (1)
Through the back squat, we are not only getting her body to move through a full range of motion at her knees and hips, but we are STRENGTHENING that range of motion.
Remember, STRENGTH is what provides the necessary STABILITY and MOTOR CONTROL necessary to achieve a long-lasting RANGE OF MOTION in a sport-specific movement pattern. (1)
So, the moral of the story is…
Stop Foam Rolling first!!!
Yes! Foam rolling is going to help you decrease your perception of tightness and discomfort…
….but it is NOT going to help you PREPARE your tissues for movement the way you want.
With only 24 hours in a day and only an hour or two in the gym, laying on a foam roller is not the best use of your time to PREPARE your body to MOVE.
Remember, the goal of any athletic performance (whether it be a back squat in the gym or a high vertical in your bball game) is MOVEMENT. (5)
If you feel TIGHT, focus FIRST on the goal of MOVEMENT (and not a stretch…) to relieve the sensation.
Try performing a couple of slow and controlled bodyweight or goblet hold split squats or half kneeling presses to alleviate tightness. If that doesn’t work, then we can talk about how foam rolling fits into the equation.
Think of foam rolling as a way to relieve some of that discomfort so you can MOVE later without popping ibuprofen!
Do we want to implement it first? NO WAY as it is not essential to our goal of MOVEMENT.
But if we try to move and we still feel pain, rolling out some of the discomforts can help!
Should you foam roll after???
Studies show there is a possible decrease in DOMS (or delayed muscle soreness) when athletes introduce a 10-min bout of foam rolling post exercise session. (1)
This is GREAT if we need to perform at our highest the next day….
BUT….DOMS is your body’s way of expressing the inflammatory response that occurs after training
In our recovery article, we discussed this inflammatory response is NECESSARY when telling your body it needs to IMPROVE later.
By implementing methods to decrease this response such as through foam rolling, ice baths, and other recovery methods, DOMS or soreness can decrease…but at the possible expense of your training adaptation.
Have a big game tomorrow and you CANNOT be sore? Adding 10 min of foam rolling after your training session can help!
But, if you’re training hard to improve your strength for next season, just accept the soreness as part of the adaptation process!
Tight muscles are NORMAL if you are training hard and pushing your body to excel on the field and in the gym
BUT tight muscles can affect how you FEEL, how you MOVE, and how you PERFORM.
Despite what mobility “gurus” may say…there is NOT enough evidence to support the claim that foam rolling changes your tissues in the long term to help you move better.
Rather, there is extensive evidence that shows movement and progressively loading those movements helps to change your tissues in a way that will improve your performance in your sport.
If you are looking to improve your range of motion and strength in the long run, ditch the foam roller and start moving.
If your tight muscles are making you feel PAIN, consider foam rolling instead of popping ibuprofen.
- Sargent, D., Clarke, R. (2018). Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes. Mobility for Performance in Female Athletes. Marlborough: Crowood. pp 111-139.
- Sullivan, K.M., Silvey, D.B.J., Button, D.C., and Behm, D.G. (2013). Roller masser application to the hamstrings increases sit and reach range of motion within 5 to 10 seconds without performance impairments. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 8(3), pp 228-236.
- Stone, M., Ramsey, M.W., Kinser, A.M., O’Bryant, H.S., Ayers, C., and Sands, W.A., (2006). Stretching acute or chronic? The potential consequences. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(6), pp. 66-74
- Aarimaa, V., Rantanen, J., Best, T., Schultz, E., Corr, D., & Kalimo, H. (2004). Mild eccentric stretch injury in skeletal muscle causes transient effects on tensile load and cell proliferation. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 14, 367–372.
- Webb, A. (2016) Review of the literature: Functional movement development of athletic performance. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, 24 (3), pp. 23-40