Have you ever foam rolled and wondered, “am I doing this right? Why am I doing this? How long do I have to do this for?”, or even, “will this fix me?”
While there’s a place for foam rolling in the gym and for recovery, it’s not always doing what you think it’s doing.
So…what does foam rolling really do?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t do:
- “release” or “mold” your fascia
- “knead out” any “knots” in your muscles
- decrease your risk of injury
- reduce the appearance of cellulite
- improve your posture
- fix all your life’s problems
Your muscles and fascia cannot be made more “pliable” or be “lengthened” by this lovely piece of foam. Give your body some credit – it’s made to be much more stable than that! The amount of mechanical force that can be applied by the foam roller is not sufficient to create actual changes in your body tissue.
Foam rolling works as a self-massage tool, affecting not the muscle and fascia tissue itself, but rather the nerve endings found throughout. The sensory input from these endings sends a message to the brain, which tries to diminish how much of the “stress” or “fight/flight” (sympathetic) response is being sent out in favor of the “rest/digest/relax” (parasympathetic) response. When your muscles receive the “relax” message back from the brain, there is a transient (ie. not permanent) result of a decreased muscle tone (the feeling of tension carried in that muscle).
In short – rolling helps the brain to tell those muscles to chill out for a while.
So, then, if the effects aren’t permanent, why are you rolling?
There are still certainly benefits to using the foam roller. Here are the main ones that we discuss with our clients:
- Foam rolling can be included as part of a warm-up, to get your muscles warm and improve range of motion prior to your workout. Notice that I said part of a warm-up, not the whole thing. Although the effects of the foam roller are transient, it can be a good start to getting your muscles prepped for a workout, when followed up with some mobility work and movement prep. The new, temporary change in range of motion can be encouraged to last longer when we put that extra range to use! When we stimulate these effects, we basically open a window of time in which our body can explore these new ranges and try to own them – over time, we start to adapt to these new ranges, and, with consistency, can make those ranges more permanent.
- Foam rolling can help to alleviate Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) while recovering from a hard workout. Again, these effects by the nervous system will be temporary, and your best use of the foam roller for recovery is to combine it with some light movement – either mobility work again, or some walking, biking, swimming, etc.
- We stated above that foam rolling cannot decrease your risk of injury or improve your posture – at least not directly. It can, however, be a piece of the puzzle that helps to improve your range of motion (as already covered). Improved range of motion coupled with proper strength training will make your body more resilient as we become both mobile and stable. Most injuries happen in ranges that are either further than our muscles can handle being stretched, or in which we lack the strength to control; so, it stands to reason that being able to reach further and to have strength in these end ranges will make us less prone to injury.
The indirect effects on our posture come again when paired with proper strength training and, more than anything else, improving the daily habits that made you adapt to this poor posture in the first place.
The takeaway here is that although the foam roller isn’t the one and only solution, it can still be a handy tool in your self-care kit.
Do you have to foam roll to start moving better? No – there are many different tools and techniques that can help you get to that goal. But, can you? Absolutely. It’s one piece of the puzzle that can contribute to better range of motion and quality of life in the long-term.
Want to add foam rolling to your tool kit?
Here are some common areas to foam roll and how to get set up. Don’t overdo it, though; it’s been shown that rolling for 20 seconds can have the same effect as rolling for 60 seconds, so foam rolling for 5 minutes straight on one muscle group, in essence, just wasted 4 minutes and 40 seconds of your life. We recommend 20-30 seconds max per muscle, and try to keep it under 5 minutes total. Remember to follow your rolling up with some mobility work or light movement, depending on what you’re trying to get out of it for the day!
Foam Rolling – Calves
Sitting on floor, place roller beneath calves. Cross legs at ankles to increase pressure into one calf at a time. Use leverage from your arms to roll up and down.
Foam Rolling – Quads
With the foam roller on the front of your thighs, use your forearms for leverage to roll up and down over your quads. Roll all the way from just above the knee to the crease of the hip.
Foam Rolling – TFL and ITB
Lie on your side with the foam roller under your bottom hip. Cross your top leg in front, with the foot planted to use as leverage to roll all the way from just above the knee up over the hip joint.
Foam Rolling – Adductors
Lie face down with one leg out to the side, knee bent. Place foam roller under inner thigh and use your forearms as leverage to roll along the muscle.
Foam Rolling – Thoracic Spine
Place roller under mid back, with elbows pulled forward to move scapulae out of the way. Roll up and down spine, being careful not to roll up into the neck.
Foam Rolling – Lats
Starting with roller under upper back, elbows pulled forward, turn to one side. Roll all the way from the back border of the armpit to the mid torso.
Have more questions about foam rolling or mobility work? Need help managing your range of motion or pain? Request your free consult on our training page, or shoot us an email!