Introduction to Foam Rolling

What is a Foam Roller?

A foam roller is a self-applied massage tool; it’s a long cylindrical piece of foam, often reinforced in the center with a denser material, such as PVC pipe. The greater the density of the foam roller, the more pressure you can apply to muscle tissue. The foam rolling market has significantly expanded in the past 5 years, so there are all kinds of shapes and sizes of foam rollers these days.

What is Foam Rolling?

Foam rolling is often described as “self myofascial release”.

Self ► “Self” refers to the self-service nature of foam rolling. Unlike traditional massage therapy, you don’t need anyone but yourself to foam roll.

Myofascial ►  “Fascia” (pronounced “fash-uh”) is a thin lattice-like connective tissue that runs throughout the body in several layers, directions, and planes. Fascia is multifunctional and pervasive. The term “myofascial” refers specifically to the fascia that blends seamlessly in and out of muscle tissue. Fascia plays an important role in controlling movement. During movement, fascia continuously updates the central nervous system (CNS) with information about joint positions, and this communication helps the CNS fine-tune whatever movement is being attempted. Fascia also contributes to the maintenance of posture and stability by helping create necessary amounts of tension around joints. 

Release ► “Release” refers to the reduction of fascial tension that occurs as a result of foam rolling. Since myofascial tissue blends seamlessly into and out of muscles, reducing fascial tension reduces muscle tension.

Why Foam Roll?

Foam rolling improves the extensibility (the lengthening ability) of muscle tissue and elicits favorable changes in the body’s sensory-motor system. In layman’s terms, foam rolling can improve joint range-of-motion and reduce muscle discomfort.

Chronic postural stress, sedentary lifestyles, and repetitive movements all have physiological consequences on muscle tissue. These 3 factors can lead to tense, tender, and overactive muscles. The best application of foam rolling is the reversal of these dysfunctional qualities. Once the quality of muscle tissue is normalized, the body is then capable of more functional movement patterns (i.e. movement patterns that are safe, efficient, and effective). 

When to Foam Roll

There are several instances where the use of foam rolling is beneficial. Generally speaking, foam rolling is best done just prior to a training session. When restriction and discomfort are alleviated in tense muscles before training, the body can then move with more natural mechanics during training. However, the effects of foam rolling don’t last long. Ideally, the time between foam rolling and training should be as short as possible. In strength training, foam rolling can be utilized between sets if you experience notable tension & discomfort with a particular movement.

For example, tight hamstrings limit hip-hinging* in the deadlift, and this can force the lower back to round when bending over to lift the barbell.  Due to this mobility compensation, risk of injury to the lumbar intervertebral discs is increased.

By foam rolling tight hamstrings prior to deadlifting, you will be able to properly hip-hinge and lift the weight with functional mechanics, increasing performance and reducing risk of injury.

*Hip-hinging is a bending movement defined by:

  1. Moving primarily at the hips
  2. Bending slightly at the knees
  3. Maintaining a neutral position of the spine (no rounding of the lower back)

How to Foam Roll

There are eight important concepts to remember when foam rolling.

  1. The foam roller is best utilized by placing it on the ground and lying on it, positioning yourself as necessary depending on what muscle group you wish to work on.
  2. Let gravity do the work. The foam roller “works” on the body via the weight of the body pressing into the foam roller. To increase or reduce pressure, change your body position so that more or less of your bodyweight is supported by the foam roller, respectively.
  3. Apply pressure gradually. Don’t apply pressure too deeply, causing intense painful sensations which can counter-productively increase tension and discomfort in muscles. More is not necessarily better. On a discomfort scale of 1-10, stay between 3-5. When rolling exceptionally tender areas, 6-7 is okay, but do not maintain that level of discomfort for more than 10 seconds at a time.  
  4. Breathe. Deep, slow, and controlled breathing (i.e. diaphragmatic breathing) can reduce muscle tension. Conversely, pain can increase muscle tension (as described in the previous point). Diaphragmatic breathing not only reduces muscle tension, but it also helps pace your rolling. For example, a 5-second exhalation is a good amount of time to roll down the length of the hamstrings.
  5. In tandem with the previous point, foam rolling should be performed slowly. If foam rolling is performed too quickly, the roller won’t settle into the muscle tissue, and the deeper layers of muscle won’t be affected. Foam roll slowly to ensure effectiveness of the soft-tissue work.
  6. Roll up and down the entire length of the muscle, but do not roll across joints (e.g. never roll over the knee cap). The foam roller should be oriented perpendicularly to the long-axis of the muscle.
  7. Foam roll where necessary. That is, foam roll areas of restriction and discomfort, and nowhere else. Foam rolling facilitates optimal exercise, but it is not exercise itself. For the sake of time-efficiency and energy-efficiency, foam rolling shouldn’t be used excessively.
  8. Roll the necessary muscle groups between 30 seconds and a couple minutes, depending on how much tension or discomfort you feel.

Closing Note

Foam rolling is not the same as seeing a massage therapist (e.g. a foam roller can’t assess the quality of muscle tissue through palpation and theoretical insight). However, the foam roller is an exceptionally cost-effective tool. As world renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle says, “Foam rollers are the poor man’s massage therapist, soft tissue work for the masses.”