This week, I received a question about foam rolling from an Optimal Health Daily listener.
Do you remember my story on a previous week’s Q&A where I talked about my buddy with the Master’s degree in Kinesiology? The one who encouraged me to try CrossFit?
Well, this same buddy of mine encouraged me to try foam rolling as well.
Unlike the love I developed for high intensity interval training, I did NOT develop the same affection for foam rolling.
Look, I can deal with discomfort, but for some reason foam rolling was SO uncomfortable for me that I just couldn’t get into it.
And I thought, “Well if foam rolling is uncomfortable for me, other people won’t be into this. This isn’t going to catch on.”
Whelp — I was definitely wrong about that. I remember when the home DVD workout program and global phenomenon P90X2 came out, there was an entire workout dedicated to foam rolling.
That’s when I finally realized that this wasn’t just a passing phase. Foam rolling was probably here to stay.
What is Foam Rolling?
It’s basically like it sounds — you roll around on a giant piece of foam.
This giant piece of foam is usually in the shape of a large cylinder. But honestly, “giant piece of foam” is a bit misleading.
Foam rollers can come in a number of different sizes. Again, they’re usually in the shape of a cylinder, but can range in length from 12 to 36-inches and are about 5 to 6” thick. Smaller foam rollers are often used for one specific area of the body at a time, whereas the larger rollers can be used for larger areas of the body. And, of course, it’s in a cylindrical shape for easy rolling.
The fact that it’s made of foam may sound like it’s all nice and soft and cushy. That's not true as the foam is usually quite firm. They do come in different densities, but for the most part, they are designed to be pretty firm. This is to ensure that they don’t buckle under the pressure, so to speak, when you use them.
Now let’s talk about what it’s designed to do…
How does Foam Rolling Work?
You may hear foam rolling referred to as self-massage or, more scientifically speaking, self myofascial release (or, SMR).
Why is this a thing? Well, foam rolling has often been described as a way to achieve the benefits of a deep tissue massage, but without having to hire a massage therapist. Some have claimed that foam rolling helps correct muscular imbalances, relieve muscle soreness, and improve range of motion.
Basically, here’s how foam rolling is performed: you place the cylindrically-shaped foam roller on the ground. Then, you align the roller so that it touches a specific part of your body, let’s say your lower back. You then allow the majority of your body weight to rest on the foam roller.
As your body weight begins to exert pressure on the foam roller, because the roller is so firm, it doesn’t give and instead returns that pressure to your soft tissues — in this case, the muscles in the lower back. Once you start to feel that pressure on the soft tissues, you begin to slowly roll back and forth, creating a massage-like sensation in that area.
So, again using my example, if you were to use a foam roller on your lower back, you would place the foam roller on the ground and while facing the ceiling, position your body on the roller so that it’s in contact with the portion of your lower back that needs relief. You would then use your legs to help you roll back and forth on the roller with the aim of softening these muscles. Now, the roller is designed to be used almost anywhere on the body. So, by varying your body position and the foam roller, you can isolate specific areas of the body. It is believed that, similar to receiving a massage, foam rolling may help loosen up tight muscles. Some believe that foam rolling before a workout may allow for a better warm-up and therefore, a better exercise session.
When are Foam Rollers Used?
Foam rollers are commonly used both before and after a workout. But when you’re at the gym and hear you people talking about it, they’ll say things like rolling before a workout leads to increases in strength and helps you exercise longer. When we look for scientific studies backing up this claim, the data are a bit limited.
What does the Research Say?
One study found that using a foam roller before a workout had did not improve workout performance. Authors of a different study discovered that stretching before a workout was just as effective as foam rolling when it came to improving flexibility. The authors of this same study also found that there were no improvements in strength or power when foam rolling was performed as part of a warm-up.
So what about the benefits of foam rolling after a workout? Unfortunately, there aren’t as many studies looking at this question. Scientists have performed a meta-analysis on the benefits of foam rolling — that’s where researchers gather a bunch of results from already-published studies on foam rolling and then perform one giant, or meta, analysis on these results — and concluded the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery are small and negligible.
They also said that if you do insist on using a foam roller, it may be better to use it as part of your warm-up instead of after the workout as part of your cool-down. Other researchers feel that coaches and trainers spend valuable time with their athletes and clients training them to use foam rollers, when it could be used more efficiently elsewhere — like teaching them to stretch properly.
Since I was never really into foam rolling, I can rest easy for now knowing that, by skipping it all these years, I’m probably not missing out on much.