They’ve quickly become one of the most popular pieces of self-help equipment and are now a basic staple in most gyms: it’s no secret that foam rollers have really taken off in the last few years.
It looks like they’ll be sticking around too.
With rolling exercises sweeping Instagram, and everyone from those working out from home to high level bodybuilders using them, you can’t deny that they are the new fitness must-have. But what’s all the hype about? And more importantly, do they actually work?
Well lucky for you, I’m about to tell you.
Firstly, what is a foam roller?
Foam rollers are basically a sturdy plastic cylinder covered with foam. They come in a range of sizes and with different textured foam, and these days with the market booming you can get a huge variety claiming to do slightly more specific things.
Essentially, you use the cylindrical shape to roll yourself over the top of the foam, applying pressure with your body weight to work though trigger points.
Trigger points are any form of adhesion, soreness or area of bungled/tight tissue that might be limiting your overall flexibility, mobility or just generally causing you pain and discomfort.
This process is referred to as Myofascial Release. Which is basically a DIY massage to relieve muscle tension.
The best part about this plastic massage therapist? It can be done basically anywhere.
Now I’m fine with admitting that when foam rollers first came out I wasn’t a believer. I thought them to be a passing fad and another ‘bro science’ gimmick designed to make money out of a booming fitness industry.
They have stuck around though, and it’s safe to say I have since changed my mind.
In this time, there have been many studies supporting their benefits, and it has been scientifically proven to improve blood flow and circulation, along with some other uses including the increase in your range of motion.
One thing these studies have debunked is the myth that you can jump on a foam roller for 30 seconds and see huge benefits from a quick drift back and forth. I wish this was true, but the body is far too complex for that!
There’s no denying they help, but it takes a little more effort than that.
So what’s the actual mechanics of what is going on when you’re foam rolling?
Let’s start with what IS NOT going on.
Foam rolling is not:
-Breaking down tissue.
-Breaking down your muscles.
-Breaking down your fibres or adhesions. (There is no way near enough pressure or time for those kinds of adaptations to the musculoskeletal system to be happening.)
-Breaking up tissues (if this were true we wouldn’t need massage therapists anymore)
-Changing the length of your muscle.
-Dramatically and magically opening up your range of motion.
What Foam rolling CAN do:
-Reduce your perception of stiffness within the muscle due to increased blood flow.
-Change your perception of your range of motion by telling your body it’s okay to let go through control in certain areas. It hasn’t made you more flexible, but it has drawn your minds attention to possibilities which makes your range of motion feel bigger.
-Let your brain give you more room to play within your workout.
-Allow you to feel this freedom for up to an hour after rolling
-Teaching your body and allow your brain to learn about strength and control.
-Get easier over time as your body adapts to the new range you are showing it.
Basically, it’s all in the brain. Foam rolling effects are mostly neurological.
Using a foam roller before a session will allow your brain to understand a fuller range of motion so that you can take it forward into a workout and strength train through your full mobility- teaching yourself control through a wider ability. It’s quite impressive subconscious stuff.
(Don’t spend too long on it though- the effect on each area will only last up to an hour, so if you begin with your hips and then spend 40 mins on the rest of your body, you’ve only got 20 mins of training to go before you’ve lost all ‘hip-effect’. Try to stick to 2, slow and considered minutes in each spot.)
Also, don’t just skim the body surface- you do have to experience some of the pain for it to subside and get to work in the ways I have described.
I suppose my thoughts on foam rolling are that it is certainly beneficial, just not in the way we once thought. It goes without saying that if it increases performance potential and the safety and agility of each movement then roll away!
Listen to your body each session, do what you need to, then move on to your dynamic stretches and get to work.
The only time I’d advise spending longer than 2 minutes per spot is if you are foam rolling after a session or on a rest day to alleviate DOMS (muscle soreness).
If you’re in a bad way after a leg day, you can use the roller to get your blood flowing and get the nutrients back into your muscles to speed up repair and recovery. It will be SUPER uncomfortable, but it’s a nice little hack to get you back to the gym quicker.
The discomfort will be worth it though.
Remember: breathing and patience are key in this.
And my parting piece of advice:
If in doubt, go slower.