Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique that is increasingly used by athletes, physical therapists, and gymgoers alike. It is meant to mimic and provide some of the same benefits of a deep tissue massage without having to take a trip to the massage therapist.
At its core, the purpose of foam rolling is to help loosen muscles and relieve muscle tension. It may feel uncomfortable as you roll over those tender spots, but foam rolling properly and consistently can help your range of motion, blood flow, and more. The foam roller can be used to warm up prior to exercise or to recover after your workout. The best part is you can do it yourself and from almost anywhere.
This guide will cover several noteworthy benefits of foam rolling before, during, or after your workout:
Benefits of Foam Rolling
- Relieves Muscle Tension
- Improved Range of Motion
- Increased Blood Flow
- Speedy Recovery
- Improved Posture
- Reduced Risk of Injury
Relieves Muscle Tension
After working out, you may feel the results of your hard work in your muscles through soreness, tightness, or knots. Although muscle knots may feel like an actual knot in a rope under your skin, they are just tight spots that can be tender or painful to touch. Although common, muscle tightness should not be ignored as it could inhibit your athletic performance.
Foam rolling is a popular way to relieve muscle tightness. The act of applying compression to those tender trigger points can help loosen the muscles, helping to reduce pain and stiffness. Studies suggest that using a foam roller for just three days has the ability to reduce muscle stiffness. (1)
Improved Range of Motion
A limited range of motion could affect your workout efficiency and your everyday life. If you’re only performing exercises through a partial range of motion, it may limit the amount of muscle fibers used and could negatively affect performance and your desired body composition. Daily activities can also be affected, since inflexibility could lead to poor posture, muscle imbalances, limited movement, and pain.
Compromised range of motion can be caused by several factors, including poor flexibility or muscle tightness. Since using a foam roller can help loosen muscles, your flexibility could improve because of it. Studies suggest that foam rolling may produce short-term beneficial effects on range of motion. (2) Flexibility is hard to achieve, but it’s comparatively easier to maintain, so it’s important to consistently use a foam roller to hang on to long-term benefits.
Increased Blood Flow
Using a foam roller may help muscle tightness, but it’s also theorized that it can help improve cardiovascular health by increasing blood flow. Healthy arteries have the potential to increase and decrease blood flow to tissues as needed, but as you age, your arteries may become stiffer, which can cause cardiovascular diseases or even death.
Arterial stiffness can be prevented or slowed down, and studies suggest that foam rolling could help reduce the risk of it developing. (3) When muscles are tight, it can limit blood flow to that area. By stretching and using self-massage tools like the foam roller, you can mitigate your risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more.
Even if you don’t realize it, you’ve probably experienced delayed-onset muscle soreness, or “DOMS.” This is the muscle pain or soreness you may feel one or two days after working out. Depending on how bad it is, like after a heavy leg day, you may have trouble walking upstairs or standing up from a chair.
It’s common and not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be inconvenient and painful. Muscles can become slightly damaged after a workout, which can be normal and is a part of the growth process. However, it is important to recover after working out by taking rest days, stretching, and foam rolling as needed. Studies suggest using a foam roller post-workout is likely to reduce muscle pain and tenderness after exercising. (4)
Poor posture can be caused by a variety of factors, including sitting, staring at a computer all day, and tight muscles. Improving your posture is important for aesthetics, but it’s also important for your health. Studies suggest that bad posture can contribute low back and neck pain, and improving posture is important for helping to prevent chronic conditions. (5)
Poor posture can be caused by muscle imbalances or stiff tissues. Since foam rolling can help with relieving muscle tension, rolling the muscles that are causing your poor posture may improve it. You may have tight chest, back, or leg muscles that are causing you to hunch, and these are all areas capable of being rolled out for your benefit.
Reduced Risk of Injury
Tight muscles can make you more prone to injury when you’re exercising or performing daily activities. Studies suggest that the hamstrings, quads, and calves are some of the more commonly injured muscles, and some mobilization techniques may make a noticeable difference in prevention or management. (6)
Without proper stretching or recovery, one wrong move could cause a strain or tear in the muscle, potentially slowing down your progress in the gym. Foam rolling is intended to help loosen the muscles in the targeted area, ultimately contributing to injury prevention.
If you’re a professional athlete, chances are you have easy access to a masseuse, otherwise it may mean struggling to make an appointment and paying a good amount of money. Foam rolling has become increasingly popular, not only due to the physical benefits, but because of the convenience.
You can typically find a foam roller almost anywhere for cheap, depending on what kind you get. Even more convenient, you can foam roll anywhere from the gym right after a workout or from the comfort of your living room.
How to Foam Roll Properly
You can foam roll almost any muscle on your body, but knowing how to properly roll can help increase the effectiveness. It may seem like a simple task to roll back and forth, but it’s a little more in depth than that.
Studies suggest that using a foam roller prior to physical activity can help increase flexibility and athletic performance, but it may have little to no effect on strength performance. However, using a foam roller after exercising can help reduce soreness. (7)
There are plenty of theories for the best way to foam roll, however a large portion of scientific literature suggests the most effective way to use self-myofascial therapy is with a firm type of roller, applying constant pressure to the trigger point.
Most literature backs the idea that locating your most tender spot and applying constant, non-moving pressure there, for 30 seconds up to two minutes as tolerable, will show the greatest acute impact on pain sensations.
If there is an area of the body that is particularly tender, studies recommend applying the foam roller as closely as possible to where your pain is localized. Perform one to three rounds, separated by 30 second breaks. (8)
Not having the equipment you need can be a real detriment to your routine. This goes for strength training and mobility work as well. Maybe you forgot your foam roller at home or don’t have access to it, but either way, there are still ways to roll out tight muscles with different equipment.
Using a tennis ball is an effective way to target the smaller muscles on your body. They are commonly used on the foot to help reduce plantar fasciitis pain. Like with a foam roller, you are able to adjust the amount of pressure you apply to the ball.
Perform it the same way as you would with a standard roller and roll out the targeted area for about 30 to 60 seconds. The added benefit is tennis balls are super inexpensive and easy to find.
Similar to a tennis ball, a lacrosse ball can be used to target the smaller muscles on your body. Because of the tennis ball’s texture, it may be too soft to apply the appropriate amount of pressure to an area. The lacrosse ball is made of rubber and is sturdier than a tennis ball, so if you need a stronger sensation, this is the better option.
Manual Massage Sticks
Using a massage stick can allow you to have a little more dextrous control over where and what you’re rolling. Instead of applying your bodyweight to the roller, you’ll hold the handles on the side and manually roll the stick back and forth against the area.
This is a great tool for rolling across the muscle versus holding on a trigger point, but it may not necessarily be more effective than isometric, non-moving pressure.
You may not have a barbell at home, but chances are, you can find one in the gym. Since the barbell is far harder than any massage tool, it should release more tension. You can either roll your muscle on the barbell, or you can place the barbell on the area and manually roll it. The weight of the barbell allows you to better apply pressure to a trigger point by holding it on a certain area, a technique that is harder to do with other rolling variations.
Another popular technique to loosen tight muscles is percussive massage therapy, which is the act of applying pressure via vibrations and is typically performed with a massage gun, such as a Theragun. Studies suggest that this type of therapy may provide a faster means to muscle pain and recovery. (9)
Massage guns are a beneficial option for athletes or anyone who may need more pressure than a foam roller. Most models will allow you to adjust the pressure depending on your need.
Tight muscles can affect your workouts, your day-to-day life, and may even create issues of their own long-term if left untreated. Consistent and diligent body maintenance not only helps you stay ahead of any possible perils, but will undeniably help you feel better each day to boot.
It’s easy to lose flexibility if you’re not continually practicing it. That doesn’t mean you have to foam roll all day every day, but even just a few times a week can make a difference. There are plenty of different manual therapy methods to help keep your muscles loose, and with so many varieties of rollers to choose from, there’s no reason not to start now.
- Macgregor, Lewis J., Fairweather, Malcolm M., & Bennet, Ryan M. The Effect of Foam Rolling for Three Consecutive Days on Muscular Efficiency and Range of Motion. Sports Medicine- Open. 2018; 4(26)
- Cheatham, Scott W., Kolber, Morey J., & Cain, Matt. The Effects of Self‐Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager on Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2015; 10(6)
- Okamoto, Takanobu, Masuhara, Mitsuhiko, Ikuta, Komei. Acute effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roller on arterial function. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014; 28(1). doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31829480f5
- Wiewelhove, Thimo, Doweling, Alexander, & Schneider, Christopher. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Frontiers in Physiology. 2019; 10. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00376
- Cramer, Holger, Mehling, Wolf E., & Saha, Felix J. Postural awareness and its relation to pain: validation of an innovative instrument measuring awareness of body posture in patients with chronic pain. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2018; 19. doi: 10.1186/s12891-018-2031-9
- Barroso, Guilherme Campos, Thiele, Edilson Schwansee. Muscle Injuries in Athletes. Revista Brasileira de Ortopedia. 2011 46(4). doi: 10.1016/S2255-4971(15)30245-7
- Debski, Przemyslaw, Bialas, Ewelina, Gnat, Rafal. The parameters of foam rolling, self-myofascial release treatment: a review of the literature. Biomedical Human Kinetics. 2019; 11. DOI: 10.2478/bhk-2019-0005
- Imtiyaz, Shagufta, Vegar, Zubia, Shareef, M.Y. To Compare the Effect of Vibration Therapy and Massage in Prevention of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research. 2014; 8(1). doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2014/7294.3971
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