Once an obscure tool for self-massage, today it’s rare to find a commercial gym without an area dedicated to foam rolling, and with good reason. When used correctly, foam rolling can be used for myofascial release, increasing circulation, improving range of motion, providing pain relief for sore muscles, and softening tissue that has become tight from extended periods of sitting.
But as the self-massage tool has increased in popularity, myths about them have become more and more prevalent. Many consider foam rolling to be one of the best ways to break up knots in your muscles, improve mobility, boost strength and performance, and prime your nervous system for a great workout. Those are closer to half-truths.
We did a deep dive into the research so to find out what foam rolling does, what it doesn’t do, how to get the most benefits, seven ways to find myofascial release, and some other self-myofascial release tools that in some cases can actually be more effective.
What Does Myofascial Release Mean?
The foam roller is most commonly seen as a tool for myofascial release, a term that refers to the body’s fascia tissue: a dense, web-like network of fibrous tissue that covers and penetrates every muscle, bone, and internal organ in the body. Like threads in a thick sweater, every part of the body is connected to itself through the fascia system, which helps to shield organs and bones from outside trauma and support the musculoskeleteal system in all of its functions.
Exercise, inflammation, and other stresses can cause the fascia to become tight or knotted, which can cause pain, restricted ranges of motion (tightness), reduced circulation, weaker nerve impulses (which means more poorly executed movement), and a host of other problems.
“The fascial tissue is our connected web that essentially links everything in our body from head to toe,” says Joseph LaVacca, DPT, CFSC, FMT-C, SFMA, an orthopedic physical therapist based in New York City. “It’s responsible for sensory information, it’s responsible for force transmission, and many believe the most important discovery in human anatomy the last hundred years is that the fascia is the richest sensory organ we have in the body.”
What Are the Benefits of Foam Rolling?
By helping you use pressure to massage the fascia, foam rolling is intended to help break up (or “release”) tough, knotted tissue.
(It’s worth pointing out that some experts feel that “myofascial release” is a misnomer, since this is more of a practice of altering the body’s sensory input or manipulating the fascia than “releasing” anything.)
Foam rolling is thus intended to reduce pain, improve range of motion, and improve circulation. Since it relaxes fascia, foam rolling is sometimes framed as a means to inhibit or “relax” overactive muscles.
“Tissue that’s been too active can get itself in a cycle where it’s in constant contraction, and that’s the knot you feel in your fascia,”says Talayna Fortunato, a physical therapist and CrossFit Games athlete. “The latest theory is myofascial release is just a direct input to your central nervous system to tell these overactive muscle fibers to stop firing so much. So it’s almost something to help downregulate the system.”
Indeed, some research has concluded that self-myofascial release increases the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby reducing stress. Broadly speaking, humans spend most of their time primarily using either the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with “fight or flight” and excitation, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” state — it’s your relaxed state, and many of us have trouble accessing it.
Along with meditation and sex, self-myofascial release may be a way to stimulate the parasympathetic system.
Foam Roller Mistakes
People get a lot of things wrong with foam rolling, and a common mistake is believing that rolling is the best way to break up tight tissue.
“Foam rolling can be helpful, particularly as a way to scan your body for areas that are tight,” says Eugene Babenko, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy and coach at Dubai’s CrossFit Gold Box. “It’s tough to truly make a change in the myofascia, but it helps you find the areas that need attention. Then I like to implement ‘foam laying,’ where I lie on a problem point for a minute or so.”
“I think what most people do is roll back and forth, but if you actually sit on the muscle for a little while you can get more myofascial release,” she says. “Sometimes it doesn’t take that long, and other times it takes a while before you feel a difference. So I recommend people stay at least thirty seconds right on top of a problem area.”
Another mistake is the belief that a foam roller is the be-all and end-all of soft tissue work. As stated above, it can help to find problem areas and it can help to address them, but other tools like a lacrosse ball, myofascial release sticks (a smaller, handheld rolling device), “The Peanut” (essentially two lacrosse balls fastened together), and even a barbell or kettlebell can be effective at going deep into the tissue and helping to break up knots. LaVacca agrees that harder tools (like a barbell) can be more effective in certain situations, but only if they don’t cause significant pain. If treating your soft tissue is extremely painful, switch to a softer tool until your body adapts.
Lastly, the foam roller shouldn’t be seen as a means to significantly increase strength and mobility. While it can help to activate muscle groups, and while healthier myofascial tissue has far reaching effects, the foam roller is a tool for soft tissue work and recovery, not strength.
Should I Foam Roll Before or After I Work Out?
Since foam rolling is linked to relaxing the nervous system, a bout of rolling before a workout is viewed by some experts as counterproductive.
“The best way to do it in your spare time after a workout,” says Fortunato. “You don’t want to go too deep beforehand, because it can cause you to downregulate and maybe not have as much strength as you would have otherwise.”
However, there are two different ways to approach foam rolling: quickly and slowly. The two have markedly different effects.
“Quick, rapid rolling provides quick changes in pressure, which are picked up by the pacinian corpuscles, nerve endings in the skin that are involved in upregulation and increasing tactile acuity, or body awareness,” says LaVacca.
A quick roll before a workout, he explains, can help to increase blood flow, stimulate the nervous system and “wake up” the muscles. That can help the body load more symmetrically, experience less discomfort, and improve joint range of motion. It can also be useful for folks who are focused on “waking up” muscle groups before a workout. (Say, the glutes before deadlifts.)
While foam rolling can help in this regard, it’s a good idea to follow up with a dynamic warm-up with whole-body, ballistic movements. Combining these two practices is a much more effective way to prime the muscles and nervous system for a workout.
Slow, deep, intense myofascial work is usually best reserved for after a workout. An exception to this rule is if your warmup hasn’t sufficiently improved range of motion, in which case you may want to direct your attention to unknotting some fascia.
“If you can’t get your arm all the way overhead because you have a knot in your lats or something, you might find that rolling the area more intensely can help you get your arms overhead,” says Fortunato. “Or if you’re having pain somewhere, you might want to really dig in to help separate tissue.”
So, what does deep, intense myofascial work look like?
How to Use a Foam Roller
So, you’ve complete a functional fitness workout. Let’s say it involved one or two relatively heavy compound movements that worked the posterior chain and the legs, followed by a fast-paced, full body metcon. Try the following seven movements, recommend by LaVacca and Babenko, for 30 to 60 seconds at a time
Slow, Deep Rolling Over Bilateral Quads
Slow, Deep Rolling Over Posterior Glutes
Thoracic Spine Mobilization
Rib Cage Mobilization
Slow, Deep Roll With Lacrosse Ball or Peanut on Lumbar Spine
Slow, Deep Roll With Lacrosse Ball on Anterior Chest
Slow, Deep Roll With Lacrosse Ball on Plantar Fascia
What’s the Best Foam Roller? (A Buyer’s Guide for Athletes)
With so many brands on the marketplace, how can you decide which brand of foam roller to purchase? Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of the most popular brands.
Image via Gaiam
Gaiam Restore Total Body Foam Roller
One of the softest rollers on the market, Gaiam’s signature foam roller is made from polyethylene foam and is less dense, durable, and effective than other brands. It’s also relatively expensive at thirty-five dollars, but it can be the perfect choice for athletes with a low pain threshold or who are just starting out their foam rolling habit.
Best For: First time foam rollers, people who experience pain when foam rolling
Image via Amazon
AmazonBasics High-Density Round Foam Roller
At $19, this is one of the cheapest, no-frills options around. Amazon’s foam roller has a slightly rough but not jagged surface texture that helps to prevent slipping, and the size (36 inches) means you can use it for a wide variety of movements, like rolling two legs at a time or lying across its length. It’s made from high-density polyethylene foam, but it’s on the softer side as far as foam rollers for athletes go.
Best For: Athletes on a budget, people who don’t exercise very intensely
Trigger Point GRID Foam Roller
A popular brand, Trigger Point uses a PVC pipe wrapped in ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam. Because of the PVC pipe it’s very firm, and it’s available in a wide variety of sizes. It’s more durable than most other brands, but it’s on the pricier side and doesn’t get deep into the muscle’s crevices like some more advanced rollers.
Best For: Experienced athletes and heavier athletes
Image via Amazon
Rumble Roller Deep Tissue Massage Roller
Covered in knob-like fingers, this is one of the most intimidating foam rollers we’ve seen — and the most highly recommended by functional fitness athletes, including Talaylna Fortunato. The fingers help it to achieve a deeper massage, but make it extraordinarily unpleasant for those of us with sensitive skin (or fascia tissue). It’s also quite expensive at $70 for a 31-inch long model and and $45 for the 12-inch model.
Best For: Advanced athletes, athletes with a high pain threshold
Image via Amazon
At a whopping $200, this is the priciest version we’ve ever seen, but there’s a reason: it vibrates. Touting itself as “the next generation of foam roller,” this gadget has three different vibration speed options that’s intended to help it provide a deeper, longer lasting effect on the soft tissue. It’s not very long and the battery doesn’t last more than a few hours, but it may provide a more effective experience.
Best For: High volume athletes, athletes with significant muscle mass
Of course some folks make do with a PVC pipe in saran wrap. For a cheap, non-bumpy option, it can get the job done.
Remember, the foam roller is a tool that can help to reduce pain, improve range of motion, relax your nervous system, and identify and treat areas of tightness. But if it doesn’t appear to improve your pain, discomfort, or tightness, make sure you visit a medical professional.