Perhaps one of the biggest buzzwords in the fitness and physical therapy communities is “foam rolling.” Isn’t that what everyone recommends doing these days? Walk into any gym and you’ll see foam rollers of all shapes and sizes – chances are, you probably even have one tucked away in your closet or the corner of your room.
So what’s the deal? Is foam rolling all it’s cracked up to be? Is it for everyone? And what the heck does it actually do? Lucky for you, we’re going to answer those questions in this post.
What is foam rolling?
Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release – it’s basically a way to give yourself a massage. It’s easy, affordable, and can be done anywhere at any time, so you can see the appeal.
Over time, our muscles and fascia (fascia is the connective tissue of the entire body – it covers and weaves through all our organs, muscles, bones, nerves, arteries, veins, you name it) can develop adhesions and trigger points. These come from stressing and straining our bodies – either during physical activity or simply with daily physical demands. This means our muscles don’t move and glide the way they should – which can cause pain, discomfort, and faulty movement patterns.
When we mention adhesions, we’re referring to a building up of scar tissue in the muscle fibers, between the muscles, or in compartments. And in terms of trigger points, we’re referring to muscles that are over-excited for some reason. This over-excitement causes the muscle to get stuck in a contracted, shortened state, resulting in lots of excess chemicals and lactic acid. As you can imagine, this too results in pain and inability to move in the ways we want to.
Foam Rolling Controversy
Foam rolling claims to do a lot of things – but what does it actually do? While we definitely think it’s a great tool to add to your recovery methods, we don’t think it’s the end-all-be-all, or that it accomplishes everything it’s praised for.
You might hear that foam rolling lengthens fascia – that connective tissue surrounding and interweaving through all our tissues. And this sounds like a great thing, right? If our fascia gets bound up and tight, we can lengthen it out simply with a foam roller, and we’ll feel decreased pain and experience better range of motion and strength.
But is the fascia really stretching and lengthening? Fascia is made predominantly of collagen, which is incredibly strong and resistant to tensile forces, meaning it resists lengthening and stretching, like foam rolling claims to do. With how strong fascia is, it would take A LOT of load – much more than your body weight over a foam roller – to actually deform the fascia in ways that result in lengthening. And this is especially true in areas that are made to be particularly strong: the IT band (the band of fascia running along the outer portion of your leg, from your hip to your outer knee), fascia in the lumbar (lower back) region, and plantar fascia (the bottom of your foot) – all places most commonly targeted by foam rolling.
To put it simply – the amount of pressure required to actually lengthen the fascia would basically have you screaming in pain. So foam rolling isn’t really going to lengthen it like you may have heard.
Increased Pressure and Blood Flow
When you foam roll, you’re basically applying pressure to the areas of muscles that are tightened or have adhesions. This pressure brings blood flow to the area, which helps to flush out any waste products that come from over-training or the build up of everyday movements. The relief you feel might not last too long, but it’s worth noting that foam rolling can bring some extra blood flow to these areas to decrease pain.
People aren’t usually as familiar with this aspect of foam rolling: Proprioceptive feedback. Proprioception refers to the awareness of our bodies and joint positions in space. It’s what allows our muscles to recognize how much they’re being stretched, what angle they’re in, and how they’re moving. There are areas in the muscles, fascia, and joints that send signals to our brain to give us this proprioceptive information. Stimulating these tissues with a foam roller could help our brain receive these signals, helping the brain to better coordinate with the sensory and motor functions of the body.
And piggy-backing off of increasing sensory awareness of parts of the body – there may be areas that don’t move enough or get enough stimulation in daily life. Foam rolling these areas can possibly “re-awaken” them and promote better movement patterns due to this heightened awareness.
Like every tool out there, there’s nothing that is perfect. We need to incorporate a LOT of different mechanisms to achieve optimal movement health. At the end of the day, it’s MOVEMENT that gets us what we’re looking for – lengthening, increasing blood flow, and training our brains to pick up on proper movement patterns – like our thoracic mobility series focused on when gaining mobility in the thoracic spine.
But that’s not to say that foam rolling should be frowned upon or can’t be used to help you out. Learning how to foam roll correctly and how to foam roll more than just your IT band or lower back can complement your recovery plans.
Check out our video below showing you quick and easy ways to hit all the important areas of your body with a foam roller: