Walking through the gym, you may have noticed an exerciser or two wincing as they rolled their bodies along a short, cylindrical device called a foam roller. Over the years, foam rolling has quickly risen in popularity, both as a fitness warmup and cooldown. What does foam rolling do, exactly, and does it live up to all the hype? This article explores these questions and lays out the biggest benefits of foam rolling.
How Does Foam Rolling Work?
When you foam roll for the first time, you should feel a nice, deep ache in your muscles as you gently press your weight into the roller. It feels a lot like a massage. The most popular theory of what is actually happening in your body as you use a foam roller has to do with a soft, connective tissue called the fascia.
Fascia wraps around your muscles like a thin sheath (think of a sausage in a casing) and together makes up your myofascial system. Ideally, your fascia should move smoothly across your muscles, allowing you a full range of motion. However, the reigning theory goes that, for a variety of reasons, fascia can become stuck to your muscle tissue, causing adhesions. These adhesions can restrict muscles, causing tightness, pain, poor range of motion, and even injuries.
Foam rolling, which is also sometimes known as myofascial release, is thought to help break up adhesions, allowing the muscles to perform to their fullest extent.
Another theory is that foam rolling triggers neurological changes in the body. Using the foam roller, this theory goes, stimulates the nerve receptors of the muscles undergoing the treatment. These nerves talk to the brain, which responds by loosening the muscles.
Which theory is correct, myofascial release or nerve stimulation of the muscles?
It’s possible that both theories work together to create that “hurts so good” feeling that comes with foam rolling. What is known is that these are the most commonly cited health benefits of foam rolling.
1. Reduces Muscle Soreness
The penalty for an extra tough workout is often days of uncomfortable soreness that can keep you out of the gym and make you swear off stairs for the rest of your life. A small study in the Journal of Athletic Training found that foam rolling could help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, DOMS. How? Possibly because foam rolling reduces inflammation of the muscles as they begin to repair themselves. (Here are some other ways to reduce muscle soreness after an epic workout.)
2. Warms Up Your Muscles
While foam rolling can be performed after a workout to help cool down, it’s also popular as a pre-workout prep. The action of moving your body over the foam roller creates friction that can warm up your muscles and help prepare them for movement. Consider adding foam rolling to your current dynamic warmup routine.
3. Increases Your Range of Motion
By breaking up myofascial adhesions and muscle knots, foam rolling may help you regain better range of motion in your muscles. A systematic review of foam rolling studies in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that “SMR [self-myofascial release] with a foam roll or roller massager appears to have short-term effects on increasing joint ROM [range of motion] without negatively affecting muscle performance…”
Adhesions and knots can happen for any number of reasons, including trauma, injury, poor posture, inactivity, and inflammation. As you foam roll, pay attention to how your body feels. If you hit a spot that feels extra sensitive, that may indicate an adhesion or knot. Spend extra time on this spot but resist the urge to press too hard. Gentle rolling can work wonders on knots.
4. Increases Blood Flow
Foam rolling is thought to increase blood flow to your muscles and throughout your body. Improved circulation will bring more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles while also taking away waste in the cells. This may be one more reason why foam rolling can help diminish soreness after a workout or make you feel fresher before you start your workout.
5. Reduces Stress
Isn’t it funny how massages can be both painful and incredibly relaxing at the same time? Foam rolling works the same way. Even though you may wince or groan as you roll through sore muscles or hit a tender knot, the action also feels good. Foam rolling can be meditative and help you focus only on your body. When finished foam rolling, many people feel lighter, more relaxed, and mentally refreshed.
6. Is Cost-Effective and Convenient
Sure, if you had endless piles of money, you’d probably get a massage every day, but in the meantime, foam rolling is an incredibly cost-effective way to work out knots and sore muscles. Almost every gym includes foam rollers for members. It means that you can foam roll before or after your workouts. (Check out these 5 stretches you should always do before and after your workout.) You can also pick up your own foam roller, usually for less than $30, and foam roll whenever you want at home. Some people enjoy foam rolling first thing in the morning as a great wakeup practice, while others fit it in right before bed.
Tips on How to Foam Roll
First time with the foam roller? No problem. To start, lay down a yoga mat to support your hands, elbows, and knees (foam rolling on carpet can also work). Choose the softest foam roller available.
Focus on rolling the major muscles in your body, including:
- The meaty part of your shoulders (try to avoid the joints)
While many exercisers also enjoy rolling their low back and IT band (the perpetually tight tendon that runs down the outside of your thigh), some specialists believe foam rolling these two areas isn’t helpful.
When rolling a specific muscle group, use the weight of your body to press into the roller. Move the roller up and down the muscle for 30 seconds. Make sure to breathe the entire time. Try to keep your muscles relaxed. If you hit a tight or tender spot, spend an extra 10 or 20 seconds on that spot and consider coming back to it after the rest of your routine.
One of the most important tips is that foam rolling is NOT about creating pain. Some exercisers will immediately gravitate toward the hard or rigid foam rollers or will press hard into the roller. This isn’t necessary. Yes, if your muscles are sore, foam rolling may be a little uncomfortable, but it should never be painful. In fact, if your muscles are in pain, they’ll be more likely to tighten up, and you won’t get the full benefits of foam rolling.
Over time, as your muscles get used to foam rolling, you may want to graduate to harder rollers or even use a tennis ball or lacrosse ball to help work out stubborn knots or adhesions.
When foam rolling, try to avoid putting pressure on bones and joints. For example, it is not a good idea to foam roll up your spine. Instead, turn the roller horizontally and work each side of your back (or your lat muscles) individually. If you aren’t sure how to safely roll each muscle, ask a staff member at your gym to show you.
Creating a Foam Rolling Routine
Rolling out muscles is a great practice to add to your exercise routine. In a perfect world, you would have time to foam roll every day. In the real world, consider anchoring foam rolling to your existing exercise habit by either rolling before or after your workout as part of your warmup or cooldown routine. The more you roll, the more you’ll experience the health benefits of foam rolling. (Also, try these 12 post-workout stretches after your workout.)