Foam rolling still works!
Foam rolling still works in 2020
In recent times, it’s become pretty cool to hate on the foam roller.
While it might look like a giant neon vibrator, this little foam friend is misunderstood. Today we’re going to take a light-hearted jaunt through the science on foam rolling and just what you can get from it.
Stick around if you’re sick of hearing the ‘foam rollers don’t work’ clickbait (because this is the opposite kind) …
The case against foam rolling
The main argument against foam rolling has been that it doesn’t actually produce mobility changes.
The foam rolling process doesn’t produce the kind of neuromuscular familiarity changes that you’d experience with something like PNF. It’s not as effective as eccentric training or Pilates, nor does it have the same recovery-inducing effects of hot yoga.
The differences that are induced by foam rolling are short-term: it doesn’t seem to change structural features of the muscles or joints. The differences are not persistent, and tend to be more about pain-management than improving the range of motion (ROM) of the joints.
The focus on foam rolling has been exaggerated and – for those who are chasing these goals – it can easily be disappointing. There’s a serious problem for those who are expecting foam rolling to improve flexibility.
Short term benefits are still benefits
This is one of the simplest reasons why foam rollers do work: the short-term benefits are enough to justify their use.
A better pre-workout warm-up is great for those of us with creaky joints, long-term mobility issues, or persistent niggling injuries. These are pretty standard and there is no problem with a less painful workout – even if that’s all you get.
The short-term benefits also include improved superficial bloodflow and circulation through interstitial tissues. These sound science-y, but the reality is that they contribute to the proper preparation of muscles and connective tissues in the first place.
The bloodflow to areas like tendons and fascia are problematic – and the use of foam rolling can be a contributor to improved overall preparation. You’re also likely to feel these in a more pronounced way if you’re experiencing specific tightness.
Equally, foam rolling lengthens muscles by increasing the distortion of the connection between the insertion and origin. In the simplest sense, then, the foam rolling of a muscle is a moving form of muscular stretch – and the studies on static stretching are comparable to foam rolling.
Foam Rollers CAN improve flexibility
On the other hand…foam rolling does improve flexibility and mobility in some contexts.
The problem with the arguments against foam rolling is the idea that you can separate the short-term from the long-term effects. Naturally, a foam roller isn’t going to make your muscles more comfortable in end ranges, but it can contribute indirectly.
The short-term benefits of foam rolling are how it improves long-term mobility. The ability to move through longer ranges in the short-term makes for a more effective process of developing strength and control in the long-term.
For example – properly foam rolling the quads, hips, and knees before a workout can contribute to better mobility in a squat. In turn, improved comfort in end-ranges during a squat strengthens these positions in the muscles and tendons.
The positions into which you get because of the foam rolling are crucial.
- Using your foam roller like an idiot is usually the problem
There are a lot of issues with the proper use of the foam roller and most of the studies that use them are not very nuanced. It’s the same as using a study on squats where the protocol is 10 sets of 15.
Sure, you’re going to get something that resembles scientific outcomes, but the relation of those studies to the real use isn’t great. In foam rolling, as in exercise prescription, there are a ton of ways you could easily do it wrong and thus spoil the results.
The proper use of a foam roller isn’t to just lay on it and hope that it improves the muscle quality/pliability. It’s an active process that (1) should actually be super uncomfortable, and (2) benefits from the use of proper, already-scientifically-tested techniques.
For example, the use of the foam roller as a tool for single-person active release therapy (ART) is totally legitimate. ART is a well-respected process of moving muscles through their full ROM while applying pressure to a series of problem areas.
This is a technique that can be performed – albeit quite painfully – on a foam roller. Spoilers: it’s great, it works, and the foam roller is way easier than relying on a training partner to know what they’re doing.
Everyone knows that’s not how training partners work.
The foam roller opens up opportunities for seriously beneficial types of mobility work just like this, and there are other examples like deep trigger point release where technique counts.
Foam rollers aren’t just for muscles
Before we tell you how to use a foam roller like not-an-idiot, it’s important to remember there are other ways of improving your health without dealing with muscles.
For example, foam rollers are an awesome tool for decompression and mobilising joints. The spine is the first one that comes to mind: you can roll the thoracic spine really effectively and mobilise vertebrae one at a time.
With a bit of time and effort, you can even simulate the kind of pressure and decompression you’d get from a physiotherapist’s percussions. Mobilisations in the spine are tough to do by yourself, and a foam roller is a much better way of targeting them.
Again, there are other examples – like the scapula – which benefit from this kind of rolling technique. The focus isn’t always muscles, so it’s not clear that foam rolling isn’t valuable for its versatility alone!
Foam rollers have fallen out of favour in some circles, but it’s just the pendulum of this is amazing/that thing doesn’t work. It’s a super normal human process and the reality is usually somewhere in the middle.
We like the foam roller – if used properly – and it’s important to remember that the science is not here to tell you what to do. You should pay attention to the science but remember that it will always lag behind best practice – and it’s not always the gospel truth on how to train/recover/anything else.
Foam rollers are cool, you should put yours to good use, and remember that there’s nothing wrong with short-term benefits.