Foam rollers are some of the most popular fitness equipment in the country today. Rollers have gone from functioning as physical therapy treatments to being used in commercial gyms for general fitness and sport-specific training. Lots of people are spending lots of time on foam rollers, but is it time well spent?
For those who currently use a foam roller and believe it is beneficial, keep using it. Maybe you feel it releases tension, improves your flexibility, and alleviates pain. Perhaps you’re an athlete and find that you perform better when you use it before training and competitions. Fine – knock yourself out. But if you haven’t used a foam roller yet or you’re just curious to see what the research reveals about this type of training, read on.
What is foam rolling? It’s a type of soft-tissue treatment performed with dense logs of foam that come in a variety of sizes; 6 inches by 36 inches is the most popular. While the logs are available in various densities, those made of higher-density foam tend to maintain their shape longer.
The modern use of foam rolling was popularized in the 1930s by Moshé Feldenkrais, founder of the Feldenkrais method, a treatment designed to increase mobility, reduce pain, and improve body movement. Much later, in the 1990s, physical therapist Mike Clark promoted foam rolling as “self-myofascial release.” His methods, detailed in his book Integrated Training for the New Millennium (2001), also have been used by A.T. Still University in its human movement master’s degree program.
Let’s start with one thing foam rolling doesn’t do well: improve flexibility. To be fair, it’s true that foam rolling can temporarily improve range of motion, and this can easily be proven. For example, in individuals who have difficulty holding their elbows high during a front squat, foam-rolling the triceps and upper back muscles may cause a short-term increase in flexibility that will enable them to perform the exercise properly. The benefits, however, wear off quickly, often in as little as 10 minutes. Some trainers are of the opinion that static stretching may temporarily diminish or otherwise affect strength; however, a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research on Division I football lineman found no changes in strength or power were evident from foam rolling.
One of the most impressive studies on how foam rolling affects range-of-motion was performed by Jacklyn K. Miller and Ashley M. Rockey on lacrosse players at the University of Wisconsin in 2006. The study was called, “Foam Rollers Show No Increase in the Flexibility of the Hamstring Muscle Group,” and involved 23 college-age men and women with tight hamstrings as indicated by a knee extension test. The treatment group performed three bouts of stretching three times per week for eight weeks. Each bout consisted of one minute of continuous rolling of the hamstrings on the foam roller, (from the ischial tuberosity to the posterior knee).
At the end of the study, the researchers concluded the following: “This study revealed no significant difference in the interaction between the treatment and control group’s pre- and post-measurements.” Clearly, the lack of any improvement in flexibility after two months of training with a foam roller indicates that foam rolling may be a waste of time for this purpose.
So why doesn’t foam rolling improve flexibility? One explanation is that rolling on foam only provides compression to the tissues, whereas a shearing force is needed to stretch the fascia. Thus, holding a form roller so that it doesn’t turn and then pulling it across the tissues would provide such a shearing force. (One practical textbook on fascial massage is Fascial Release for Structural Balance, published in 2010 by James Earls and Thomas Myers. The authors describe in detail the difference between a general massage stroke using compression and a stroke intended to stretch the fascia.)
Now that we know what foam rolling can’t do, let’s look at some things it can do.
One potential value is in decompressing the spine. For example, simply lying on a foam roller lengthwise can open up the intervertebral spaces in the spine. Physical therapists and chiropractors may use a foam roller as part of their treatment for some patients with back pain. However, there are some types of mobilization methods performed on foam rollers that can worsen back conditions, so anyone who is considering self-treatment for back pain with a foam roller should first seek the guidance of the appropriate health care professional.
Another benefit of foam rolling is that it may decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). In a study published in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Athletic Training, researchers studied the effects of foam rolling and DOMS on eight adult males who performed what could be described as a German Volume Training Workout. The workouts consisted of 10 sets of 10 reps on squats with 60 percent of the 1-repetition maximum. The authors found that foam rolling effectively reduced DOMS when used after the workout. It also reduced the adverse effects that such training had on several athletic performance measures, such as 30-meter sprint time and the broad jump.
In a study published three years ago in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers discovered that foam rolling can reduce arterial stiffness. This benefit could save lives. Arterial stiffness can affect blood flow, which is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke.
“Is foam rolling a waste of your time?” The answer to this question depends on what you are trying to accomplish with it. If your goal is to improve your range of motion and stretch your fascia, then you’ll probably be better off doing something else. However, if you’re looking for benefits that can improve the quality of your workouts and of your life, foam rolling can be a good investment of your time.