Setting The Foam Rolling Record Straight
Ah, the rise of the roller! If you showed someone a foam roller in a gym 20 years ago, they’d give you a dumbfounded look and direct you to the free weights section of the gym where people actually train. Today? You’d be hard pressed to walk into any gym (or grocery store) in the world and NOT see a collection of rollers being flopped around on by otherwise average gym goers who have somehow learned over time how “pivotal” foam rolling is to making gains in the gym while staving off injury.
Somewhere, something went VERY wrong when it comes to the polarization of foam rolling that has overtaken our current day fitness industry. Why have soft tissue techniques gained polarizing popularity? It’s largely due to one simple fact, foam rolling feels like it’s doing something… something amazing.
This physical feel good effect is a powerful stimulus, especially to the largely misinformed fitness constituency swarming the warm up areas that used to be utilized for training. But the question remains, are SMR techniques actually producing results in terms of performance and injury prevention, or are people just wasting their time flopping around on the ground dry humping a piece of foam for 30 minutes before every training session without actual objective benefits to show for it?
When it comes to soft tissue work, it’s important to discern the fact from the fiction if you want to yield any benefit from your borderline obsessive devotion to the foam roller. Here are 5 of the biggest questions surrounding foam rolling, and more importantly, the answers to the commonly misconstrued myths that we have ALL been told in regards to foam rolling for decades. It’s time to debunk these hard to kill zombie lies, and stream line your soft tissue practice in the process.
#5 Does Foam Rolling Break Up Scar Tissue?
The most common misconception as to why SMR works is something called the mechanical muscular or fascial adhesion model. I hate to even address such poor information, but for the sake of understanding what is NOT happening, here it goes.
This model preaches that cross linkages are formed in muscle and fascial tissue through mechanical stress, thus it takes additional targeted external stress like that of a foam roller to “break up” the adhesions and scar tissue formation.
There are so many holes in this theory it’s hard to figure out where to begin. First off, soft tissues in the human body are anything but “soft” themselves. These are very strong structures that are extremely difficult to mechanically alter in shape or structure. If tissues were able to be manipulated this easily, every single time a person hit the gym and crushed a hard workout, the tissues would be under a shit storm of mechanical damage, and not the type you can jump back into training with a few days later. Also, external pressures and forces on the body such as having a barbell on your back during a back squat would tear your upper back apart due to the large amount of force itself. See why this doesn’t add up as sound reasoning?
Secondly, there are multiple layers of dermal tissues covering the soft tissues that are supposedly being manipulated, and for most people, a fair amount of fatty adipose layers as well. The three main layers of skin are pretty thick if you’ve ever seen a partially dissected cadaver. Did I mention that these layers are also full of mechano and sensory receptors as well?
While the list could go on and on, well leave it there with those two major pitfalls of rationale, but just note that if you unfortunately hear the “breaking up scar tissue” reasoning as to why you are foam rolling in the first place, please be sure to not fall for such utter nonsense.
What’s Actually Happening To Muscular Tone…
The most important question to answer regarding the practice of foam rolling is quite simple; what is the mechanism of action behind why foam rolling actually works? There are multiple tissue models out there regarding the how behind the why, but let me tell you, most of those models are pure and utter BS.
Foam rolling or any other SMR technique for that matter works due to one key mechanism of action, neurological tone reduction in the targeted muscle tissue. By adding external pressure and oscillations through muscle tissue, receptors in the peripheral and central nervous system are stimulated and essentially take the parking break off those tight and tonic tissues. This tightness phenomenon has been referred to as “neural-lock” and by unlocking the tissues based on neurological principles, self-myofascial release technique practices as a whole become far easier to understand and appreciate, especially with the sometimes rapid reduction in tightness of broad and dense tissues.
#4 Does Foam Rolling Make Muscles Longer & Pliable?
There’s been a lot of talk about muscle pliability and the ability of certain training methods to create longer, leaner muscles. Similar to the lack of mechanical mechanisms that limit a foam roller’s ability to actually breakdown scar tissue, a muscle cannot become LONGER for the same rules of mechanical deformation.
A muscle’s length is measured most accurately by taking the distance between it’s origins and insertions. But as any real student of the iron game knows, these distances can be highly variable due to the changing joint angles that active muscular contractions create. But there is a marked difference between the static tone of a muscle or region, and the continuously altered tonicity associated with activation of muscles generating relative movements at the joints of the body. This is where it get a little confusing for people.
Just because a muscle is able to be exerted through further degrees of range of motion does NOT mean that the reason for the improved range of motion came from said muscle being longer or mechanically changed in any way. Reduction of the relative “tightness” or tone of muscles has been shown to increase available range of motion when tested in isolation, but can also improve global compound movement patterns by improving the kinetic chain as a whole.
What’s Actually Happening To Your Muscles…
While muscles cannot become longer or more pliable permanently (without surgical intervention and strategic deformation of origin or insertion points, as has been seen in some more highly clinical cases) we can alter the more normalized tone of tissues or regions in general, pointing to the improvements and changes happening in range of motion or function being highly neurological.
As a muscle tissue reduces it’s resting tone, it will have the ability to quickly unlock more extended ranges terminal end ranges of motion along with more smooth and synergistic muscular actions in association with the regional muscles that are above, below and adjacent to the specific muscle itself. This is largely due to optimizing the length tension relationship of a region of the body to more authentically function in coordination with the rest of the body, and can be a powerful quick fix for even some of the most ingrained dysfunctional or painful movement patterns.
It should also be noted that localized tone of an entire region can be altered in order to optimize function and performance while reducing exacerbated pain signaling. Simply put, just because your quads seem to be short and tight does not mean that the quads are the origin of the movement deficit or problem within the chain. In cases of neural lock, an entire region including the agonist, antagonist, and secondary and tertiary stabilizing muscles can all become tight, restricting movement in all directions, reducing functionality and usable range in the process.
So while we are not making muscles longer, we can absolutely alter their resting and active tone via foam rolling paired with active strategies in order to improve the entire region or kinetic chain as a whole. As for pliability, the ambiguity of the term makes it extremely challenging to address, but for more or less, the laws of tissue tonicity still apply.
#3 When Is The BEST Time To Foam Roll?
Lets be clear on this; the only time where foam rolling or SMR techniques are warranted in the pre-training routine or warm up is when there is notable mobility dysfunction present. That means that dysfunction has been evaluated and diagnosed, and part of the course of remediation involves foam rolling as a means to improve positions. For everyone else who is considered a functional mover and does not present with pain, there is little to no need for hitting the foam roller before training.
Why? The cost to benefit ratio just doesn’t add up. The cost is your time and energy being placed into soft tissue work that may in fact do absolutely nothing to improve positions or mobility, while time is wasting away from more notable training methods like strength, conditioning and sport specific movements. And honestly, even the dysfunctional athlete who is using foam rolling may be receiving little to no benefit from the foam rolling exercise as a stand-alone method of mobility and soft tissue work. But more on that below.
As 90% of the population is dealing with a pain or dysfunctional issue at any given time, it’s safe to say that foam rolling CAN remain part of an intelligently designed warm up strategy. But with even the most severe cases, the foam rolling time investment should remain under a few minutes. As a general recommendation, pain-free athletes should devote a single minute to soft tissue to start their warm ups, and painful and/or poor movers should spend no more than 4 minutes down on the roller in preparation for actual training.
Here’s When To Foam Roll…
Plain and simple, foam rolling is best utilized as a recovery method after a training bout or competition. Throughout the years, foam rolling has crept into the pre-training routine due to coaches and trainers making the false correlation between foam rolling and enhanced mobility before workouts. Here’s why foam rolling is great for recovery.
When targeting specific soft tissues that have been trained earlier on in the day, or the day before, for most athletes there are significant levels of local inflammation, delayed onset muscle soreness and increased neurological tone in the tissues.
Extended duration foam rolling sessions that address each specific tissue individually for a few minutes help to stimulate the active muscle pump of the body to help clear out inflammation and lymphatic pooling, tap into the neural recovery system by reducing local tone of the tissues and also help to drive blood into local areas that helps nutrient exchange and waste to be cleared out. These mechanisms aid the body to speed up the recovery process as a whole, and can be a very powerful mechanism of recovery when routinely practiced.
And when paired with strategic parasympathetic breathing strategies, global foam rolling techniques can become the perfect anecdote to quickly and effectively spark the recovery process. Breathe deep, target large tissues, and reap the benefits of intelligent recovery via soft tissue work.
#2 Should Foam Rolling Be Causing Excruciating Pain?
I get it, we live in a high paced competitive society where more is always viewed as better. But having seen this mentality trickle into self sufficient soft tissue work has be concerned as people are not only negating any benefit of the soft tissue practice itself, but probably doing more harm than good.
Don’t know what I’m referring to? Well, here are a few examples:
- Smashing a heavy kettlebell into your stomach
- Stepping on people’s triceps until them tap out
- Crushing a barbell deep into your groin
- Sitting on a lacrosse ball until your legs go numb
- The list could go on and on…
Foam rolling that causes high excruciating levels of pain does NOT present any added benefit (I guess other then improved machoism) and is actually taking away the objective benefits that we are seeking via the foam roller and other soft tissue tools. Again this is worth reiterating…
More pain does NOT mean more benefit!
Though each person will have different levels of pain tolerance, it needs to be closely monitored in order to yield positive neurological and systemic benefits. Before you think that I’m instructing you all to foam roll without “feeling” anything, I’m not. The key is eliciting minimal viable doses of pressure and pain to elicit the desired response. If you can do that, you WILL be successful with your soft tissue practice.
Closely Monitor Your Pain Scale While Foam Rolling…
The very presence of pain causes a heightened sympathetic response in the central nervous system that is associated with a fight or flight response that elevates heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate while syphoning blood flow away from the gut and into the extremities for instant use in running or fighting. Not exactly the type of response we want to be eliciting while we are trying to alleviate functional tightness in tissue that’s causing pain or restricting movements, it is?
Any soft tissue mobility modality such as foam rolling, or even stretching for that matter, needs to be executed with the goal of tapping into he power of the OTHER side of the central nervous system, the parasympathetic (rest and recover) side which allows optimization and reduction of the vital metrics mentioned above to take place. This is again the reason why deep recovery parasympathetic breathing strategies should be completed during any foam rolling or soft tissue work, as it again pushes the CNS in the right direction to achieve the desired result.
While pain is one of the single most subjective metrics in the world to try and objectively monitor, I recommend that a foam rolling technique does NOT place an athlete or client into any higher than a 5/10 subjective pain scale. While some athletes will have a higher pain threshold than others making this scale highly individualistic, we must ensure that the goal remains the goal which is to alleviate pain and dysfunction, not cause more of it.
#1 Is Foam Rolling Mandatory To Improve Mobility?
Self-myofascial release techniques absolutely have their place and time in a well balanced performance or fitness program, but we must realize that there are not only better bang for your buck exercises and modes of training out there, but foam rolling by no means is a cure all for mobility enhancement. Let me say that again because every time that this subject is addressed, people misconstrue the message to be, “Don’t Foam Roll!” instead of the real message that is prioritize soft tissue techniques and synergize them with other training modalities to create results in the most effective and efficient way possible.
Our industry has been brain washed into thinking if someone presents with poor mobility capacity, then the ultimate type of remediation to regain mobility and ultimately function is the roller and other ways to manipulate soft tissues. Mobility does not only involve soft tissues, lets make that damn clear. There are things in our bodies called joints that play a huge roll in global mobility and functionality that have an interconnected interplay with soft tissue structures such as muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia. And honestly, even breaking down mobility in the biomechanical model based on joints and soft tissues is very limited and simplistic in reasoning as well, but is one hell of a step up from the common absolutist soft tissue train of thought.
To think that addressing the soft tissues alone with a questionable technique will be the only thing you need in the battle to produce enhanced mobility and function is ludicrous. Foam rolling can be used as a tissue preparatory mechanism when paired with other forms of mobility enhancement such as stretching, corrective exercise, activation and foundational movement pattern development, the synergy between all of these mechanisms then gives the best chance for mobility remediation. So at the end of the day, there is no doubt that a well-rounded prehabilitation or movement preparatory program is your best bet for improving your movement capacity, increasing your strength and minimizing the incidence of injuries secondary to training. So no, it’s not all about the foam roller, even though it hurts so good. Be better than the foam roller, that’s all I’m saying.
Foam Rolling Is NOT A Mobility Cure All…
For all the foam rolling zealots out there, you are going to really hate this one, but better to face the facts now and reap the benefits of intelligent soft tissue practice for your remaining days on the roller. By itself as a stand-alone soft tissue manipulative modality, the foam roller has very little functional carryover into mobility, flexibility, function, strength, endurance, and pain modulation. Wow, read that one again because this is important even though you don’t want to accept it.
But before you start fuming over this point, here’s the deal. Yes, some people have perceived benefit from foam rolling in terms of the training metrics I listed above, but you must ask yourself the question; were those gains made solely due to your self directed soft tissue practice, or are there other contributing factors causing positive outcomes?
When used by itself, foam rolling clearly has benefits in terms of local and systemic recovery by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system and of course the multiple mechanisms of recovery mentioned in the section above. But when it comes to aiding global movement in a pre-training routine, foam rolling is a very small part of the entire functional equation in terms of physical preparation for performance.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Program that combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.