Why Foam Rolling Doesn’t Do What You Think It Does

By Dr. John Rusin

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Here’s What You Need To Know…

1. Foam rolling before activity isn’t lengthening your muscles, nor increasing ranges of motion. It is, however, wasting your time, energy and focus that should be devoted to your training, while possibly predisposing you to injury.

2. The interconnections between body segments and tissues such as musculature and fascia is evident, but improving this so called “kinetic chain” by using the foam roller on specific tissues before training has limited carryover into actual mobility and functional improvements.

3. People gravitate towards overly detailed pre-training self-myofascial release techniques due largely to the “feel good” effect of the practice, not the actual results. This is a nice way of saying that all the time spent on the roller is not producing any notable long term results, period.

4. Just because you’re using a foam roller doesn’t mean the technique is soft-tissue targeting foam rolling. Some of the most chronically dysfunctional and painful regions of the body can be corrected using the foam roller, but it doesn’t work like you think it does.

5. Here’s how to properly execute foundational thoracic spine corrective exercises using the foam roller to improve your mobility and functionality with detailed video tutorials and coaching notes.

The Bane of Your Foam Rolling Existence

thoracic spine foam roll

While I view the foam roller as one of the biggest wastes of time and energy in a performance or therapy based training program, that damn piece of circular foam does have it’s merit when it comes to certain regions of the body, as much as it pains me to admit it.

Before we move forward, lets get one thing crystal clear. There is absolutely no need to foam roll every acute structure of your body for extended periods of time before jumping into the squat rack or hitting the pavement for a run, period! If you find yourself gravitating towards the roller pre-training and are spending more than five minutes at a time “crushing” your soft tissue, it’s time to prioritize and evolve your confusing and borderline obsessive soft tissue practice.

In the pre-training routine, soft-tissue work plays a very basic and minimal role in the overall enhancement of performance. If a tissue or movement has been assessed and deemed dysfunctional as it relates to the movements that are planned for a training or sport session that proceeds the warm-up, then yes, address this specific pattern with soft tissue work if it helps you to self justify “injury prevention” or movement benefit.

But after a decade in the field and assessing thousands of athletes, I can tell you that the functionality and mobility benefits you think you are receiving from prioritizing rolling before training are minimal at best. At worst, you are taking time, energy and focus away from your training session. So are you ready to throw out your foam roller and ban it from the warm-up process all together? I hope not, and here’s why.

Why Enhancing The Kinetic Chain Is Kinda BS

thoracic spine foam rolling

Ten years ago, people didn’t even know what a foam roller was, let alone how to properly use the damn thing. Now you’ll be hard pressed to see any big box commercial gym or specialty training facility not have these soft-tissue tools front and center when walking through the doors. Why has there been such an emphasis placed on these trivial tools? Largely due to the feel good effect and the fact that any manual soft tissue modalities has the ability to dupe the neuromuscular system into thinking movements, patterns and issues have somehow been functionally improved.

Yes, the body is an interconnected and highly kinetic based system of chains that all have interplay to some extent with even the most basic of movements, but thinking that fixing a single link in that chain without addressing any other aspects of movement is just absurd. If it were as easy as identifying the single structure that is the “broken link” and hitting it with some external modality, our rehabilitation and movement based medical model would be far more successful for returning patients back to activity and limiting the rates of re-injury than is currently being seen.

Think of it this way. If you alter the kinetic chain and “fix” the tone, length or whatever you want to think you are doing to your soft tissues by addressing them with self-myofascial release techniques, the entire chain alters, not just that segment you manipulated. With the shift in the specific movement chain along with the adjacent and overlying chains involved with the structure being addressed, your body goes into a reactionary shit storm of new compensations. As the faulty theory goes, the body should just return back to neutral, but lets be honest, this very rarely happens, and when it does it is anything but predictable or controllable.

This is where the real deep thinking coaches, athletes and practitioners get trapped in the soft-tissue rabbit hole, especially when targeting the enhancement of movement before training. The theoretical model only goes so far, and predicting alterations in highly complex movement chains is a never ending process. Next thing you know, you are foam rolling your entire body before every physical activity. Don’t laugh, because I see even some of the most intelligent coaches and practitioners lead themselves down this exact path to confusion.

So how do we get out of this endless chasing of your own tail while flailing around on the foam roller? By targeting patterns instead of tissues. More specifically, targeting the patterns that negatively effect a majority of the population due to chronic natured postures.

Addressing Movements vs. Addressing Specific Tissues

dr john rusin foam rolling

Taking specific structures out of our thought processes, as hard as that is for some of you brainiacs to do, is the first step towards actually seeing notable benefit from your “soft-tissue” practice before training or sport in order to improve movements and positions.

The best example of this system showing marked results is addressing the mobility and dynamic stability of the thoracic spine in the pre-training routine. Are we rolling out the soft tissues of the mid to upper back during the traditional thoracic spine foam rolling technique? Maybe, maybe not. But I can say with confidence that the primary mechanism of benefit for rolling through that area is not due to the tone reduction of the local tissues under the roller, but instead the extension movement created through the segments of the spine coming into contact with the apex of the curve of the roller itself.

RELATED ARTICLE: Treat Shoulder Pain with Thoracic Spine Mobility

It’s important to understand that just because you are utilizing the foam roller as a tool doesn’t necessarily mean that you are addressing soft-tissues. The foam roller can be a powerful manipulator of position in the spine, pelvis and extremities due to the acute force angle it has the ability to create. So do I view the thoracic spine foam rolling technique as a self-myofascial release technique? No. I view it as a corrective exercise that addresses the mobilization of the thoracic spine.

When we move into a new range of motion in thoracic spine extension for example, that range is opened up to the central and peripheral nervous system to utilize that range during global movement patterning or under loading. We aren’t breaking down scar tissue or fooling your muscles into relaxing permanently, we are simply opening up the door for the brain and nervous system to improve its innate control of the movement capacity of the body.

RELATED ARTICLE: Enhance Thoracic Spine Mobility with the Hybrid T-Spine Rotation

As we’ve been touching upon the thoracic spine throughout this article, I have added in two video based tutorials for you to properly address your thoracic spine mobility using the foam roller as a corrective exercise tool, not necessarily a soft-tissue based tool. Go through the basic thoracic spine foam rolling technique and master your form and execution. From there, if you want to get a little more diversified in the way you address your thoracic spine mobility, I have added a second video tutorial for my go-to 3-Way Thoracic Spine Extension Sequence.

Basic Thoracic Spine Foam Rolling Technique

Coaching Notes
  • Position your hips at 45 degrees and knees at 90 degrees with symmetry side to side
  • Position the foam roller under a specific segment of the thoracic spine you want to target
  • Maintain full spinal alignment including neutral neck position with activation throughout
  • Reinforce your cervical spine rotation by gently supporting your neck with your hands
  • Once you have set your starting position, elevate your glutes off the floor slightly
  • Start oscillating in an up to down position on the roller, only a few inches or range at most
  • Allow yourself to control relaxation into slight extension of the spine while rolling
  • Target each specific segment for 30-60 seconds while prioritizing 2-3 segments per session
Proper Programming
  • This basic thoracic spine mobilization corrective exercise can be prioritized at any point throughout the day, especially to break up long bouts of forward flexed postures such as desk or computer based work. A minimum execution of three sessions a day in the morning, noon and night for long term benefits are recommended.

3-Way Thoracic Spine Extension Sequence

Many of the same body positioning cues from the basic approach above apply for each of the three advanced thoracic spine foam rolling variations that we will go through in the more advanced 3-Way Thoracic Spine Extension Sequence. Again, be sure to keep perfect symmetry at the hips and knees with a neutral and active spinal and core position. Below I will go through each of the three movements in this sequence in a little more detail to ensure proper execution.

#1 Arms Extended T-Spine Foam Rolling Coaching Notes
  • Reach your arms directly overhead with your palms positioned up
  • Relax your arms and let them aid you in adding force into the thoracic spine on the roller
  • Maintain proper neck alignment with active control
  • Start oscillating up and down on the roller while targeting specific segments
  • Allow the roller to move under your spine in passes of 2-4 inches at a time
  • Spend 30-45 seconds in this position, then move into the arm hug variation
#2 Forward Arm Hug T-Spine Foam Rolling Coaching Notes
  • Take your arms and wrap them around the front of your body
  • Your elbows should be positioned on top of each other with your hands grabbing and pulling your shoulder blades forward and upward on the back of your thoracic cage
  • Place the roller on a targeted thoracic spine segment
  • Slightly flex your thoracic spine by controlling your core and pelvis into slight flexion
  • You can also use your head and neck to come into flexion to achieve this position
  • Oscillate very small degrees, anywhere from a static pressure to one inch of up and down movement
  • Spend 30-45 seconds in this position and target the most problematic segments
  • Move into the stationary thoracic spine extension on foam roller
#3 Stationary Thoracic Spine Extension on Foam Roller Coaching Notes
  • Bring your legs into full extension at the knees and hips and place legs flat on the ground
  • Position the foam roller under targeted segment
  • Your hands and arms with move from a starting position down at the sides to an overhead position as the thoracic spine active extension is done over the foam roller
  • Control your core position and actively extend the thoracic spine, head and neck over the roller
  • Incorporate deep diaphragmatic breathing techniques to accentuate the extension based mobilization
  • As you reach back with your arms, extending your thoracic spine, head and neck, fully exhale and force air out of your lungs.
  • Hold the extended position for 1-2 seconds to creep into the new extended based position
  • Practice this technique for 10-15 breaths or reps
Proper Programming
  • After mastering the foundational movement of the basic thoracic spine foam rolling technique, you can start to supplement in the 3-Way T-Spine mobilizations before training sessions or sport specific activity. While the benefits of the 3-Way far outperform the basic thoracic spine extension on foam roller movement, the foundational skill must be maintained, so ensure that you are placing the basic movement into your routine at least once a day even with the inclusion of the 3-Way once you graduate up to the advanced sequence.

*For more foam rolling tips, make sure to subscribe to Dr. John Rusin’s YouTube Channel!

About The Author

Dr. John Rusin

Meet Dr. John Rusin | The Strength Doc

Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and writer, whose published over 200 articles in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Men’s FitnessTestosterone NationMountain Dog DietBodybuilding.com, and Muscle and Strength, to name a few.

Along with an impressive laundry list of publications, Dr. John works with some of the world’s most elite athletes, including Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pro Quarterbacks, MLB All-Star Pitchers, Professional Bodybuilders and World Class IronMan Triathletes.

He takes pride in offering uniquely customized programming to clients of all walks of life in the exact same detail and passion as the Pros! Dr. John’s 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Program is now available to you.

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  1. matthew smalling March 12, 2016 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Wow. Sounds like the author is pissed he didn’t invent the roller and making coin. I don’t believe anyone in the rehab/training world thinks foam rolling is the be all/end all for performance. It has its place loosening some structures that can’t be actively stretched and does not take all that much time. Actually, cupping it much more effective way of increasing soft tissue mobility.

    • zach March 25, 2016 at 1:31 pm - Reply

      Id agree he comes off a little pissy here. I personally use the Foam roller as a passive warm up on a specific region or area prior to every session, with every athletes (the author cringes in his chair). However, unlike a lot of coaches, the areas we roll are targeted- its not for the feel good effect (unless its after the session) and the motions are short and fast to initiate the shit storm in the CNS and dupe the NM system to get ready for a workout. Following this we move into proper movement patterns, isolated movements building into integrated patterns and all that warm fluffy stuff your mom read to you at night.

      I always like to read a mix of training material from various sources including those with opposite opinions to make sure I consider all sides of the argument and in this case Id agree with some and disagree with others.

  2. Sophie March 13, 2016 at 11:53 am - Reply

    Well said John!

  3. Sam June 26, 2019 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    He is a “doctor.”

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