by Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS
A few years ago, it was interesting to see how popular foam rollers became in the fitness and rehab world. Seemingly every facility that you walk into has an endless number of rollers laying around and when you open up an equipment catalog, you see rollers of all sizes, dimensions, colors, and textures.
But, do they really work?
Honestly, the research that I have seen is rather mixed on whether or not foam rollers actually make an impact in the movement abilities of our patients and clients. I personally believe that is because there are so many variables to consider that it is rather difficult account for all of them during the research process.
What most of the research points to is that foam rolling doesn’t improve sports performance and/or prevent injuries. The problem with these types of blanket statements is that the aren’t able to really look in depth at the specific needs of individuals. And, the protocols being used within these studies are typically focused on a mechanical approach to improving tissue quality. I’ve always struggled with the idea that foam rolling can actually “release” tissue, so I can understand why this approach isn’t fruitful.
Why doesn’t a foam roller “release” tissue?
If you are actually going to mechanically “release” or separate layers of tissue, you have to place a force on it that is going to be different than what is already taking place. Meaning, if 2 layers of tissue are mechanically “stuck” together, placing more direct pressure on them won’t actually separate them.
If you have 2 pieces of paper and they are glued together, pressing them together harder won’t separate them, right? You need to pull them apart or put some sort of a tangental force on them to get the pieces of paper to move over top of one another. Just as with the paper, layers of skin and fascia that aren’t gliding and sliding well amongst each other cannot be separated by putting more pressure on them.
So, if the research doesn’t support it well and it isn’t a mechanical deformation of tissue, it must not be good, right?
Clinically, foam rolling is great when done correctly with the right goals and strategies. If you aren’t seeing improvement with a foam roll in how you move and feel, you aren’t doing it correctly. Or, I guess in theory, you may not see much improvement if you have perfect movement patterns and perfect tissue, but I’m yet to meet that person in 15 years of practice.
Let’s start with what we are actually doing with a foam roll.
It is actually pretty simple at it’s core. We are using some sort of a device to provide stimulus to the mechanoreceptors that are embedded in the skin and fascia which sends a signal to the brain. Depending upon how the brain is stimulated by the device will determine how it reacts. Simply put, it is a nervous system response. That’s it. We are training the brain with our round pieces of foam.
The reason that the research is mixed on it is because it is too hard to narrow things down to account for all of the factors involved and get enough subjects to have a study that has any sort of statistical power. They aren’t shown to improve athletic performance because when you take a large population of athletes who have different dysfunction, body styles, years of training, and goals, there is no way that you can provide a proper rolling program that works for all of them.
The same goes for injury prevention. Everyone moves differently, so our corrective strategies have to be different for everyone. I may want to up regulate certain tissue in one person and down regulate the same tissue in the next athlete on the same team playing the same sport based on how they move.
“The body is wonderfully and fearfully complex” – Mosely
So, when I go into a health club, clinic or weight room and I see people rolling around on a roller or hanging out and sweating in agony, I’m not surprised that they hate it and think that it is a waste of time. That’s because for them, in that moment, it is. They have not been properly equipped with the knowledge they need to make good use of the equipment. That’s our job as their clinician, coach or trainer. We are failing them. It’s our fault not theres.
With that in mind, here are a few strategies to improve your foam rolling:
- Use quick, light movements over the roller if you want to up regulate a specific area of the body or the nervous system in general. This stimulates the Paccinian Corpuscles which are the mechanoreceptors in our fascia that respond best to vibration and light, fast movements. This should not be painful and will prime the nervous system for activity. Vibration works great as part of a movement prep.
- Use slow, deep sustain pressure if you are looking to down regulate tissue. This taps into the Ruffini Endings, which relax the nervous system. This works great to jump start the recovery process after a training session or to improve mobility by turning down the volume on hypertonic tissue.
- If you have a very specific spot that seems to be problematic and even painful, consider using a pin and stretch technique. Pin and stretch is when you put direct pressure over the restricted area and then take the muscle through a full range of motion. As an example, if you have a problem in the middle of the quad during a squat, lie face down with the foam roller placing pressure directly on that spot on the quad. Then flex and extend the knee, taking the quad through full range of motion. This will stimulate the brain to improve fluid dynamics in that area, improving the restriction.
In general, you want to use light pressure with quick, rapid vibrations at the beginning of a session to turn on the nervous system. In contrast, you want to use a long, sustained pressure to improve range of motion and help with recovery at the end of a session. And, use pin and stretch during the training session to deal with stubborn areas.
Another example to think about is using different techniques on different areas of the body to prepare it to move properly. As an example, if I have a female athlete who is recovering from an ACL reconstruction, I like to use these same strategies to improve movement patterns at the beginning of her session.
As a general statement, I want her to be glute and hamstring dominant in all of her movement patterns to protect the new graft. So, I use quick, light strokes over the hamstrings and glutes to stimulate them at the beginning of the training session. Then we use long sustained pressure on the quads to get them to turn off so we don’t stress the new graft during movements. Finally, the hip flexors tend to be problematic and promote an anterior hip rotation, so we use a pin and stretch with a lacrosse ball to deal with them as needed.
While this is a lot of information in a quick blog post, I hope that it does at least help you to rethink the foam roller. They are a great tool and I use them in my rehab and strength and conditioning programming. But, like anything else, they are only as good as the person who is using them. Next time you see someone rolling, just to roll, stop them and give them some direction to help them maximize their time and energy.