Foam rolling usually gets categorized under the, "I know I'm supposed to do this, I just don't know why," umbrella. You know it hurts. You know you feel better afterward. You know every personal trainer, physical therapist, and fitness coach is constantly on your case to do more of it.
And yet, you can't name the exact benefits of foam rolling, and you don’t quite understand how it works. Today, we're going to clear up your foam rolling misconceptions.
Foam rolling is non-negotiable in any recovery routine including my own. To combat muscle soreness, increase your range of motion, and prepare you for your next workout, foam rolling is a must. Below, I’ll walk you through the science behind foam rolling and discuss why you should (ideally) make it a habit. (Realistically, I suggest setting yourself a goal to foam roll at least twice a week.)
Please note: The following post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If you believe you have an exercise-related injury, please request a consultation with a licensed physical therapist.
How Does Foam Rolling Work?
To understand how foam rolling works, you must first understand how your muscles work.
When you exercise — particularly when you strength train — tiny muscle fibers tear themselves apart. This causes muscle soreness after your workouts. When these damaged fibers fuse back together, it allows the muscle to grow and strengthen. This process is called muscle hypertrophy.
Sometimes, when your muscles repair themselves after exercise, the fibers clump together in irregular patterns. This causes a physical knot to form in your muscle. Knots form for a number of reasons, usually related to overcompensation, overuse, injury, inflammation, or introduction to a new movement (for example, if you just started a new workout program). Sometimes, these knots will work themselves out on their own. Other times, they need a manual release called a self-myofascial release.
A number of methods and tools can help you achieve myofascial release — foam rollers are one of them. However, active release therapy (ACT), the Graston Technique, muscle flossing, and even a deep tissue massage can achieve the same result.
Why Does the Foam Roller Hurt So Much?
I'll be honest — foam rolling is anything but comfortable.
But typically, the more uncomfortable foam rolling is, the more it helps you. Think back to what you learned in the previous three paragraphs: Foam rolling breaks up damaged connective tissue so that it can grow together cleanly — which is helpful, but not an enjoyable experience.
When your muscle fibers repair themselves the way they should, foam rolling will feel like a nice, easy massage. However, when you roll over a tender area (like a knot or scar tissue), it can be slightly painful. Breaking up that knot may not be enjoyable, but you will feel much better afterwards.
Note: If you feel a sharp or unbearable pain from foam rolling, immediately make an appointment with a physical therapist. The pain could be a sign of a muscle tear or strain rather than just muscle tightness.
What Are the Benefits of Foam Rolling?
Foam rolling has been linked to decreased muscle soreness, injury prevention, increased blood flow, and reduced injuries. Here are a few benefits of foam rolling as backed by science.
Foam Rolling Can Improve Your Warm-Up
While many people use foam rolling as a cool down or recovery technique, some studies show that foam rolling before your workout may be a better use of your time.
In an analysis of 21 different studies conducted by the NIH, researchers compared the effects of foam rolling before exercise with foam rolling after exercise. They measured flexibility, muscle soreness, and athletic performance. Overall, scientists found foam rolling prior to exercise improved flexibility without decreasing muscle performance, improved sprint speed, decreased fatigue, and reduced pain related to soreness — more so than foam rolling post-workout.
Foam Rolling Can Reduce Muscle Tension and Soreness
In a study conducted by the NIH, foam rolling was found to alleviate muscle fatigue and soreness, reduce pain, and decrease post-exercise muscle tenderness.
The study found 20 minutes of foam rolling can provide relief to sore muscles. In addition, the study found foam rolling every day can greatly improve muscle recovery.
Foam Rolling Can Improve Your Range of Motion
Not only can foam rolling help loosen tight muscles, but it can also loosen tight joints.
In a study conducted by the NIH, self-myofascial release using a foam roller or roller massager (sometimes called a massage stick) helped increase range of motion in the hip, knee, and ankle joints.
The Best Foam Rollers on the Market
You can foam roll using a lacrosse ball, massage stick, or foam roller, all while breaking up the muscle knots that cause you pain. Below, I’ll share my favorite foam rollers and related products for pre- and post-workout routines. Each has different benefits and will work best for a certain type of user.
Note: While lacrosse balls are incredibly affordable (you can get one online for $3), it can be painful when you hit a trigger point with one. Therefore, I prefer to first foam roll any major muscle groups (glutes, quads, hamstrings, and lower back) and then use a lacrosse ball to break up any knots.
*Note: Prices are estimates, and may differ depending on the country you reside in.
TriggerPoint GRID Foam Roller
This foam roller is incredibly durable and won't wear down with repeated use. The patented design comes with a grooved foam layer which can help target trigger points. Lastly, it comes with a free online video library that will teach you various foam roller exercises.
LifePro 4-Speed Vibrating Massage Ball
This foam roller combines a vibrating self-massage with two lacrosse balls. With four speeds to choose from, you can target tight muscles and soft tissue. Plus, it comes with a lifetime warranty.
Idson Muscle Roller Stick
A massage stick is more portable, lightweight, and gentle than most foam rollers. If your muscles or tendons are tender, using a massage stick like this one can help you ease into foam rolling. Plus, a massage stick can better target smaller muscles and ligaments such as those within your feet and calves.
LuxeFit Foam Roller
If you're looking for a basic, affordable foam roller, this is a wonderful option. At less than $10 and packaged with a 10-year warranty, it's a great foam roller for beginners. Plus, you can store it under your couch to use after your at-home workouts.
Add Foam Rolling to Your Workout Routine
Foam rolling can help you improve mobility, flexibility, and athletic performance while reducing pain, muscle soreness, risk of injury, and recovery time.
To improve your overall health and wellness routine, I recommend foam rolling every day. You can foam roll prior to your workout, as part of your warm-up, and during your post-workout or cool down. Just 5-20 minutes per day can significantly impact how you feel and perform.
As you work to create a well-rounded fitness routine, join the Build Bullet Proof Health program. Combining nutrition, strength, cardio, and recovery, Build Bullet Proof Health teaches you to build healthier habits (like foam rolling) that lead to a well-rounded lifestyle. To take the guesswork out of workouts, nutrition, and recovery, join the program today.
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