Foam Rolling: Fad or Fitness Win?

Have you ever encountered a new fitness trend and wondered if it’s worth trying or just another fad? In the age of technology, it seems like we’re getting force fed the next latest and greatest in the fitness world everyday. Even as a Sports Physical Therapist, it’s hard to keep up with what’s legit and what’s not. So let’s talk about foam rolling. There are a ton of differing opinions on what it actually does and its effects on the body. Instead of an opinion, let’s dive into the science of what it does (and doesn’t do!) and potential effects it could have. Whether you’re a fitness fanatic or just looking for ways to ease muscle tension, you won’t want to miss this!

If you’re not familiar with foam rolling, it’s a simple self-massage technique where you roll over a foam cylinder targeting certain groups of muscles. Common benefits you may hear about are: becoming more flexible, warms up muscles prior to a workout, recovering faster after workouts, and relieving muscle pain. All great things right?? The problem is, we want to know the “why” and the jury is still out in that regard.

Let’s first take a look at what foam rolling actually does:

Foam rolling provides a compressive and friction force between the roller, skin, and outside of the muscles. This is similar to certain types of massage, and probably the #1 reason it has become so popular- it simply feels good! What these forces actually do, though, is help to move fluid around between these structures and improve blood flow into the targeted area. Have you ever heard this theory before? Maybe… But  what we usually hear from our patients is how they use it to break up adhesions and work on the deep fascia. Unfortunately, foam rolling doesn’t do this. It is unable to provide adequate pressure at an appropriate depth to have any effect on the layers of fascia in the body.

Ok, so it moves fluid around, but how does that help me?

No one gets pumped to warm up. Especially not my morning workout athletes. We often get asked if foam rolling can be used as a warm-up? In this case, the answer is a resounding no. While foam rolling can bring increased blood flow to targeted muscles, it is not effective in getting your heart rate up and moving more blood throughout the entire body. Now, if you have the free time, using a foam roll PRIOR to warming up may help reduce soreness in muscles and help you feel more ready to get warmed up and ultimately workout.

So we know foam rolling doesn’t get the heart rate going. But what about preparing muscles to move? Well, there was a research study that compared foam rolling to both static and dynamic stretching. What they found was that rolling out has been shown to have a significant effect on performance compared to static stretching– fantastic, foam rolling for everyone right? In reality, it has similar outcomes when compared to dynamic stretching. If we’re trying to efficiently warm up, foam rolling still can’t operate independently. It CAN be beneficial, but a dynamic warm up that gets the heart rate elevated and makes muscles ready to work is still most effective prior to a workout.

Alright. So it’s not the greatest for warm-ups, but surely it can help with recovery. Going back to the science, post-workout rolling can actually help you recover in the pain department. You know that feeling you get during the few days after a tough workout (aka doms)? Foam rolling MAY help that! So, if you know you’re in for a world of hurt after a killer leg day, just add some foam rolling at the end of your workout. While effective, it’s no miracle drug. This is not something that will allow you to hit legs again any sooner. Your body will still require adequate nutrition, rest, and recovery to prepare for your next session. Foam rolling might just make sitting down a little more bearable over the next couple of days.

The ultimate takeaway of this blog post is that foam rolling can be a useful tool but not a necessary one. It really comes down to preference. And by preference, I mean does it FEEL like it benefits you? If you love foam rolling and use it to help you start or end a workout, then continue. The majority of the benefits come from having a positive psychological effect or is part of a routine that gets you mentally ready to crush it. Ultimately though, we recommend a more targeted and active approach to adequately warm up through things like dynamic mobility work, getting your HR up, and movement prep that correlates closely with your workout! 

Are you dealing with pain an injury and not sure if you should be foam rolling? If so, I highly recommend you schedule an appointment with us to get it checked out. We’re here to help!

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Mike

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