How Does Foam Rolling Work?
The following is a guest post from Sam Lebowitz, if you’re interested in submitting a guest post to the site email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with either a proposal or full article
Walking into a fitness facility can be an eye-opening experience for many individuals. There a lot of different things that can grab someone’s attention, from the brightly colored cardio bunny setting the latest fashion trend, the big stereotypical meathead shrugging huge weight and that strange tubular device that people are rolling on by the stretching area.
While the first two attention grabbers are no doubt entertaining, the last one, the rolling, it’s just weird! Well, as those who are immersed in the realm of fitness know, the weird one, known as a foam roller, is pretty sweet. We know it makes us feel great and move better, but the question is what does it do? And more importantly, does it work?
During exercise, or any form of movement for that matter, we want to move in the most efficient ways possible. Myofascial release therapy has been shown to break up fibrous adhesions, found in the layers of fascia, which occur due to a loss in elasticity because of injury or inactivity (Barnes, 1997; MacDonald et al., 2013).
Note from Justin: I’m familiar with these two studies which talk about breaking up fibrous adhesions as a mechanism for why foam rolling works. I think that is speculative because of the transient nature of foam rolling. So for the sake of a fair debate here is a piece from Todd Hargrove who summarizes fibrous adhesions in point number three
Sam also mentions it below but changes in range of motion from foam rolling can be due to a variety of reasons. I think a neural explanation makes the most sense. Bret Contreras had a good piece on foam rolling here. I like DNIC as a potential reason for changes in range of motion following foam rolling.
It has been shown in numerous studies that soft tissue extensibility and normal muscle mechanics such as joint ROM, muscular strength, and muscular endurance are inhibited by fibrous adhesions (Barnes, 1997; Curran et al, 2008; Swann & Graner, 2002).
Now, I’m sure that when Justin Bieber goes to the gym he more than likely has a massage therapist with him (HAH! Could you imagine!).
Note from Justin: Has Beiber been confirmed to even lift?
Unfortunately for the rest of us “normal folk,” we cannot afford to bring along a massage therapist for an MRT session. Foam rollers have essentially become the poor mans massage therapist.
As aforementioned, MRT breaks up fibrous adhesions that limit tissue extensibility along with decreasing muscular strength and endurance. Foam rolling is built on the concepts of MRT, but until recently the effectiveness of foam rolling had not been quantified, like MRT had been.
The first study of its kind was performed by MacDonald et al., and published in the journal of strength and conditioning (2013). Results showed that foam rolling caused statistically significant increases in knee range of motion (ROM), through an active leg extension test. During the study subjects applied pressure to the hamstring, via the foam roller, for a period of 2 minutes and within 2-10 minutes, had a ROM test performed.
So many of you may be wondering, how long do I have to foam roll for? Does it have to be for 2-minutes on just one hamstring? The simple answer is no. Foam rolling was found to cause a statistically significant increase in ROM in as little as 5 seconds (Behm et al., 2013).
An unpublished study done at SUNY Cortland, by Hammond et al., corroborated data found by Behm et al. and MacDonald et al. in that foam rolling caused a statistically significant increase in ROM. Unlike in the first two studies, Hammond et al. performed a straight leg raise. Similar to Macdonald et al. a foam rolling session lasted 2 minutes.
When results from each study were compared a trend could be seen. The greater the amount of time foam rolling is performed (with a constant pressure) the greater the ROM increase. No studies have been done on if there is a point of diminishing returns.
Let’s not be hasty here and rush to conclusions. Detractors of foam rolling state that foam rolling does not increase flexibility. This claim is in fact true (Miller & Rockey, 2006). But let us not confuse flexibility (the ability of a muscle the “lengthen”) and ROM changes. ROM can change for a multitude of reasons, including muscle spindle adaptation, golgi tendon organ causing autogenic inhibition reflex and perhaps a nervous system adaptation (Garret et al. 1996; Houk, 1967; Ben & Harvey, 2010; Alter, 1996; Weppler, 2010; Wallin et al., 1985). While it is important to know that foam rolling does not have an effect on long term flexibility, having an understanding of what something does and doesn’t do assists creates more opportunities for logical choices.
There we have it. Foam rolling has been quantified by multiple studies (all studies are independent) to be effective at causing a significant increase in ROM about a joint. In our quest to attain optimal movement patterns, foam rollers are just another tool we can add to our arsenal.
Alter MJ. Science of Flexibility. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 1996.
Behm, D.G., Button, D.C., Silvey, D., Sullivan, K.M. (2013). Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 8 (3), 228-236.
Barnes, M. F. (1997). The basic science of myofascial release: morphologic change in connective tissue. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 1(4), 231-238.
Ben, M., & Harvey, L. A. (2010). Regular stretch does not increase muscle extensibility: A randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 20(1), 136-144.
Curran, P. F., Fiore, R. D., & Crisco, J. J. (2008). A comparison of the pressure exerted on soft tissue by 2 myofascial rollers. Journal of sport rehabilitation, 17(4), 432.
Garret, W.E., Coogan, P.G., Friedman, R.L., Sallay, P.I. (1996). Hamstring muscle injuries among water skiers: Functional outcome and prevention. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 24(2), 131.
Houk J.C., Henneman, E. (1967). Responses of golgi tendon organs to active contractions of the soleus muscle of the cat. Journal of Neurophysiology, 30(3), 466-481.
MacDonald, G. Z., Penney, M. D., Mullaley, M. E., Cuconato, A. L., Drake, C. D., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2013). An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(3), 812-821.
Miller, J. K., Rockey, A. M. (2006). Foam rollers show no increase in the flexibility of the hamstring muscle group. Journal of Undergraduate Research, 9, 1-4.
Swann, E., & Graner, S. J. (2002). Uses of manual-therapy techniques in pain management. Athletic Therapy Today, 7(4), 14-17.
Wallin, D., Ekblom, B., Grahn, R., Nordenborg, T. (1985). Improvement of muscle flexibility A comparison between two techniques. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 13(4), 263-268.
Weppler CH, Magnusson P. Increasing muscle extensibility: A matter of increasing length or modifying sensation. Physical Therapy. 2010; 90(3): 438-449.