Foam Rolling Facts and Fiction

How the Foam Roller Can (and Can’t) Help You

Stop violating your foam roller! If you’re going to use it, use it at the right time and for the right reason. Get the facts.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. Foam rolling has some benefits. But many people think it does things that it just doesn’t do.
  2. Foam rolling reduces tightness. The pressure stimulates receptors in the nervous system which takes the brakes off of tight tissues.
  3. Foam rolling is best performed after training or even the next day. Stop using it as a pre-workout ritual.
  4. Foam rolling isn’t going to boost performance. It won’t do much for your strength, endurance, flexibility, or mobility.
  5. Foam rolling doesn’t break up scar tissue. It’s very difficult to “break up” soft tissues in the body, which aren’t very soft at all.
  6. Foam rolling is not a cure-all. It has its place, but mobility has a lot to do with joints, not just the soft tissues that rolling hits.

Foam rolling: It certainly feels like it’s doing, well, something. But does it actually work? Will smashing your muscles improve performance or prevent injury? When it comes to self-myofascial release (SMR), it’s important to sort out the fact from the fiction if you want to get the benefits. So let’s do it.

1. Foam Rolling Decreases Tightness

Foam rolling, or any other SMR technique, works due to one key mechanism of action: neurological tone reduction in the muscle tissue. By adding external pressure and oscillations through muscle tissue, receptors in the peripheral and central nervous system are stimulated and essentially take the parking brake off those tight and tonic tissues.

This tightness phenomenon has been referred to as “neural-lock.” By unlocking the tissues based on neurological principles, SMR techniques become far easier to understand, especially with the sometimes rapid reduction in tightness of broad and dense tissues.

2. Foam Rolling Is Best Used After Training, Not Before

Foam rolling is best performed after workouts as a recovery method. It crept into warm-ups when trainers made the false association between foam rolling and enhanced mobility before workouts. More on that in a minute. But here’s why foam rolling is great for recovery:

  • For most athletes, there are significant levels of local inflammation, delayed onset muscle soreness, and increased neurological tone in the tissues. So it makes sense to target soft tissues that have been trained earlier in the day or the day before.
  • Extended duration foam rolling sessions that target specific tissues for a few minutes will help stimulate the active muscle pump of the body, clear out inflammation and lymphatic pooling, and tap into the neural recovery system by reducing local tone of the tissues.
  • Rolling helps drive blood into local areas, which allows nutrient exchange and waste to be cleared out.

All this speeds up the recovery process as a whole, and can be a powerful mechanism of recovery when routinely practiced.

3. Foam Rolling Has Limited Functional Carryover

As a stand-alone modality, the foam roller has very little functional carryover into mobility, flexibility, function, strength, endurance, and pain modulation.

Yes, some people have perceived benefit from foam rolling in terms of those training metrics, but you must ask: were those gains made solely due to self-directed soft tissue practice, or are there other contributing factors causing positive outcomes?

When used by itself, foam rolling clearly has benefits in terms of local and systemic recovery by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system and the other mechanisms of recovery mentioned above. But when it comes to aiding global movement in a pre-training routine, foam rolling is a very small part of the entire functional equation in terms of physical preparation for performance.

4. Foam Rolling Will Not Break Down Scar Tissue

The most common misconception as to why SMR works is something called the mechanical muscular or fascial adhesion model. This model preaches that cross linkages are formed in muscle and fascial tissue through mechanical stress, thus it takes targeted external stress like that of a foam roller to “break up” the adhesions and scar tissues.

First off, soft tissues in the human body are anything but “soft.” These are very strong structures that are extremely difficult to mechanically alter in shape or structure.

If tissues were able to be manipulated this easily, every single time you hit the gym and crushed a hard workout, the tissues would sustain a shit-storm of mechanical damage – the kind that would keep you out of the gym for a long time. Also, external pressures and forces on the body such as having a barbell on your back would tear your upper back apart due to the large amount of force. See why this doesn’t add up?

Secondly, there are multiple layers of dermal tissues covering the soft tissues that are supposedly being manipulated, and for most people, a fair amount of fatty adipose layers as well. The three main layers of skin are pretty thick if you’ve ever seen a partially dissected cadaver. These layers are also full of mechano- and sensory receptors as well.

The “breaking up scar tissue” argument is simply nonsense.

5. Foam Rolling Will Not Prepare the Body for Performance

The only time where foam rolling is warranted in the warm-up is when there’s notable mobility dysfunction present. That means that dysfunction has been evaluated and diagnosed, and part of the course of remediation involves SMR techniques as a means to improve positions. For everyone else who’s considered a functional mover and doesn’t present with pain, there’s little to no need for hitting the foam roller before training.

Why? The cost to benefit ratio just doesn’t add up. The cost is your time and energy spent on soft tissue work that may in fact do absolutely nothing to improve positions or mobility, while time is taken away from other training methods like strength, conditioning, and sport specific movements. And honestly, even the dysfunctional athlete who’s using foam rolling may be receiving little to no benefit from the foam rolling as a stand-alone method of mobility and soft tissue work.

6. Foam Rolling Won’t Help Much With Mobility

SMR techniques absolutely have their place in a balanced program, but realize that there are better bang-for-your-buck modes of training out there. Foam rolling is by no means a cure-all for mobility issues.

I’m not saying, “Don’t foam roll!” Sure, prioritize soft tissue techniques, but synergize them with other training modalities to create results in the most effective and efficient way possible.

People think that if someone has poor mobility, then the best way regain mobility is the roller and other soft tissue techniques. But mobility doesn’t involve just soft tissues. There are things in our bodies called “joints” that play a huge role in global mobility and functionality that have an interconnected interplay with soft tissue structures such as muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia.

And honestly, even breaking down mobility in the biomechanical model based on joints and soft tissues is simplistic in reasoning. But it’s one hell of a step up from the common absolutist soft tissue train of thought.

To think that addressing the soft tissues alone with a questionable technique will be the only thing you need in the battle to produce enhanced mobility and function is ludicrous. Foam rolling can be used as a tissue preparatory mechanism when paired with other forms of mobility enhancement such as stretching, corrective exercise, activation, and foundational movement pattern development. The synergy between all of these mechanisms then gives the best chance for mobility remediation.

There’s no doubt that a well-rounded prehabilitation or movement preparatory program is your best bet for improving your movement capacity, increasing your strength, and minimizing the incidence of injuries secondary to training. But it’s not all about the foam roller, even though it hurts so good.