Is Foam Rolling Worth The Time?

Key Points

  • Foam rolling doesn’t release “scar tissue”

  • Foam rolling increases flexibility and pain tolerance

  • Foam rolling increases sprint performance, but doesn’t improve muscular strength or jump performance

  • A dynamic warm-up is more effective than foam rolling

What Is Foam Rolling?

Foam rolling is a form of self-massage where the individual uses their body weight to compress a targeted muscle with the goal of improving the surrounding connective tissue. For example, to roll out the quadriceps, you would lay on top of the foam roller in a plank position. (see below)

What Is Fascia?

"Fascia is the biological fabric that holds us together, the connective tissue network...Understanding fascia is essential to the dance between stability and movement — crucial in high performance, central in recovery from injury and disability, and ever-present in our daily life from our embryological beginnings to the last breath we take." - Anatomy Trains

Generally speaking, the body is connected together through a web of connective tissue called fascia. You may not have realized it, but you have come across fascia before while cooking. The thin, glossy layer of tissue coating a chicken breast is fascia! These bands of tissue surround every muscle fiber, organ, and bone in the body.

Stronger Than Steel

Fascia is quite a remarkable tissue. It may be thin, but it is stronger than steel and can withstand massive tensile forces(1). When you are a nerd like myself, you tend to find commonalities in things. For example, spider webs remind me of fascia. Do you remember the last time you walked into one? I'm sure it wasn't a pleasant experience, but you were still able to get through it injury free. Now imagine the same situation, but instead of a spider web, a web comprised of fascia. You'd be running through the woods, and then all of a sudden...Smack!

All of our muscles are covered in this web of steel, attaching each muscle to its corresponding bone via fascia. The body is a massive web of connective tissue, without it, we would fall apart. In addition to this steel like frame, fascia has the ability to absorb and recoil energy from external forces. For example, when you run, tendons absorb force from the ground, store it for a split second, and then use it to propel you forward. Researchers figured out this mechanism by studying the movements of kangaroo and gazelle:

“Kangaroos can jump much farther than can be explained by the force of the contraction of their leg muscles...scientists discovered that a spring-like action is behind the unique ability: the so-called ‘catapult mechanism’. Here, the tendons and the fascia of the legs are tensioned like elastic rubber bands. The release of this stored energy is what makes the amazing jumps possible...Surprisingly, it has been found that the fasciae of humans have a similar kinetic storage capacity to that of kangaroos and gazelles (2).”

We are still in the early stages of research, but we know it plays a crucial role in injury prevention. Thus, it would be wise to keep it healthy for as long as possible. Does foam rolling accomplish this? I am sure you have heard the claims that it improves muscular performance, flexibility, and even recovery. But how much evidence is there to back these claims? Let’s find out.

The Science

A recent review of 21 studies from the journal, Frontiers in Physiology, looked at the effects of pre-rolling and post-rolling on flexibility, muscle performance, and recovery. The systematic review found foam rolling to result in a small improvement in sprint performance and flexibility, but had negligible effects on jump and strength performance. Post-workout foam rolling was found to improve recovery slightly by reducing muscle pain perception.  

"Overall, it was determined that the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery are rather minor and partly negligible, but can be relevant in some cases...When foam rolling is used as a recovery tool, participants experience slightly reduced decrements in sprint and strength performance and a small reduction in the severity of muscle pain (3).”

Foam Rolling Doesn’t “Release” Scar Tissue

No one is entirely sure how foam rolling works, but there are theories. According to the meta-analysis above, the benefits of foam rolling could be due to a combination of the following:

  1. Altered tissue adhesion/stiffness

  2. Pain reduction

  3. Increased blood flow/ parasympathetic circulation

  4. Placebo effect

Anecdotally speaking, I have felt the pain reducing effects of foam rolling on myself and clients. But I don't buy the idea that a foam roller can physically manipulate tissue stiffness and neither does science. In a study measuring the effects of foam rolling on fascia, the authors concluded:

"...very large forces, outside the normal physiologic range, are required to produce even 1% compression and 1% shear in fascia… (4)."

Remember, connective tissue is stronger than steel. So the need for a very large force makes sense to me. I don’t believe foam rolling is capable of producing this type of force, and even if it could, it would still only be a 1% change. So, if foam rolling isn’t changing the physical structure of connective tissue, how is it improving performance and flexibility?

Warm Up The Body...Literally.

"Alternative explanations for acute benefits in performance could be a potential warm-up and/or placebo effect(3).”

It is well documented that increases in body temperature improve muscular performance, power, and flexibility(5). Thus, I don’t believe the benefits are due to the breakdown of scar tissue. Rather, I think the benefits are due to a combination of:

  • Increased blood flow

  • Increased body temperature

  • Placebo effect

I am not saying foam rolling doesn’t work. The research above shows it improves flexibility, pain tolerance, and sprint performance(3). But, I believe we can obtain the same benefits with a well-structured warm-up in less time. And since time is of the essence for most, I prefer the more efficient choice.

Dynamic Warm-Up

Dynamic warm-ups are more efficient than foam rolling and the better choice. They have been shown to improve flexibility and muscular performance , whereas foam rolling’s effects on muscular performance appear negligible at best (3,5). A lack of movement has been shown to damage fascia by reducing tissue elasticity(2). The majority of people sit all day and fail to move enough. Therefore, a warm-up that increases movement and muscle performance is the better option. You don’t need a foam roller to improve the quality of your fascia, you just need to move more.

So You Still Want To Foam Roll? Here’s How to do it well..

We are creatures of habit, regardless of a stance or research, we will continue to follow our routines. As I stated above, foam rolling does improve flexibility. It will create more space in the joint and allow a greater range of motion. However, this will only last for the upcoming workout. Thus, you must take advantage of this new range of motion by being methodical in your training to make the flexibility stick.

Lower Body Foam Rolling

Upper Body Foam Rolling

After foam rolling, resistance training or a movement practice (functional range conditioning, yoga, Pilates) must occur. Foam rolling by itself will do nothing for flexibility and very little for recovery. Remember, movement is the key. A foam rolling practice should never replace a dynamic warm-up, it should only compliment it. I hope this blog post shed some light on foam rolling and gave you a different perspective on warming up. In my next blog post, you will learn the principles behind a good warm-up.

erik rokiskyComment