What Does Foam Rolling Do?

Foam Rolling May8th 2020

Slow Your Roll: Investigating the Effects of  Foam Rolling 

By Casey Jackson and the ReQuest Team

   There seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding the act of foam rolling. Rumors of foam rollers decimating knots in the muscles, significantly reducing muscle fatigue pre and post-workout, and drastically improving range of motion are quickly revealed on the internet, but how much evidence supports these claims?   

What is foam rolling? 

   For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, a foam roller is a long, cylindrical piece of foam that typically surrounds a large PVC pipe. An individual normally uses this tool by placing the foam roller directly underneath the muscle that is feeling sore or tight and then uses their body weight to ‘roll’ the foam roller back and forth along the muscle. The most common areas that are targeted during this exercise are the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, as well as muscles of the upper and lower back. The act of using a foam roller is called foam rolling, the goal of which is self-myofascial release (SMR). 

   Fascia is present throughout the entire human body. It is connective tissue that is predominantly made of collagen, and it surrounds the structures of the body. Myofascia pertains to the muscles, as it covers, supports and connects each muscle to the next. The thought is that this fascia can become tense due to a long list of factors, including injury, overuse, or inflammation. Over time, layers of the tense tissue compounds into fibrous adhesions, which are also known as myofascial trigger points, or more commonly as ‘knots’ in the muscles.  

    There is a massage technique known as myofascial release that can help reduce these adhesions, but these sessions can be time consuming and expensive. Hence, the introduction of the foam roller with self-myofascial release, which is advertised as a much more cost-effective and quicker method to get rid of these trigger points. 

What does the evidence say? 

Trigger Point Reduction

Studies specifically pertaining to the topic of self-myofascial release and myofascial trigger points are limited. These studies usually have a small number of participants or investigate the effects of foam rolling on other topics that do not pertain to myofascial trigger points. With this being said, the evidence that is currently published on myofascial trigger points does not look promising. 

    A small study conducted in Germany with 21 participants found that dynamically using a foam roller on the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) had no effect on reducing myofascial trigger points. Statically compressing the muscle with a foam roller was found to be somewhat effective, but the placebo treatment of utilizing laser acupuncture (where the actual laser source remained switched off) was the most effective treatment to reduce myofascial trigger points (Wilke, Vogt, Banzer, 2018). Although the results discouraged the notion that self-myofascial release is an appropriate method for the reduction of adhesions, more research is needed due to the small sample size of the study, as well as the fact that the participants only participated in one session of foam rolling for a short amount of time. 

Range of Motion

However, there is growing evidence to support that a foam roller can improve range of motion of a joint. A study with 11 participants published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research saw an increase of range of motion in the knee on average of 10 and 8 degrees, 2 and 10 minutes after a foam rolling session when compared to the control group (Macdonald et al., 2013). The researchers also found that foam rolling did not reduce muscle performance of the quadriceps, which is consistent with the results of other studies that studied the correlation between muscular strength and foam rolling (Hsuan et al., 2017). 

Is The Money in How You Use It?

    The way you use the foam roller also makes a difference in your results. A small study published this year in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that a more non-traditional method of foam rolling that involves engaging the active joint motion of bending the knee (flexion) during a short session of foam rolling of the quad muscles yielded better results in knee flexibility and pressure pain thresholds when compared to foam rolling with a straight knee (Cheatham & Stull, 2018). 

… combine with static stretching

    Above all, it appears that foam rolling will produce the best results when combined with static stretching. When 40 subjects participated in a study where static stretching, foam rolling, the combination of static stretching and foam rolling, and a control group were compared after 6 days of the prescribed treatment, it was found that the combination group had the greatest change in hip flexion range of motion (Mohr, Long, Goad, 2014). 

Roll On 

    In the first study above that was conducted in Germany, although the results of the study do not support the use of a foam roller to reduce myofascial trigger points, participants still reported a 15% improvement in acute pain relief (Wilke, Vogt, Banzer, 2018). There is also research that supports that utilizing a foam roller after delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the pain and stiffness you feel in your muscles one to two days after exercising, can decrease the magnitude of soreness (Schroeder & Best, 2015). Overall, there is also currently no evidence to suggest that foam rolling will have any negative effect on muscular performance (Schroeder & Best, 2015). 

    At the end of the day, the research suggests that self-myofascial release with a foam roller will not get rid of those pesky myofascial trigger points, and you should instead seek out a licensed massage or physical therapist to help with this. However, foam rolling can reduce some discomfort you feel due to delayed onset muscle soreness, and it can help improve your range of motion. When combined with static stretching, a foam roller can be a formidable force towards flexibility and muscle recovery.  Keep in mind that stretching done prior to activity can decrease force output, so these modalities are best used during recovery sessions.

Contact us to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed massage therapist’s today to help ease those sore spots in your muscles.

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