Foam rolling is something we see a lot in the gym, at the physio and in articles/blogs on health and fitness. It involves the use of a hard foam cylinder to apply deep pressure and shear forces to muscles and connective tissue to increase mobility or range of movement. Indeed, in the clinical setting patients report that using a foam roller helps them move more freely and with less pain or stiffness, and that it helps to eliminate 'knots' or muscle tension. There are various opinions on how to use a foam roller effectively, and different ideas on what effect it has. So what is the best way to use a foam roller, and how can foam rolling help you?
We'll begin this blog with a quick discussion on what foam rolling actually does to our muscles and our body. Reviewing the research on foam rolling shows that there is still uncertainty regarding its exact physiological effect. However, it is believed to have some combination of the following effects:
1. The deep pressure from foam rolling may help to reduce muscle tone
2. The shear forces created when foam rolling (friction between layers of tissues sliding against each other) may help to improve the mobility and extensibility of facia or scar tissue
3. The use of a foam roller leads to increased circulation and vascular flow in the body region where it is applied
4. Using a foam roller on muscles in conjunction with resistance training can assist muscular growth (hypertrophy)
5. Foam rolling after exercise may help to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness
Through some combination of the above potential effects, foam rolling leads to people moving more freely and increases the range of motion around the joints where it is used. So there is a positive effect that can have good outcomes. But when should we foam roll, for how long, and how often?
Based on potential physiological effects, foam rolling can be particularly beneficial at the following times:
1. Before exercise, to increase blood flow to the targeted muscles, improvement movement and tissue extensibility
2. To manage specific muscle tension or soreness that may be causing musculo-skeletal pain or impairing exercise technique
3. After exercise to assist muscle recovery and growth
As for how long and how often we should foam roll, this is a topic of ongoing debate. The majority of evidence suggests foaming rolling each targeted muscle for a period of 1 - 5 minutes until a sensation of release is felt. In practice most professionals will advocate approximately 1-2 minutes of foam rolling per muscle group, before and after exercise, with a focus on slow sustained rolling under deep pressure (imagine that the roller is only moving a few centimetres per second). The video below demonstrates the correct use of a foam roller on some key muscle areas: Para-spinal muscles, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves and fibularis muscles
As a final note we believe that any technique for improving range of movement should be coupled to techniques for improving neuro-muscular control in the range gained. So foam rolling should be coupled with exercises to focus on muscle control and stability as well - but this is a conversation for another day.
Keep on rolling!
The Gap Physio