Maybe you’ve always wondered what the big deal was with these things, and why your fellow gym-goers enjoy awkwardly balancing on them, grimacing and flinching as they slowly roll back and forth across them.
Simple in design, yet powerful in its capacity, and yet, misused by so many, we are going to cover the benefits of using a foam roller.
We will cover some of the more popular questions the friendly neighborhood gym-goer has when it comes to this tool:
For athletes who train daily the biggest battle isn’t always making it to the gym—it’s recovering from the last thrashing that we gave ourselves. Lots can be done to help power your recovery, from making sure you are getting lots of sleep, eating like a champion, and staying properly hydrated.
Now you can add foam rolling to that little list.
In one study a group of college aged active males twice performed ten rounds of 10 reps of barbell back squats at 60% of their 1RM. They either performed 20-minutes of foam rolling three times after the workout: immediately, 24 hours and 48 hours later.
Performance was improved in the foam rolling group in a 30m sprint, a broad-based jump, a change of direction test, and dynamic strength-endurance.
Soreness can be a game-wrecker when left unchecked. Delayed onset muscle soreness, a class-1 muscle strain, can compromise muscle function.
The not-so-sciencey way we experience this is trying to stand up from the toilet after a heavy leg day. Or raising our arms above our shoulders after a pull-up-a-thon.
If we can experience a little bit less of this debilitating soreness we can not only walk down a flight of stairs a little faster, but also get our posteriors back in the gym a little sooner too.
The same study just mentioned also found participants suffering less from DOMS when the foam rolling protocol was completed.
Performing self-myofascial release (SMR) with a foam roller will help you restore and extend your muscles, tendons, ligaments and soft tissue. But did you know that you can also improve arterial stiffness?
Rolling around, hitting the adductor, hamstrings, quads, the dreaded IT band, and even the traps was shown to help improve arterial stiffness and vascular endothelial function.
Foam rolling has been shown to increase flexibility when it is tag-teamed with a static stretching protocol. While many athletes will use a roller to help massage sore muscles after a rugged workout it can also help to maintain range of motion and even improve flexibility in targeted muscles.
A group of 40 participants were split into three groups and performed 6 sessions of either static stretching, stretching + foam rolling, foam rolling, or nothing.
The individuals who did both static stretching and foam rolling significantly outpaced the other groups in terms of improving range of motion in the targeted muscle, which in this case was the hamstring.
What does this mean for you?
After heavy days in the gym you should consider using a foam roller as well as some static stretching in order to restore range of motion and help kick-start the recovery process.
Besides soreness, recovery, and being more flexible, the over-riding benefit to foam rolling is that you improve your overall performance capability. When you roll yourself with that little orange tube you help increase and/or maintain proper range of motion.
And why is that a big deal?
Because when you have a proper range of motion you can execute the movements you want to perform with better technique (ahem, fewer injuries) and with more power.
Okay, okay—so you’re digging what the research is saying. Before you plunk down $50 on a new foam roller here are 5 tips for foam rolling like a professional:
1. Choose your weapon.
Foam rollers, even though they are all roughly the same shape, come with different surfaces, from a soft, almost pillow like firmness to the grid surface of the Triggerpoint foam rollers, to my personal favorite, the rumble roller, which features plastic fingers jutting out from the roller that help you really dig into your fascia.
If you’ve never tried foam rolling try one of the softer rollers to get an idea of how it feels. As you progress, and get used to the sometimes agonizing feeling of mashing up your soft tissue, move on to a stiffer roller, or a tennis ball.
2. Don’t overdo it.
The foam roller, as awesome as it is, is not a stand-alone treatment or tool for your mobility and recovery protocol. It should be a part of a complete approach to your training goals.
It’s just one tool in the arsenal. It doesn’t replace other mobility and recovery methods, from arm swings and dynamic warm-ups, to basic aerobic cool downs.
Instead of completely relying on the roller for your warm-up and mobility issues incorporate it with other mechanisms for max effect.
Targeting your glutes for half an hour on a foam roller won’t beat out a dynamic warm-up and leg swings when it comes to mobility, so don’t overdo your time on the foam roller or place all your hopes and dreams on it.
3. Target injuries by hitting the peripheral areas.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read was via of Kelly Starett (author of Becoming a Supple Leopard—must read for anyone with a, like, body), and that was to attack upstream and downstream of problem areas.
Painful knee? Hit your calves and hips. Tight shoulder? Hit your traps and chest.
Often when athletes get injured the thinking is that they need to roll and target the injured area exclusively. Injuries are usually the result of nearby imbalances and dysfunctions.
4. Roll it out slowly.
Commonly athletes will hop on the foam roller and saw back and forth at warp speed. Back and forth they go, racing to mash up their soft tissue without really ever compressing anything. Taking your time to roll over the full length of the muscle allows actual compression. With those tender and tight spots spend a little bit more time, :20-:30 seconds and certainly no longer than 2 minutes, with short, targeted rolls before moving on.
5. Use it after your workout for max recovery.
Alrighty, so you’ve utterly dominated your workout routine—what’s next? Home, couch, Netflix. Instead, grab your post-workout recovery drank and a foam roller to do some general rolling.
Foam rolling before your workouts might help you un-tighten some areas, but it largely won’t increase performance, strength or endurance. Instead, use it after your workouts, targeting the muscles you worked that day in the gym.
The light jostling of muscle tissue will help nervous system recovery, flush out lymphatic pooling, drive fresh, nutrient-rich blood to local areas, and leaving you feeling a little better and more prepared to crush the following day’s workout.
In our everlasting quest to make the most of our workouts the foam roller has proven itself to be a valuable ally.
Whether you want to boost recovery (and who doesn’t?), be less sore, and achieve better mobility and function, the foam roller has got you covered.
Now, get to rollin’!
By OLIVIER POIRIER-LEROY