Foam Rolling: This Is How We Roll

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Foam rolling was never a “thing,” at least in mainstream fitness circles, until the early 2000’s. Since then it seems you can’t lift a weight or make a tuna salad without first taking yourself through a myriad of foam rolling drills to ensure “safety.”

Do I have my clients foam roll? Yes. Do I feel it’s imperative? It depends. In today’s guest post by Dr. Nicholas Licameli, he sets the record straight on what foam rolling is and what it isn’t

 

Foam Rolling: This Is How We Roll

In the fitness world, foam rolling has become just about as popular as yoga pants, bright stretchy shirts with motivational and quirky quotes, and transformation pictures on Instagram. That being said, a foam roller can be an effective tool, if used correctly.

Some buzz terms you may have heard when it comes to foam rolling are muscle lengthening, breaking down scar tissue, freeing up adhesions, remodeling of collagen, curing cancer, etc., however recent research does not support these claims as the mechanism by which foam rolling works.

In reality, we as humans cannot produce the amount of force necessary to remodel our tissues. Our tissues are much more resilient than that. It actually takes thousands of pounds of force to accomplish this, which is probably a good thing because we don’t want our tissues breaking up or remodeling when we’re carrying groceries, sitting on a park bench, squatting with 500lbs on our backs, or anytime we put weight into them.4,5,8

Last time I checked, no one is foam rolling with that much force!

Photo Credit: www.thebarbellphysio.com

But…We Feel Better and “Looser” After We Foam Roll. Why????

The mechanism by which foam rolling works seems to be neurophysiological rather than physical.

Neurophysio what? Neurophysiological.

This means that foam rolling induces a global decrease in muscle tone. Muscle tone is the continuous passive contraction of a muscle controlled subconsciously by the brain. In other words, it’s a muscle’s resistance to passive stretch. Tone is created by a constant subconscious message from the brain telling a muscle to contract. Many times the sensation of muscle “tightness” has more to do with tone and less to do with actual muscle length.

This is similar to how pain is perceived. Pain is a sensory input. Foam rolling adds a sensory input (the pressure) to override another sensory input (tightness or pain) to disrupt that subconscious message between the brain and the muscle to contract or perceive pain.1,6,8 This is why we feel better, looser, and less pain after foam rolling.

A Word (Or two. Or three.) On the Iliotibial Band (IT-Band)

By understanding the neurophysiological mechanism by which foam rolling works, it is now clear why you should NEVER FOAM ROLL THE IT-BAND.

The IT-band is a long tendon that has connections to the hip musculature, lateral quads, and lateral hamstrings…but it is only a tendon, not a muscle.

It is not made up of contractile tissue and therefore cannot have tone. The IT-band becomes tight as a result of increased muscle tone of its muscular attachments.

Think of it like this…imagine attaching the rear bumpers of two tractor-trailers with a chain. Both drivers hit the gas and the trucks try to move away from each other, increasing tension on the chain. In order to lessen the tension on the chain, it’s obvious that you would have the drivers ease off the gas. The chain itself does not cause the tension. The force of the trucks causes the tension.

The same goes for the IT-band. To improve IT-band tightness with a foam roller, focus on the hip musculature, lateral quads, and lateral hamstrings. By rolling directly over the IT-band, you are only causing yourself pain, which is most likely causing a global increase in muscle tone throughout the body.

Great Let’s Get Rolling! I’m Going to Foam Roll Every Muscle of My Body 3x/day For the Rest of My Life!

Not so fast.

The above-mentioned benefits of foam rolling seem to be very short lived. If you spend 10, 20, or 30 minutes foam rolling different muscle groups, by the time you’re done, you’ve likely lost the benefits of the first 5-10 min.

Although the research has not shown an optimal dosage for foam rolling, it has been shown that short bouts of 10-60 seconds is effective.7,8,9 That being said, do not focus on time. Focus on “feel.” Feel that muscle release!

Don’t just roll and roll and roll.

via GIPHY

Note From TG: ^^^ Sorry, I couldn’t resist. And, you’re welcome.

Start off with a slow, steady roll covering the entire muscle group scanning the area for tender spots. Think of scanning the area as a blind person would scan a new environment.

Once you find a tender spot, pause and hold on that spot until a release is felt and the tenderness lessens. Follow this up with another slow, steady roll over the entire muscle just like you started. It is true that foam rolling should be a bit painful, but too much pain will cause an increase in muscle tone, which, as previously mentioned, is exactly the opposite of what we want to do.

More pain is not better. Better quality is better.

Foam rolling should be done with a specific purpose targeting specific muscles (see a qualified healthcare practitioner to pinpoint target areas specific to you). Stop mindlessly flailing around on the dirty gym floor rolling every muscle of your body. Foam rolling should address a specific movement that is limited.

ALWAYS TEST/RETEST.

Test/retest means you test a movement (like a squat) before and after performing soft tissue work to determine if there was any significant change. A useful way to do this is between warm up sets.

So I Understand That the Benefits of Foam Rolling Are Relatively Short Lived, but Can Foam Rolling Help Achieve Long-Term Improvements in Tissue and Movement Quality?

Yes!

That is where loaded movements come in. During the window following foam rolling, it is important to load the movement that you are trying to improve. This is why I recommend performing soft tissue work between your warm up sets.

It will allow you to test/retest as well as gradually load the movement, given you are gradually increasing load with each warm up set.

Take a squat for example.

You feel tightness and restriction in your hips halfway into the descent of your squat. You test and retest your squat and notice you are able to squat deeper and with less tightness. As you load the squat and work up to your working/heavier sets, this newly achieved movement pattern will be trained.

Training this movement with loads will, over time, lead to long term improvements in tissue and movement quality.2,8   Foam rolling can also be a great way to kick-start the recovery process by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system, but that’s for a different article.

So do not fall victim to the latest trend or claims from gurus. I hope this helps shed some light on what foam rolling is, what it isn’t, how it works, and how to implement it into your training routine.

Let’s roll!

Author’s Bio

Dr. Nicholas M. Licameli, PT, DPT

Nick’s passion lies between his love for the journey of bodybuilding, education, spreading happiness, and helping others. He views bodybuilding through the eyes of a physical therapist and physical therapy through the eyes of a bodybuilder. Nick is a doctor of physical therapy and professional natural bodybuilder. He graduated summa cum laude from Ramapo College of New Jersey with his bachelor’s degree in biology, then furthered his education by completing his doctoral degree in physical therapy from Rutgers School of Biomedical and Health Sciences (previously the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) at the age of 24. His knowledge of sport and exercise biomechanics, movement quality, and the practical application of research combined with personal experience in bodybuilding and nutrition allows him to help people in truly unique ways. Passion. Respect. Humility.

References

  1. Andersen, L. L., Jay, K., Andersen, C. H., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Topp, R., & Behm, D. G. (2013). Acute effects of massage or active exercise in relieving muscle soreness: Randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(12), 3352-3359.[PubMed]
  2. “Andrew Vigotsky: Foam Rolling”. Iraki Nutrition Podcast. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 May 2016.
  1. Beardsley, Chris, and Andrew Vigotsky. “Foam rolling and self-myofascial release. “www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com. N.p., n.d. Web 19 Sept. 2016. https://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/foam-rolling-self-myofascial-release/
  2. Chaudhry, H., Schleip, R., Ji, Z., Bukiet, B., Maney, M., & Findley, T. (2008). Three-dimensional mathematical model for deformation of human fasciae in manual therapy. JAOA: Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 108(8), 379-390.[PubMed]
  3. Chaudhry, H., Bukiet, B., Ji, Z., Stecco, A., & Findley, T. W. (2014). Deformations experienced in the human skin, adipose tissue, and fascia in osteopathic manipulative medicine. Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 114(10), 780-787.[PubMed]
  4. Goats, G. C. (1994). Massage–the scientific basis of an ancient art: Part 2. Physiological and therapeutic effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 28(3), 153-156.[PubMed]
  5. MacDonald G., Penney M., Mullaley M., Cuconato A., Drake C., Behm D.G., Button D.C. An acute bout of self myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in neuromuscular performance. J of Strength Cond Res. 2012. (published ahead of print).
  1. “Mobility Myths With Dr. Quinn Henoch- Foam Rolling”. JTSstrength.com. N.p., 2016. Web Sept. 2016.
  1. Sullivan, K. M., Silvey, D. B., Button, D. C., & Behm, D. G. (2013). Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments.International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 8(3), 228.[PubMed]

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  • Christian

    Hi,

    great article. I try to use my roll every day for 1-2 minutes. Do you know a adaquate plan for that with pictures demonstrating it?

    KR from Hamburg, Germany
    Christian
    https://www.fitparison.com

  • Robert

    Any experience with the body tempering used by Donnie Thompson? Does it work the same as foam rolling only with greater intensity, or is it doing something else? Thanks!

    • Nicholas Licameli

      I don’t have personal experience with body tempering, but just like you said, I’d imagine it works by a similar mechanism as foam rolling, just with more pressure. Like I mentioned above, it seems we need thousands of pounds of force to physically alter our tissues and more pressure/pain doesn’t necessarily mean better results. That being said, if it decreases pain, decreases muscle tone, and improves movement, then it did its job! Like foam rolling, I’d just be careful of placing such a heavy load on areas like the low back or bony prominences. Again, I don’t have personal experience with it, so there may be better resources out there.

  • carmena888

    I think I’ve re-read this article at least 3 times just to see that GIF! Thanks as always for a thought provoking and entertaining read.

    • Nicholas Licameli

      Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. I cannot take credit for the GIF…

  • Joakim Berggren

    I have lots of triggerpoints and I do go by feel. Usually the sessions are 1-3 hours and I do get a lot released in that time yet there’s so much to release it’s been an ongoing project for 2 years now. Gained back a lot of ROM though which I previously was not close to.
    With only 1 minute or so I cannot imagine getting anywhere so I imagine this advice is not meant for triggerpoints (or at least not serious triggerpoints).
    I do stop when I feel my body stops releasing.

    • Nicholas Licameli

      It’s important to remember that foam rolling a trigger point is only treating the symptoms, or “hacking at the leaves” of the issue and not getting at the cause, or the “roots.” If a trigger point remains active or a muscle continues to be in spasm day after day, there is an underlying reason. If this is the case, you may want to be evaluated by a qualified healthcare practitioner (if you haven’t already), such as a physical therapist.
      As for the time, the 30-60 seconds is referring to having a specific restriction that is causing a specific limitation. For example, if your squat is restricted by hypertonicity of your hip adductors, you would roll the adductors for 30-60 seconds, then get right into loading the movement (the squat). If you were to roll the adductors, then the quads, then the glutes, then the calves, by the time you get to loading the actual movement (the squat), you’d probably have lost the benefits of rolling the adductors.
      That being said, if your goal is just a full body decrease in muscle tone and not necessarily improving a specific movement restricted by a specific muscle group, then by all means keep the sessions as long as you’d like.

      I hope that helps!

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