Foam rolling, and other implements like it, can have their place, but the focus should be on correct use. It has been my experience that most people think that foam rollers, and other mobility implements, are doing things to the body that they simply don’t do. People often think that they are breaking up scar tissue by foam rolling but this simply isn’t true.
A study done on rats, where the MCLs of the rats were ruptured, showed that by scraping on these rat MCLs, with tools, they were actually able to remodel the tissue, compared to control groups. This study is part of the reason why many people think that mobility tools will cause such changes in humans. People extrapolated these results in rats to apply to humans as well. The problem with this is that these rats were unconscious, the tools scraping on them were human sized, and supra physiological pressures were being applied to them. The same results have never been duplicated on humans.
It’s been found that thousands of pounds of force are needed to cause change in human tissue. In a study in 2008 it was shown that it takes 2000 pounds of force to cause a 1% sheer in the deep thigh.
A foam roller causes a neurophysiological response. It’s a sensory input that we are giving ourselves, which causes a change in perception. This change in perception means that foam rolling can cause a short term reduction in pain, and can also cause a short term increase in range of motion, similar to static stretching. What it does not do is cause change at a cellular level. Meaning that you aren’t breaking up scar tissue, rearranging fascia, breaking up adhesions etc. External load over the course of time is what changes structure.
To explain this, let me ask you this question. If you could just lay on a foam roller and rearrange your tissues that easily, as if you were made of clay, what would a barbell do to you? A 300 lb barbell on your back would obliterate you. You would have a permanent dent on your back from squatting.
It’s important to know exactly what is happening so we properly know how we are to implement it. Because mobility implements cause a short term reduction in pain, or an increase in range of motion, spending 30 or 40 minutes foam rolling before a workout is a large waste of time, and you’ve likely lost the benefits of the first 5-10 minutes.
A study comparing a cycling warm up and foam rolling the lower body, found that foam rolling provided no additional increases in range of motion compared to cycling. Simply doing a general warm up, and/or an activity specific warm up, such as multiple light warm up sets before lifting, provides all the benefits of foam rolling while providing a more significant stimulus to the muscles.
If you simply like foam rolling and want to continue to use it, then the best way for it to be implemented is in between bouts of movement. So let’s say that squats are the first exercise in your training program for the day. You do a warm up set of 10-15 reps or so with just the bar, and you feel some tightness in your hip. Foam roll your hip for 20-30 seconds and then do another warm up set.
Foam rolling the tight area, will cause you to perceive less tightness and then immediately loading the muscles allows you to take advantage of the short term increase in range of motion. Go back and forth in this manner while working up in weight, and you’ll probably feel pretty good by the time that you get up to the weight that you’ll use for your working sets.
That being said, the placebo effect is a very real thing. If you feel like you can’t get in a good workout without foam rolling for an extended period of time beforehand, then by all means do it. Or maybe you feel that you can’t wind down and relax at the end of a workout, or at the end of the day, without an extended bout of foam rolling, then again, by all means do it. I just want it to be understood what exactly foam rolling is and is not doing. I personally would prefer other forms of relaxation, but to each their own.
To those that want to add more benefit from foam rolling use it appropriately between movements and see the benefit.
Derek Reasch – NASM Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist, 7 Point Nutrition Coach
7 Point Nutrition
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