If you’ve wandered through your local fitness facility lately, chances are you will have seen people draped over odd looking tubes, rolling back and forth with looks of discomfort on their faces. Naturally, you’d wonder what they were doing and why they would want to do something that seemed to hurt so much. You might also have seen these foam rolls for sale in the exercise equipment section of your local department store or on the internet and wondered why something that looks like an oversized pool noodle is considered an exercise tool. Welcome to the foam roller craze!
Foam rollers have become a common part of the exercise culture and are being used by people of all types everywhere. Initially, rollers were found mainly in the gym setting but they are now a common piece of equipment in many homes around the world. A quick Google search for foam rolling brings up over 80,000 hits with descriptions of how to use them, why or when to use them, and where to buy them.
Do they really work? Maybe. How? We’re not really sure. Will they work for you? Maybe. How and why might you use them? I’ll explain.
The theory of foam rolling
Foam rollers are thought to provide self-myofascial release (SMR). Myofascial structures are the tough membranes that wrap around, connect and support muscles.1 The shiny silver tissue found on a roast or other piece of meat that is hard to chew or cut is myofascial tissue.
It is thought that muscle pain may be related to stiff areas of myofascial tissue that are stuck down, causing “trigger points.”1 SMR techniques are used with the intent of making myofascial tissue more flexible and mobile and thereby decreasing pain and stiffness.2
Foam rollers use bodyweight to apply pressure to the muscle and trigger points. There are also a variety of different roller massage bars or balls that use your arm strength to apply SMR pressure to the muscles. These are often used in the upper back and shoulders.2
What is the science behind foam rollers?
Despite the popularity of foam rollers, there have been relatively few high-quality research studies done on the effectiveness of foam rollers. The research that exists suggests that using foam rollers may:
Decrease delayed onset muscle soreness following intense exercise2
Improve range of movement2
Allow continued participation with activities at a higher level2
Improve blood flow to the area2
Those all sound like really good reasons to get on the bandwagon; however, while the current research suggests there may be beneficial effects as noted above, all studies have been completed with young, healthy or athletic individuals. There have been no studies that specifically look at older adults or individuals involved in rehabilitation programs. The research suggested that the benefits are short-term and there have been no long-term effects demonstrated.2 Furthermore, the research on the use of foam rollers and self-myofascial release is still emerging and there is no agreement on how SMR works or the best ways to use foam rollers or roller massage.2 There are no clearly stated guidelines to assist physiotherapists providing advice on proper technique and safe use.3
Using foam rollers
Even though the researchers aren’t really sure how foam rollers work, you might want to give foam rolling a try, particularly if you are participating in exercise to the point where your muscles are stiff and sore the next day or your physiotherapist has recommended foam rolling as part of your treatment following an injury or to address your pain.
Another group that may want to consider trying a foam roller are people who work at a desk or in a vehicle for 8-10 hours a day or who live a more sedentary lifestyle. Sitting all day can lead to tight muscles, increased tension and pain in your hips, knees, low back, upper back, shoulders and neck. Foam rolling may help relieve muscle tightness, especially when combined with static stretching and decreasing the overall time spent sitting.2 Rolling exercises may also help decrease soreness related to poor posture and encourage the stretching of tense upper body muscles.
What you need to know to use foam rollers effectively and safely
Research suggests that 2-5 sessions of rolling for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before or after exercise may improve joint flexibility.2
Adding static stretching of the same muscles after rolling may increase the beneficial effects on the muscle and myofascial tissues.2
Look for a smaller, firm roll. The smaller and firmer the roll the more pressure you can generate at the tight spots to “work them out.”2,4 For a smaller muscle you may want to try a massage bar or roller ball. There is a large variety of rollers and roller balls/tools all coming at different price points. Find the one that feels the best regardless of the cost.
When it comes to performance improvement, using the foam roller after exercise might be more beneficial than using it before. Some researchers have looked at using foam rollers before exercise to improve performance and found they were no more effective than a warm up program.5
Use small “kneading” movements along the length of the muscle. The idea is to use the foam roller as a form of self massage. If you find a tight spot, by all means work on it, but don’t forget the rest of the muscle!4
If your physiotherapist has instructed you to try foam rolling as part of your treatment, they should show you how to use the roller and answer any questions you have. Be sure to demonstrate the exercise/stretch for him/her and have them give you instructions on your technique. Ensure you are using the foam roller correctly to avoid further injury.
Foam rolling is sometimes uncomfortable, especially if you’ve found a tight muscle. It’s important to know the difference between a “good” hurt (such as one felt with a deep tissue massage or foam rolling) and a “bad” pain that could indicate injury. As a rule, any discomfort you have with foam rolling should go away as soon as you stop the technique and you should be left feeling more flexible and less sore than when you began. You may also notice that the muscle soreness you experience after a hard workout goes away more quickly if you use your foam roller, leaving you with less pain overall.2,4
Most importantly, remember that the evidence surrounding foam rollers is not definitive. If foam rolling feels good and helps you stretch or recover from exercise, that’s great. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it!
Bauer, BA. Mayo Clinic patient care & health info: Myofascial release therapy: can it relieve back pain? Available at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/expert-answers/myofascial-release/faq-20058136
Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roller or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery and performance: A systematic review. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827–838.
Cheatham SW, Stull KR. Roller massage: A commentary on clinical standards and survey of physical therapy professionals – Part 1. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2018;13(4):763–772.
MacDonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. The American college of Sports Medicine 2013; 46(1): 131-142.
Healey KC, Hatfield DL, Blanpied P, Dorfman LR. The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2014; 28(1): 61-68.
Born to Move
Regulating Alberta's physiotherapy profession and acting as an association by providing member services.