Suck Less at Foam Rolling

Suck Less at Foam Rolling

By Chris Gai and Madison Franek (Evidence Based Movement)

If you’re on this site you’ve probably heard of, seen, or maybe even been that athlete, attempting to “break up adhesions” or “realign fascia” in the name of self-care and recovery. There’s no doubt that foam roller and lacrosse ball sales have sky rocketed now more than ever for this purpose. However, what if we told you that you’re foam rolling for all the wrong reasons? That you’re not actually optimizing your performance by the way you’re incorporating foam rolling into your training routine? In the following paragraphs we will cover and clarify common myths with foam rolling as well as describe how best to work it into your training based off what the current research has to say.

Does Foam Rolling Create Actual Changes in Tissue Structure?

Let us begin by asking you this question, “What do you think is happening when you foam roll?” Often times, don’t we think of using the foam roller, lacrosse ball etc. in order to help post-exercise recovery? You know, for physical reasons such as “to break up adhesions, “realign fascia”, or maybe even “to increase temperature and help with blood flow”? If so, you’re not alone, but we’re here to clarify those common myths.

When reviewing the manual therapy literature, it’s understandable to see why buzz phrases such as “breaking up scar tissue” and/or “realigning fascia” have gained popularity recently. All we have to do is look at a study by Hayashi et al (2011) to see where such ideas stem from. In this study, researchers concluded that human sized tools were useful at remodeling rat ligaments. However, we need to remember, this would be the equivalent of applying thousands of pounds to our human frame in order to make these tissue changes. As a matter of fact, this is precisely the case as a study by Chaudhry et al (2008) found that mathematically we would need approximately 852 kg (the equivalent of 1870 pounds) in order to create JUST a 1% change in tissue structure! This is probably a good thing, as our muscles should be able to withstand high loads and you know…stay together. Feel free to calculate 5% changes, 10% changes etc. We hope now that you’re rethinking the idea of creating tissue changes but also starting to question the possibility of inducing temperature changes to facilitate blood flow.

A 2016 study (Murray et al) sought to examine if muscle temperature changes occurred with foam rolling as frequently theorized in the fitness world. This study looked at a single bout of foam rolling to the quads and concluded that NO statistically significant temperature change differences were found between experimental and control legs. Now you might be asking yourself, if foam rolling doesn’t create mechanical changes like I thought it did, how does it work because I still feel and move better after using it?

Research Application——————————————————— . So as we saw on ⬅️Wednesday, a combined approach appears to be better for optimizing your warm up 🆚active or 🆚passive measures alone. That being said, if you're on team foam roller and have any stiffness or soreness going into a training session we suggest short bouts of rolling followed by immediate loading and movement within your newly established range of motion! So what does this all look like? Let's break it down ⬇️⬇️ . 1️⃣We start out with short bouts of rolling (around 3️⃣0️⃣seconds) ❗️Why - to ⬇️tone and allow for temporary increases in range of motion ❗️Interestingly enough, Sullivan et al (2013) showed that with just 1️⃣0️⃣seconds of rolling that significant changes in range of motion can still be achieved . THEN... . 2️⃣We perform active movement through the full range of motion ❗️Why - to teach the body to control this newly ⬆️motion . AND FINALLY... . 3️⃣We load that new range of motion with weighted movements (preferably body weight and then move to external loading) ❗️Why - this further stresses the body to stabilize through the newly established range of motion . If you enjoyed this week or have questions, make sure to drop a comment ⬇️⬇️ . Also, make sure to check out @thebarbellphysio next week as we drop our full article on this topic! ———————————————————— The is ❌NOT medical advice.

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So This Is What We Think Is Actually Happening.

With foam rolling, what is most likely happening is that we are tapping into the neuromuscular system to make changes in the physiology, also known as the neurophysiological model. It’s essentially suggesting that by rolling or even stretching we’re not causing tissue changes, but rather decreasing neurological tone by turning on receptors in the nervous system that sense tissue tightness and/or pain. In other words, foam rolling (or any other form of self-myofascial release) is changing your body’s perception about tightness and/or pain. Being that we are an evidence-based page, we’d now like to take a look at what the literature has to say about this neurophysiological model.

Some interesting evidence in support of the neurophysiological model includes a study by Aboodarda et al (2015), who showed acute increases in pain pressure threshold (PPT) in the gastrocnemius after foam rolling (PPT is the amount of pressure a subject can tolerate prior to it feeling painful). The interesting part about this study was that the researchers only measured PPT in the muscle that was NOT foam rolled, suggesting that there is a change somewhere down the line before the muscle itself. It’s hypothesized that this change is modulated from the nervous system.

These results are not just seen with pain pressure, but we also see how the neurophysiological model affects range of motion (ROM). In a 2016 study by Behm et al, the authors found significant increases in upper body ROM after subjects stretched their lower bodies. Let’s repeat that! Lower body stretching led to significant increases in the upper body! This suggests that once again there is a change somewhere down the line before the muscle tissue itself that is being foam rolled! If you’re still not buying this nervous system mumbo jumbo, feel free to look at what other researchers have to say, as the evidence behind the neurophysiological model has some growing support [9, 22-25].

So How Can I Incorporate Foam Rolling Into My Training?

Now that we have a better understanding as to the proposed mechanism behind the benefits of foam rolling, let’s take a deeper dive into how can you incorporate this technique into your training routine. As was mentioned previously, often times we may think of using the foam roller, lacrosse ball etc., to help aid in recovery post-exercise.

We’d like to put forth a new idea however. How about including it within your warm-up routine? More importantly, how about combining foam rolling with some form of loaded, active movement? To support what we’re proposing, let’s take a look at a 2017 study by Morales-Artacho et al.

In the following study, the objective was to compare the effects of nothing vs. cycling (active) vs. foam rolling (passive) vs. cycling + foam rolling (active + passive) on hamstring stiffness as well as maximal ROM at 5 min and at 30 min after treatments were applied. What the researchers found was that active as well as active + passive (i.e. cycling and foam rolling) approaches were best for decreasing stiffness as well as facilitating increases in ROM. Now, when reviewing the following article we see that immediately post-exercise that ROM increases were similar between treatment groups. However, when looking at ROM at 30 min post-exercise, the authors found a significant difference between groups, in favor of a combined approach! Interestingly enough, when looking at the passive group (i.e. foam rolled), while small, immediate short-term stiffness decreases were found at 5 min post-treatment, this occurred WITHOUT MEANINGFUL changes in ROM. It should also be noted that the authors reported that the time between warm-up and competition appears to be BEST for reducing muscle stiffness. Thus supporting our point mentioned earlier that the best time to incorporate foam rolling should be in your warm-up routine NOT post-exercise. Now that we’ve taken a look at the literature, let’s describe what this might look like for you!

Research Review———————————————————— . While people commonly think of using foam rolling to aid recovery post-exercise, we would argue that it's probably more useful PRE exercise! Why? 🤔Well, traditional thinking told us that self myofascial release techniques were able to break up adhesions and/or realign fascia. This is far from the truth as a study by Chaudry et al (2008) found that mathematically we would need the equivalent of 852 kg (or 1870 lbs) to create just a 1️⃣% change in tissue structure! The neurophysiological model on the other hand is probably a better explanation. In short, it says that such techniques (like foam rolling) do ❌not create tissue changes but rather ⬇️neurological tone by "turning down" receptors in the nervous system that sense tissue tightness and pain. . That being said, let's revisit the question we asked on ⬅️Monday which was "are active or passive methods better for warming up?" In the following study, we see that immediately post-exercise that active measures were better. On the other hand, after a sustained duration, passive means were more beneficial, however it should be noted that these values did ❌not reach statistical significance! A combined approach though appeared to be better compared to active immediately post exercise and compared story passive after a prolonged period of time, as both values did in fact reach statistical significance! What does this tell us? 🤔Well, while active means should be included within your warm-up, we should ❌not quite 💩crap on passive measures such as foam rolling! . ✅SO CHECK BACK FRIDAY TO SEE... How to incorporate a combined approach during your warm-up when training lower and upper body ———————————————————— Morales-Artacho, A., Lacourpaille, L., & Guilhem, G. (2017). Effects of warm-up on hamstring muscle stiffness: Cycling vs foam rolling. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science In Sports 1-11———————————————————— This is ❌not medical advice.

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Within your warm-up routine, what we suggest is short, frequent bouts of rolling followed by immediate loading and movement in this newly established range. Don’t’ believe us that short bouts are effective? We will point you to a study by Sullivan et al (2013), which demonstrated that rolling for JUST 10 seconds per set led to increases in ROM.


  1. Short bouts of foam rolling to muscles to decrease tone in the area and allow for temporary increases in range of motion
  2. Perform active movement through full range of motion with the goal of teaching the body to control this newly increased motion.
  3. Load the range of motion with weighted movements (body weight or external loading)

So if we were to be doing overhead presses and need to have better lat flexibility we might perform lat foam rolling followed by an active range of motion drill such as Rack Lift Offs (below) and then begin loading the overhead press.

RACK LIFT OFFS are an awesome exercise to develop strength at the very end positions of shoulder flexion and to increase your usable mobility. Many athletes are weak in the overhead position and miss lifts because of their lack of control. Keep abs tight to ensure all motion comes from the shoulder and fight to get as much motion as you can! ---------------------------------------------------- Improving the worlds of athletic performance, injury prevention, and rehabilitation. Rehab services @carolinasportsclinic #CrossFit #mobility #fitness #weightlifting #functionalmovement #charlottefitness #thebarbellphysio #BulletProofMobility #heavysquatsfixeverything #masterthesquat #physicaltherapy #physiotherapy #ClinicalAthlete #cltcrossfit

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Written By Evidence Based Movement



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