Myofascial rolling, aka foam rolling, is quite a controversial topic among fitness professionals. This is mainly due to there being no current research clearly supporting it. Not to say that it is “bad” for you, just that a lot of people believe it to be a waste of time and using it in place of other warm up or mobility practices is misled.
Others believe specific myofascial techniques, when used properly, help in modulating any tension, fascial adhesions, aid muscles and joints to perform efficiently and safely, improve stretch tolerance/mobility and improves tissue perfusion. In other words, foam rolling can be a very effective method of warming up and cooling down the muscles and joints either in preparation for exercise or as a form of recovery.
I believe there is a time and a place for foam rolling and it is highly subjective. I have clients who love it and wouldn’t train without it. I have clients that have never used it and both they and I feel they never need to. I use it on occasion, especially for thoracic spine mobility exercises because I love how it feels, not necessarily because I firmly believe it is superior to other methods.
The main problem is not whether it is good or bad but that it is very often not used correctly. A foam roller is not an equipment of torture. If it feels very painful then you are doing it wrong. If it feels uncomfortable trying to maintain the specific technique for a specific muscle then you are not focusing on the correct posture. It may be that the wrong type of roller is being used. They come in so many shapes and sizes. Furthermore, it is important to know which one to use for what and which one to use for you.
Below I will discuss what type and size of foam roller suits what and who. In the following videos I will demonstrate the correct techniques and positions for each muscle group as well as the time you should spend on each area.
Ultimately, if you feel foam rolling helps you with your movement and recovery, do it. Technique is paramount and the most effective roller is the one you will use regularly. You must always be in control of the pressure, be able to relax in the position and breathe comfortably. Don’t force yourself to foam roll just because you think it is good for you. There are many other methods of improving mobility, flexibility, warming up, cooling down and to aid recovery. The best method is the one that works best for you and is specific to the exercise or activity that you are preparing for. Equally for recovery, there are many methods and it comes down to personal preference. As with anything, there are always precautions and contraindications. For these you should speak to a health professional or feel free to contact me directly.
WHICH FOAM ROLLER?
If you are a beginner, go for a soft roller. For any level, research suggests that a soft to moderate density roller achieves the best overall results. Harder densities may increase the perception of pain leading to improper use and therefore minimal beneficial effects.
Surface area is a function of pressure. Consequently, the smaller the surface area
the more acute the pressure. Research illustrates that this may influence deeper layers of tissue which in some scenarios may be beneficial. Larger surface areas displace the pressure more evenly across the superficial tissues. As a result, for beginners I would recommend starting with a larger diameter roller.
Textured rollers, i.e. ones that have ridges and square or circular bumps, have been shown to produce greater immediate effects. It is thought that the texture stimulates the local receptors and nerves differently to a smooth surfaced roller. A smooth surface does still produce favourable results and would be a better roller to start with.
This can be a great choice as it is guided by the user and great for anyone who finds it uncomfortable to be foam rolling on the ground. You are often limited to the lower extremities and by the user’s upper body strength. However, it can be a great compliment or alternative to foam rolling.
I would only recommend this to clients who are experienced with rolling. Golf and lacrosse balls can be great for getting into the glutes, calves and feet but they elicit a substantial amount of pressure directly into the tissues. Welcomed by many but hard to do properly and effectively if you are new to it.
A relatively new addition to the foam rolling world. Research shows vibration influences the perception of pain. A “vibratory analgesia”. It stimulates certain mechanoreceptors that temporarily interferes with pain sensation. This may translate to being able to stay on the tender area for longer leading to more positive results. Just be careful when and where you use it. It may raise a few of your neighbours’ eyebrows…!
There isn’t a prize-winning program for optimal self-myofascial rolling. Largely due to the lack of consensus in the fitness industry putting limitations on future research. However, below are some recommended applications which many fitness professionals, including myself, use. Following that are videos demonstrating the techniques for the main muscle groups.
On the muscle group you are targeting, roll slowly over the area to find a “trigger point” (tender area) and hold the pressure.
Relax on that point, breathe and hold for 30-60 seconds or until you feel a reduction in discomfort.
Pain is NOT the goal. Do not apply such heavy pressure that relaxation is not possible.
Once the tension has decreased, introduce some active movements. For example, for the quads you can bend and flex the knee in the prone position, for the calves extend and flex your ankle. Or for the thoracic spine you can extend over the foam roller (see video). This is not absolutely necessary and is subjective.
BODY POSITION is very important. Do not allow the lower back to arch or for the head to drop forward excessively when rolling on the ground, especially when prone (facing down). In a seated position, ensure not to elevate (shrug) your shoulders. Maintain a neutral spine and keep your shoulders away from your ears.
Stay no longer than 90-120 seconds per muscle group.
The entire session should be no more than 5-10 minutes.
Frequency is wide-ranging in the research and therefore comes down to personal preference and experience. Starting from 2x per week up to 5x per week has been shown to improve movement patterns on specific exercises and activities such as squats and running. Furthermore, there is no obvious or proven deleterious effects from foam rolling every day.
The following videos demonstrate how to hold the correct posture and how to target each main muscle group. Apply the above principles to each muscle group and session.