Foam rolling is the latest fad to rip through America’s gyms. In cities across the country, scores of people can be found flopped over their foam rolls, gritting their teeth as they iron out their stiff, tight, painful muscles.
But, does foam rolling really work?
This is probably going to ruffle some feathers and garner me some evil glares from foam rolling advocates, but my answer is no, foam rolling does not work. At least, not in the way that you think it does.
First, let’s look at the common theory behind foam rolling: My muscles are tight and massage, which is basically just pressure, causes them to relax. Therefore, if I press hard enough against my tight muscles and cause myself pain, it will “iron out” the knots and make me more flexible.
Okay, if this were true, then we’d all be lining up to be steamrolled. Pressure does not cause your muscles to relax. About the only benefit you garner from pressure is something called cyclical fascial rehydration. When you apply pressure to tissue, it squeezes the fluid out like wringing out a damp sponge. When the pressure is released, the tissue sucks up water from the surrounding muscles and lymph systems, rehydrating it.
This can be extremely beneficial in tight areas of tissue that have become dehydrated. Our tissues get dried up when they’ve been injured or if they’re “frozen” or “braced,” i.e. not functioning properly.
While foam rolling can aid in tissue rehydration, it does nothing to change the tone of your muscles.
Listen, your muscles aren’t tight “just because.” Something is causing them to be tight. Usually, you have a movement aberration, a way of moving your body that is dysfunctional. There’s generally a muscle somewhere else that is far weaker than it should be, and thus the muscle you’re diligently foam rolling has shortened up to give you extra support. It’s taking on workload above and beyond its job description.
So, you hop on your foam roller and mash your muscles down, and when you stand up, what happens? Your muscles go right back to the tension they had at the start. Why? Because you did nothing to address the system that controls tension – your brain.
And while it might make sense that massage can cause relaxation, therefore so should foam rolling, it’s important to note that a good bodyworker will always, always, always work at the level of availability of the tissue and not blindly grind an elbow into painful areas.
No pain, no gain?
My other beef with foam rolling is people’s deep need to cause themselves pain. Now it’s even gone beyond just the cushy foam rollers and I’ve seen trainers attacking their clients with rolling pins and plasticized sticks, stoically pressing harder as their clients’ faces are gritted in agony, touting that it’s all for their own good.
Really? I used to think this was true, too. The more it hurt, the more effective it was, right? That’s what we’ve been led to believe. But look at it this way…if you had a six year old child in a classroom and you kept quizzing him on math problems, only you administered a painful electric shock every time he got the problem wrong, what would happen? Do you think he’d open up and eagerly learn the right answers? No, he just wants to avoid being shocked.
Your body learns in much the same way. When you cause pain, your nervous system shrinks down and pulls back. It does whatever it can to make the sensation less painful (which is why foam rolling often gets easier with time, another false sign that it’s changing the level of tonus in your tissue), but it’s not going to start learning how to move better and more efficiently as a result of the rolling.
Awareness is key…
I’m not entirely opposed to foam rolling. As I mentioned above, it does help with fascial rehydration, which ultimately keeps your tissue a bit younger (although there are other less painful methods to achieve the same results). Where I think foam rolling can have some benefit, though, is when the person doing the rolling is paying focused attention to their body and the sensations caused by the rolling.
This actually engages your brain and gives you proprioceptive feedback. You may not have realized that you hold so much tension in your hip or thigh. Being aware of this holding pattern can help you to consciously relax your muscles, which actually does make changes to muscle tone and flexibility.
Unfortunately, most of the people that I see at the gym doing foam rolling are mindlessly pummeling their tissue, not paying any attention at all. This is actually a problem with fitness in general; it’s like we think that if we send our bodies to the gym, our brains can just check out. We’re just exercising our “machine.” But, it doesn’t work that way. Your brain is the control center in your body and if you’re checked out, you’re not reaping the benefits, whether you’re foam rolling or doing something else physical.
Being precedes doing!
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: no matter what you’re doing, you’ll get more out of it if you’re present and accounted for, mind and body.