By Dr. Steven Bird
I have fallen into the same trap as most of you have. You exercise to improve your muscular strength, cardiovascular health or just plain trying to lose weight by increasing how much you move. After you purchase all the exercise apparel, the gym bag, the plastic mixer bottles you are ready. You join a gym or fitness center. Maybe you take some classes, get a coach/trainer or just go at it on your own. You are super pumped to be exercising. Soon you learn more about fitness and all sorts of equipment that is meant to help you. From all this new activity you start to find yourself experiencing muscle soreness. Now the goal becomes fixing the soreness. Your coach or trainer gives suggestions. The gym bro tells you something else to try for muscle soreness. Perhaps you get introduced to foam rollers and you are told that they are super great at breaking up scar tissue, or they help improve how you move. Regardless of what they do you know that you want one because it goes with the rest of your gym equipment. You would be hard pressed to find a gym that didn’t have at least one foam roller.
So, there you are using that foam roller because you bought one. Maybe it came with instructions or did like most and looked it up on YouTube as to how to roll out a muscle or area. Now you are a pro foam roller that can get any body part you want. Soon the foam roller warm up begins to take longer than the actual exercise that you want to do. Regardless you are killin’ it on the foam roller, but are you finding it actually beneficial to your health and fitness?
In beginning my search for information that has been researched on the foam roller and its effects I will say that the list of articles is exhaustive. Even in writing this article I know that I didn’t even scratch the surface, however I feel it important to know the benefits it has. The articles found come from journals of sports physical therapy and strength and conditioning research.
Foam rollers fit under the category of self-myofascial release therapy. They generally are built from PVC pipe and covered in a hard foam to make it at least a little more bearable when you lay on it. Foam rollers are available in multiple sizes and lengths. Many come with a variety of ridges, bumps or treads with the goal of pushing into the muscle more. Whether there is an added benefit from them or not was not reported in research found.
The belief throughout many fitness enthusiasts is that foam rolling helps break up scar tissue. The articles found said nothing about doing so. So, what does it actually do? Below are reviews of articles found on the outcomes of using a foam roller. Most of the research done was on if it changed flexibility, strength or performance. One article reported changes in blood perfusion. So, read on and see what research says about the use of foam rolling.
Much of the research on foam rolling and its effects tested performance within improving activities such the vertical jump or flexibility, a power and speed movement. A recent study was done by Smith et al and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, they tested the effect Foam Rolling had on flexibility and Jump Height. Findings from their research showed that the effects of foam rolling in combination of dynamic stretching had a substantial increase in improving sit and reach scores (flexibility). Increases in vertical jump and sit and reach scores were seen at 5 minutes after a foam rolling session. The main point of the research showed that effects of foam rolling isn’t very long, approx. 15 minutes.
Another decent idea is that foam rolling helps increase blood flow to help with healing. Hotfiel et al studied this very thing by evaluating blood perfusion changes at the site of foam rolling using doppler ultrasound. Findings were positive that foam rolling did show an increase in arterial blood perfusion at 0 minutes and 30 minutes post foam rolling. As the study was specific to a certain area it showed the effects of the area that was targeted with the foam roller. From this research it is seen that improving blood flow to the targeted area is seen at a physiological level for up to at least 30 minutes post foam rolling.
Behara tested a certain subgroup of athletes, Division I lineman, to see the effect of foam rolling vs. dynamic stretching on muscular strength, power and flexibility. The major finding from the study was the statistically significant increase in hip flexibility was seen with both dynamic stretching and foam rolling. No changes were seen in this group in strength or power.
With any intervention the question always becomes, how long will the effect last. A study from Hodgson et al was done to see the effect of doing roller massage to leg musculature over a 4-week period. The study looked at changes within pain pressure threshold, voluntary contractile properties or jump performance. The results of the study using foam rolling multiple times per week over a 4-week period did not cause physiological or performance changes. What they did find is the “roller massage may be a beneficial tool to increase ROM and pain pressure threshold during and soon after a warm-up session, but its acute effects may not translate into chronic changes”.
An article in the Journal of Athletic Training from Pearcey et al studied the effect that foam rolling can have on delayed-onset muscle soreness. For the study the foam rolling was done after a heavy bout of physical exercise. The researchers used perceived pain threshold to help determine the effects that the foam rolling had over the following 3 days. The main improvement in PPT was seen in the 24 and 48 hours post exercise, with less of a benefit seen by 72 hours. For the foam rolling protocol it was approximately 20 minutes, muscle groups involved are adductors, hamstrings, iliotibial band and gluteal muscles.
In review all of these articles I found no evidence of breaking up scar tissue in any desired muscle group or region. The findings that I feel are significant is the window of time that performance and flexibility increase from a bout of foam rolling is rather small at 10-15 minutes of time. Knowing this it may be beneficial to add a small session of foam rolling in prior to a bout of exercise as long as it is fairly soon after using the foam roller.
The more significant finding is the effect that foam rolling has on decreasing delayed-onset muscle soreness after a bout of heavy exercise.
Smith, J.C (2018 Aug). Acute Effect of Foam Rolling and Dynamic Stretching on Flexibility and Jump Height, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 32(8), 2209-2215
Behara, B. (2017 April). Acute Effects of Deep Tissue Foam Rolling and Dynamic Stretching on Muscular Strength, Power and Flexibility in Division 1 Linemen. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 31(4):888-892
Hodgson, D.D. (2018 Aug). Four Weeks of Roller Massage training did not impact range of motion, pain threshold, voluntary contractile properties or jump performance. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy 13(5). 835-845
Pearcey, G. (2015 Jan) Foam Rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of Athletic Training . 50(1). 5-13
Hotfiel T. 2017-04. Acute Effects of Lateral Thigh Foam Rolling on Arterial Tissue Perfusion Determined by Spectral Doppler and Power Doppler Ultrasound. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research . 31(4):893-900