Stretching is sooo 20th century, walk into almost any modern fitness facility, go to the designated stretch area and you will most likely see people spread across the floor rolling on top of tubes. The fitness world can be full of gimmicks and fads and while lying on a tube certainly resembles a fad, however, when it comes to providing a specific benefit these tubes, more accurately call foam rollers, are definitely not a fad.
Foam rollers are effective for reducing tension and increasing muscle length for either a pre-workout warm-up or post-exercise active recovery. Technically known as self myofascial release (SMR), because foam rollers can help improve mobility while reducing muscle soreness their use has become a widely accepted practice for all fitness levels from professional athletes to active retirees.
Rather the following the old ‘monkey see, monkey do’ method of trying to learn how to do an exercise, this blog will help you understand a few things about SMR and how foam rollers can help you improve your mobility. By reducing muscle tightness, SMR can help increase joint range-of-motion (ROM); in addition, it can help remove metabolic by-product from muscle tissue which can reduce soreness and promote recovery after a hard workout.
7 Benefits of using foam rollers
The following are specific benefits of using foam rollers followed by a few easy moves that you can start doing right away.
1. Using foam rollers can reduce the risk of developing adhesions. Tissue adhesions are created as the result of collagen binding between layers of muscle. If a muscle is held in a specific position during extended periods of inactivity or overused during repetitive motions, collagen can form between the layers of skeletal muscle creating adhesions or knots that restrict the ability of muscle sheaths to slide against one another. The friction and pressure created by the regular use of a foam roller can keep collagen from binding between layers of muscle tissue this is important for reducing the muscle imbalances that could cause an injury.
2. Like all things exercise, we don’t know exactly how foam rolling works, but here are the two prevailing hypotheses:
- Foam rolling creates length change based on the principle of autogenic inhibition which involves the sensory receptors of the Golgi tendon organ (GTO) and muscle spindle. The GTO senses tension placed on a muscle while the spindle identifies length change and the rate of change within a particular muscle. Autogenic inhibition is the response that occurs when a muscle is placed under tension and the GTO sends a signal to the spindles to allow the muscle to lengthen. The pressure of the foam roller on the muscle increases tension on the muscle fibers signaling the GTO to allow the muscle spindles and fibers to lengthen.
- The second hypothesis for how SMR with foam rolling works is due to an increase of internal muscle temperature. Rolling muscle and connective tissue on a foam roller creates friction between the roller and the involved muscle and this elevated heat causes the tissue to become more gel-like allowing it to be more pliable.
3. Myofascial release can reduce tissue tension and muscle tightness to increase joint ROM. When adhesions bind between layers of tissue they can cause a muscle to remain in a shortened position which subsequently increases tension on surrounding muscles and restricts joint motion. Regular use of foam rollers for myofascial release can alleviate muscle tightness helping to ensure optimal joint ROM and enhance overall movement performance.
4. Foam rollers can help restore the proper length-tension relationship to muscles. A number of muscles work together to create joint motion, if one segment of tissue becomes tight it creates an imbalance that can cause the muscles working on the opposite side of a joint to lengthen and become inhibited; meaning they will not produce the proper amount of force for optimal motion. Using a foam roll for myofascial release can reduce tightness to ensure a proper balance of competing forces around a joint; it is best to use foam rolling as a warm-up before using multi-planar patterns that adequately create full extensibility of the involved tissue.
5. Foam rollers help reduce soreness after an exercise session to promote the recovery process. The natural inflammation that occurs during the tissue repair process combined with a lack of movement after an exercise session could be a cause of muscle adhesions. Exercise-induced muscle damage signals the repair process, this is when new collagen molecules are formed to help repair injured tissue, if tissue is not moved properly during this repair process the collagen could bind between layers of muscle creating adhesions. Using a foam roll after exercise can help minimize the risk of the new collagen forming adhesions between layers.
6. The pressure from rolling can help increase blood flow and elevate heat in the involved tissue. It’s not certain which is more responsible for changing muscle length but using foam rollers does help reduce tightness and increase joint ROM, both important prior to a challenging workout. When using a foam roller during a warm-up it is important to only use for a brief period of time to elevate tissue temperature and reduce tension; applying pressure from a foam roll for an extended period of time could desensitize the muscle affecting it’s ability to contract during the workout.
7. Myofascial release can help promote a feeling of relaxation after a workout, an important psychological benefit. When using a foam roll during the post workout cool-down it is recommended to move at a consistent tempo of approximately one inch per second while remaining on areas of tension for up to ninety seconds to allow the tissue to relax and lengthen.
3 Foam Roller Stretches you can do NOW!
Here are 3 exercises that can use for a warm-up before exercise or promote recovery after a workout. When using a foam roller during a warm-up it is important to only use for a brief period of time to reduce tension and increase temperatures; applying pressure from a foam roll for an extended period of time could desensitize the muscle limiting its ability to contract during the workout. In general, foam rollers provide the greatest response when placing a body-part directly on top and moving rhythmically to apply pressure to the underlying tissues; find the tight or sore spot, hold the muscle on the roller for about 20-30 sec then move to the next tender spot. This is a Rollga roller – 1 of my personal faves (no relationship w/the company except I like the product.
SMR for calf muscles
The gastrocnemius, soleus and posterior tibialis muscles run along the back of your calf and can become very tight from walking or wearing shoes with an elevated heel (including men’s dress shoes or work boots which have elevated heels). Place the foam roll under the calf, place your hands on the ground to support your bodyweight, slowly roll your calf lengthwise on the muscle, when you find a sore spot, stay on it and start rolling your foot to point into towards the middle of your body or away from your body; after 20 seconds of mobilizing on the sore spot, continue rolling lengthwise to find another tight spot. Spend about 45-60 seconds on each calf.
Quadriceps and hip flexors
When these muscles become tight, which happens from staying in a seated position for an extended period of time, they can change the function of the hip and reduce the ability of your glutes to work correctly. Lie down supporting your weight on your elbows, place the roller on the front of the thigh, find a tender spot, hold for approx 20-30 sec before moving to the next tender spot. Like the calves, rotate the thigh in and out while holding a spot. Spend about 45-60 seconds on each thigh.
Place the roller under your upper back while supporting your bodyweight with your legs, roll forward and back (from shoulders to glutes) to find the tight spots, when you find a tight spot, hold for 20-30 sec on each one while flexing (curling up for a crunch) and extending your spine.
As with any mode of exercise it’s important to understand both the advantages and disadvantages and identify the best practices for how to add it to your fitness program; for those of you interested in the detailed explanation of how foam rollers create myofascial release, follow this link to an article I wrote for the American Council on Exercise on foam rolling. (written for fitness professionals, but you should be able to follow along)