Curious about foam rolling how-to’s and benefits? This article is just for you! Please note: this post contains affiliate links for the foam roller I personally use.
Foam rolling is something that many people are still unfamiliar with. I didn’t even really know what it was until I started working with a personal trainer about three years ago. Even then, I didn’t understand the science behind why foam rolling is important – I only knew that it felt great! Now I think it’s so important that it made my Top 3 Home Gym Essentials list. So if you’re still just stretching your muscles for aches, pains, and warm ups, you’ll want to read this!
What is foam rolling?
Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release (SMR), and is a stretching technique that is well-known in the fitness and massage communities. SMR can be performed using a variety of modalities, such as dense massage balls or hand rollers, but is most often done using a foam roller. It involves putting pressure on overactive muscles in order to inhibit (relax) them and release tension. In simple terms, it can be described as feeling similar to self-massage.
P.S. If you’re wondering where I learned all of this, I’ll be happy to tell you! I’ve been studying for my NASM Personal Training Certification. Foam rolling is something that I never understood and I’ve been “nerding out” about it ever since learning the science behind it. So this stuff is basically my understanding of SMR according to my textbook. 🙂 Read more about me here.
What are the benefits?
Other than feeling great (just like a massage), foam rolling and other SMR techniques can have great physiological benefits. They include:
- Decreased recovery time after tough workouts (read about natural recovery in this post)
- Improved circulation
- Injury prevention
- Improved range of motion at joints
- Loosening of tight or overactive muscles
- Improvement of posture
The science behind SMR:
Self-myofascial release works because of a concept called autogenic inhibition. This is a type of reflex that causes the “tight” muscles to relax when your body senses that there is prolonged tension being placed on the muscles. When an SMR stretch is held for at least 20 seconds, a mechanoreceptor called the Golgi tendon organ responds by overriding the body’s initial response to let go of the stretch when tension initiates. The result is the elongating (or relaxation) of a muscle that has been rolled or stretched.
Psst! I started this blog to keep me accountable on my weight loss journey. Now I’ve become a certified personal trainer and use it to make money, too! Find out how you can use a blog for accountability or extra income in this post.
When should I foam roll?
Foam rolling can be done before or after a workout – or both. If you feel tightness in any muscles before you begin a workout, it may be important to foam roll then. I personally foam roll my hip flexors, IT band, glutes, and lower back before every workout. That’s because I typically have the greatest amount of tightness and soreness in these areas.
As mentioned above, foam rolling may also help you recover more quickly from tough workouts. So it can also be important to foam roll after workouts and in between them to increase blood flow to those areas and help muscles relax. I personally foam roll my back and glutes (butt muscles) almost daily because those are my problem areas – even when I haven’t worked out on those days.
Common foam rolling mistakes:
- Rolling too fast. It might feel great, but rolling too quickly will only pass over the tight muscles and cause them to have a different reflex than what we’re looking for.
- Not holding pressure on the tender spots or muscles (30 seconds is best). This falls in with mistake #1. The Golgi tendon organ is the MVP in foam rolling. However, this reflex that occurs because of the Golgi tendon does not happen until after a minimum of 20 seconds (more if you’re really tight). In order for autogenic inhibition to occur (see above) you must hold on the tender spots until you force the muscles to relax.
- Using a foam roller that is too soft or too dense. Foam rolling can take some getting used to. But if you are melting the foam roller into the ground beneath you when you roll, you probably don’t have a dense enough roller for your size or the muscles you’re trying to relax. Foam rolling will cause a little bit of soreness initially – that’s kind of what we’re looking for since we’re going to feel the reflexes fighting one another. The first reflex you’ll have is going to make you flinch and want to stop rolling, and the second one (the one we want) is going to make it alllll feel better.
National Academy of Sports Medicine SMR technique videos can be found here.
When to skip foam rolling:
There are some people who should not foam roll or who should avoid rolling certain areas. Check with a professional if you are:
- In your 3rd trimester of pregnancy
- Have vericose veins
- Have high blood pressure
My favorite SMR tools (affiliate links):
Before you buy any SMR tools, be sure to try them out in-store or at the gym if you can. I found out that I don’t like super hard stuff, but there are a ton of options! Also, it can be expensive to buy specific massage rollers or balls, so if you’re on a budget, try a foam baseball or inexpensive foam roller.
The bottom line:
The more I pay attention to foam rolling and exercise science (a lot lately), the more I see professionals advocating the use of SMR and other flexibility and recovery techniques. I love giving people advice about using a foam roller and seeing the way it changes their attitude about their bodies.
Recently, my mom came home from physical therapy with the advice to “invest in a foam roller” for her chronic lower back pain. I admit I was a little excited because I had some advice to give her. But I was a little surprised that SMR or foam rolling still seems like a big secret. Why don’t more people know about it when it’s so useful and so simple?
If you’ve never foam rolled before and you have chronic pain or suffer from a lot of post-workout soreness, this can be a game changer. A small investment in a foam roller to keep at home (seriously, $15-25) can totally change the way you feel daily.
You can control a lot of what happens and a lot of what you feel without medication or major alterations to your body – you just have to do a little research and try!
I’m happy to help where I can, so I’m glad you came by to read this! As always, I would encourage you to do more of your own research on exercise science, nutrition, and recovery. It’s the best thing you can do for your own health!