Foam Rolling Technique
For added comfort, use a mat to rest on to start. Slowly roll over the target muscle and if you hit a tender area, focus on this to loosen or relieve the pressure. It may feel uncomfortable at first but should get easier. If however it gets worse or does not improve, stop focusing on the area and consult a physiotherapist.
An additional benefit will be to activate muscles you rarely use and, with the right techniques, can improve stability and core strength through Foam Rolling.
Apply pressure to the required area
The nice thing about foam rolling is that you have complete control over how much pressure is applied. If a movement starts to cause pain, then you can easily reduce the pressure by putting more weight through your hands, and likewise, if there is not enough pressure being applied, then you can easily put more weight over the foam roller and less through whichever limb is touching the floor.
Get your timing right
You’ll recognise hitting a ‘trigger point’ because it’ll be a particularly sensitive part of the muscle. Rather than quickly rolling over this area, keep the pressure directly on it for about 30 seconds. You’ll start to feel the pain subsiding. Continue to roll the length of the muscle. As you roll back the other way and reach the trigger point again, it should be slightly less sensitive this time. Even so, you should keep the pressure on it for about 30 seconds and then release.
Make sure you’re rolling in the right direction
You should roll in the same direction as the muscle fibres, rather than rolling across them or repeatedly rolling up and down the same part of the muscle. Move your body to hit the muscles from different angles. Take your quads for example, rather than always rolling up the middle of your quads (rectus femoris), tilt your body so you’re also rolling up the inner (vastus medialis) and outer muscles (vastus lateralis).
While rolling over a muscle, such as the calf, rather than just keeping your ankle joint still, it is a good idea to mix it up a little bit and to pull your toes up towards you as you roll. This will increase the stretch through the muscle and may help to improve range of motion (ROM) of the ankle joint.
There is evidence to suggest that foam rolling can help improve range of movement, and for this reason it may be a good idea to include it as part of your warm up, before exercise.
There is also evidence to say that, if carried out after exercise, foam rolling can help to reduce DOMS. For this reason, you may want to also include it after exercising too.
If you don’t have time to foam roll before and after exercise, we would suggest just incorporating it into your warm up. Even when foam rolling is done 48 hours after exercise, it can still help reduce DOMS. If it’s included in your warm up, you’ll get the immediate benefit of better range of motion during your session too.
Common Foam Rolling Mistakes
- Using a foam roller on your joints: Myofascial release helps your muscles. Rolling over joints will not only be painful, but also quite ineffective when it comes to myofascial release.
- Rolling over bruised areas: While foam rolling is great for myofascial release, if you have recently injured a body part and there is currently bruising, then foam rolling may not be the best thing to be doing in that area.
- Using too much pressure: Foam rolling is expected to cause discomfort, but if it starts to cause pain, then you’re putting too much pressure on that area.
Benefits of Foam Rolling
Short-term flexibility increases
A 2015 review1 has found that in the majority of studies, SMFR does lead to an increased ROM in joints. Research2 has measured knee extensor force and ROM before and after foam rolling. The rolling consisted of two bouts of 60 seconds of foam rolling on their quads. The group who used the foam roller were able to increase their ROM in their knee joint by an average of 10 degrees when measured two minutes after foam rolling, and even 10 minutes after foam rolling, the average ROM was still eight degrees greater than it was at the start. They found that there was no change in force production.
Similar results were seen in another study looking at the calf muscle3, where one group used a foam roller for three bouts of 30 seconds on their calves, and another group used static calf stretching. Both groups improved their ROM, however the foam roller group increased calf strength, whereas the static stretching group actually decreased their force output. Static stretching can result in reduced performance, particularly if stretches are held for over 60 seconds4.
In other words, foam rolling can improve range of motion.
Long-term flexibility increases
The research looking at long-term ROM improvements is less convincing. Participants within the study have been instructed to use a foam roller three times a week on their hamstrings for eight weeks. There were no significant changes in hamstring ROM at the end of the study, however these participants all had ‘tight hamstrings’ at the start of the study5.
Another bit of evidence on the hamstrings however shows that foam rollers did help to improve ROM in the hamstrings. These participants were however also supplementing with Omega 3-6-9 Vitamin E6.
More research is needed regarding the effects of foam-rolling on long-term flexibility improvement.
Reduction of DOMS
The majority of studies between 2015 and 2020 reviews have shown that SMFR can reduce DOMS post-exercise, although again the mechanisms to explain this phenomenon are not clear. Participants in one study7 completed 10 sets of 10 reps of back squats at 60% of their one Rep Max. One group followed this with 20 mins of foam rolling, and another group did nothing after the squats. The group that used a foam roller reported less muscle tenderness in the days following, and also performed better in measures including sprints, power and dynamic strength endurance than the group who didn’t use a foam roller.
A similar study8 used 10×10 stiff-legged deadlifts, and then 48 hours later had participants only use a foam roller on one of their hamstrings. The leg which received foam rolling had less muscle soreness, and also reduced pain when pressure was applied to the muscle afterwards.
Foam rolling can help to reduce muscle pain such as exercise-induced soreness.
Arterial function and vascular endothelial function
There’s also some evidence to suggest that foam rolling can help reduce arterial stiffness and also improve vascular endothelial function9. The pressure of the foam roller may help to reduce muscular tension, and the arteries within the muscle consequently reduce their stiffness. Simultaneously, the pressure may produce nitric oxide, which is a vasodilator and will help to increase blood flow.
Massage therapy has been proven elsewhere to help improve blood pressure in both healthy individuals and individuals with high blood pressure, and it is believed to be due to the release of nitric oxide10.
Take Home Messages
Whether you use the foam roller already or have been considering it but you are sitting on the fence, this should now clear up any doubts as to why Foam Rolling can be essential to your physical wellbeing. Whatever exercise or sport you are throwing yourself into, add this to your routine and over a longer period, watch the benefits develop.
Just 1-2 minutes of foam rolling on a muscle group is enough to help improve range of motion.
There is strong evidence to show that it can help improve your range of movement in the short-term, as well as reduce DOMS following exercise. There is some mixed evidence to show it may help improve range of movement in the long-run and improve blood flow to muscles.