Is Foam Rolling Even Worth Doing?

Here’s a phenomenal guest post from Halevy Life Director of Programming and Education Nick Johnson, BSc. Exercise Science, SCCC:

Jeff Halevy TODAY Show Fitness ExpertLadies and Gentleman, here is the answer to the age-old question I know you have been waiting for. The question that causes you to lose sleep at night, the thing you’re thinking about when your husband/wife or significant other is telling you about their day, so without further ado, here it is: Should you foam roll? Yup, that’s what I figured, you’re probably screaming inside with excitement right now, I know, take a second to settle yourself and lets jump into the 3 biggest questions surrounding foam rolling.

1. What are the benefits?

2. Should you do it before or after a workout, and for how long?

3. What is the correct technique to use?

The topic of foam rolling; although a super simple concept, seems to be one of big discussion and varying opinions producing studies with contradicting results and further clouding the general population as to it’s efficacy. I want to tackle the topic of “foam rolling” as a whole, so bear with me through the boring, nerdy stuff. In order for you to get a good grasp on the reasoning behind the use of foam rollers, we need to get in to a little bit of anatomy and physiology first. So… here we go.


“Hey Nick, when I sit on a cylinder of foam what am I actually doing?” Great question! You are actually putting pressure on something called fascia. Fascia is a tough, connective tissue that can be found throughout the body, in a sort of 3-D web from head to toe. Fascia is literally everywhere, surrounding every bone, muscle, organ, blood vessel and nerve down to the cellular level. The general function of fascia is to provide stability, support and cushion, particularly through locomotion, or movement. The deep fascia, or (also known as “myofascia”) is the type we are concerned with. This is the fascia that surrounds individual muscle fibers and can in many instances divide groups of muscles into compartments. This is the one we want to get untangled by rolling on it.

The tightening of fascia is a protective mechanism the body uses in response to trauma. As fascia tightens, it loses its pliability, becomes restricted and causes a tension to the rest of the body. So what does all this mean?

First off, trauma doesn’t necessarily mean you were hit by a bus (despite how you feel after a leg workout), it simply means there was some sort of damage to the cells, and in the realm of strength training we like to use the term “micro trauma.” Micro trauma, simply stated, is small amounts of fibril damage, and is theorized to play a primary role in muscular development or growth. When micro trauma occurs the body responds in an over-compensatory manner, replacing/healing damaged tissue and adding more in an attempt to reduce the risk of repeating the same damage caused to the cell. In short, your body is adapting so it is capable of completing whatever task you are asking it to complete.

So as this fascia tightens in order to provide support and allow the body to heal, it consequently becomes less pliable, leaving the feeling of “tightness” or lack of flexibility. The collagen (fibers that give the fascia strength and structure) becomes dense and fibrous and the elastin (fibers allowing for elasticity and flexibility) loses its resiliency. These changes over time can create poor muscular biomechanics and might even alter the structural alignment, leading to decreased muscular strength, endurance and coordination. Ultimately, you are in pain and your movement capacity, or ability to function effectively is lost.

Enter foam rolling…

Foam Rolling is a form of myofascial (fascia surrounding muscle) release. Myofascial release facilitates a “stretch” into the restricted, or bunched up fascia. By applying and sustaining pressure on the restricted area, the tissue will actually undergo a histological length change (the fibers increase in length at a microscopic level). When held for 90 seconds or more, the tissue will actually become softer and more pliable. By restoring the fibers back to their original length the we can take pressure off of the other pain sensitive structures (blood vessels, nerves, etc.) we went over earlier and assist in the restoration of alignment and mobility to joints.

Let it all sink in…

Ok, we answered question 1, the boring one. Now to the application of foam rolling. You should definitely do it before you workout, if you have to choose one. If you have the time to get in a quick rolling session after, there can be additional benefits, but before is essential. Now comes the answer to the question addressing techniques. Don’t just roll back and forth over the tight or sensitive areas. Yes, studies have shown that simply rolling over and over will help, it will not yield the total benefits. Roll till you find a painful, sensitive and tight spot, and then sit there. RELAX AND BREATHE! If you tense up how do you expect your body to relax? The whole point of myofascial release is to relax, aiding to increase mobility and subsequently functionality. You should spend around 10-15 minutes before a workout rolling and if time permits 5-10 minutes after. If you can get a quick roll in after, you can use the method of back and forth, constant motion. This will provide the same benefits as static stretching after, and will help to counteract any edema (pooling of blood in tissues) you might get following a workout, as well as shuttle out byproducts of energy metabolism.

Here is a list of the 5 spots I make sure I hit before a workout.

Note: this might be different for you, but try and tell me if it makes a difference.

1. Lats: Regardless of how often I foam roll, my lats always seem to be tight and sensitive. Permitting them to release a little bit before a workout allows me to get better scapular retraction, particularly during deadlifts and bench pressing. Lay on your side with the bottom arm outstretched and the roller 6 inches under your armpit, slowly work it up into your armpit, once you get there let your top shoulder fall back a little and BREATHE!

2. Glutes: The glutes are actually done better using a lacrosse ball, or even a street hockey ball. Place the ball under your butt, lift that leg up and cross it over top of the opposite knee, roll around until you find a spot that makes you want to scream/cry/vomit and relax.

3. Calves: This one is of importance to me due to previous injuries, causing my right calf to become extremely tight when exercising, particularly during any lunge, squat or sprint activities. Most people do have the same issues with their calves, but nonetheless it is still a good spot to hit. Put your arms under your butt, calves on the roller and start at the Achilles and work up to the back of your knee. You can also do each leg individually if it makes things easier.

4. Quads: Get on your elbows as if you were about to perform the world’s best plank, place the roller at the top of your knees and work your way up to your hips. Rotating your hips side to side can also allow the roller to get a little deeper and hit areas that might be neglected if you only roll with them straight.

5. Adductors: This really helps to open up the hips and seems to be a very tight area on most individuals. Lay on your stomach, bend one leg to the side so your hip is at a 45 degree angle and your knee is at a 90 degree angle, and place the roller on the inside of your leg just above your knee. Once again, work your way up to the hip and repeat for the other leg.

If you have any further questions on how to use foam rolling to increase the effectiveness of your workouts, hit me up on twitter @HL_Nick. This is the one time when I will say “if it hurts it means it’s working.” Enjoy rolling!