Why ‘foam rolling’ is a fitness myth

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Before I get into this blog I think it is important that I establish a few definitions. You have probably seen these foam tubes in your gym which people roll on before they workout. This practice is known as foam rolling. Foam rolling is one of the most popular forms of self-myofascial release (SMR). Fascia is a layer of soft tissue that covers most of the body and surrounds a lot of the muscles of the body. Fascia protects and supports these structures and helps transmit tension around the body. What people try to achieve through SMR is reduced tension in the muscles and increase flexibility. Now that we have a better understanding of what foam rolling is, I will discuss some of the myths surrounding foam rolling and other forms of SMR and then discuss how SMR can be implemented effectively into your workout routine.

Much of the evidence for the effectiveness of SMR comes from a study on rats where they used metal tools to scrape the ligaments of the rats. They noticed that by doing this they could remodel the tissue and heal some injuries to the rats. It was thought that because this could be achieved in rats, that it would work in humans. The issue with this is that the tools used on the rats were human sized and the rats were unconscious when the practice was being done. The amount of pressure needed to actually break down human tissue is very significant and is extremely difficult to get when using a foam roller.

So although a foam roller may not have any significant effect on the connective tissue itself, there is no denying that after using a foam roller you will quite often get up and feel less tension in your muscles so how does this actually work? The true mechanism of what causes this increase in flexibility after a bout of foam rolling is unclear but the research points to it being a neurophysiological response rather than a change to the actual tissue and the effects are short term. It is a nervous system response to a sensory input similarly to how you feel less pain if you shake your hand after getting hit on the end of the finger.

Because of how we think foam rolling works, it seems unwise to spend long periods of time doing this practice. If you are spending upwards of 20 minutes lying on a foam roller then it is likely that you will have lost the benefits of it by the time you get to actually exercising. So how should you implement foam rolling into a warm up routine? Well first of all I would argue that it is not necessary at all to foam roll as part of your warm up and that basic movement drills and dynamic stretches can be used instead and I have found these to be more effective in improving movement than foam rolling. However, if you are a fan of foam rolling and feel like you benefit from SMR then my advice would be to do short bouts of foam rolling in between warm up movements. For example, if you are doing a deadlift workout then it might be useful to do your foam rolling in between warm up sets. So let’s say you do a set of 10 reps with the bar and feel a lot of tension in your hamstrings then you could do 30-60 seconds of foam rolling or the smallest amount of time it takes to feel a different and then do another warm up with a slightly heavier weight and hopefully the tension should feel reduced. You can continue to do this throughout your warm up so that you hopefully feel no excess tension by the time it comes to start your workout. Given what we know about the mechanism by which foam rolling works, this appears to be the most effective way to implement SMR.

I hope this article has cleared up any confusion regarding foam rolling and you can take away some of the advice given and use it in your own training.

Speak to you again soon.



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