Are Foam Rollers Any Good?

Curious about foam rolling? We hope you'll enjoy this excellent article from the March 2019 edition of Men's Health.

"While few scientific studies currently exist, many physiotherapists tout the benefits of stretching sore muscles with targeted foam roller exercises after a tough workout in a bid to speed up recovery. Many trainers also believe that specific foam roller exercises before working out can help improve performance in the gym by increasing elasticity and range of motion in muscles.

When executed correctly, foam roller exercises will “release tight fascia and the adhesions that restrict range of motion,” explains Niko Algieri, co-founder and trainer at Equilibrium Total Balance. Facia is the soft connective tissue, located just beneath skin, that connects muscles, bones, nerves, organs, and blood vessels. ‘Myofascial release’ techniques are designed to protect fascia by stretching and smoothing it.

Occasionally, muscles and fascia can become stuck to one another in places they usually wouldn’t; and this connective tissue is known as an ‘adhesion’. Adhesions restrict movement, resulting in muscle soreness or pain. This is where foam roller exercises save the day.

“I personally recommend using the foam roller as part of movement prep before every workout,” says Doug Tannahill, strength and conditioning coach at BXR London. “In addition, using it for 10 to 15 minutes before bed helps to promote tissue recovery.”

Here’s how it works. Sit on the floor and position the roller under the soft tissue area to release or loosen. Slowly roll back and forth across the roller while targeting the affected muscle. Find a particularly painful area, also known as a ‘trigger point’, hold that position until the area softens.Move slowly and work from the centre of the body outwards, focusing on muscle groups rather than individual muscles. Think: hamstrings, calves, quads, outer thigh, buttocks, chest, and back. “I recommend spending up to two minutes on each muscle group, but try and roll for at least 20 to 30 seconds,” says Tannahill.

Often the color of the roller will dictate the density or firmness, with lighter colors being softer, and dark colors generally being harder. Style-wise, some rollers have ridges and knobs for applying varying amounts of pressure, while others are smooth. “Make sure to start on smooth foam rollers,” Tannahill suggests. “The softer the roller, the less the pain. It’s not necessarily a case of ‘no pain, no gain’. Restoring muscle to its healthy state can be achieved without progressing firmness.”

“Find a roller that is firm enough to have a mechanical effect but not one that is so hard that it causes muscle to tense up,” adds Tannahill.

With that said, taking it too easy will be pointless. Aim for seven out of 10 on the discomfort scale, and if it's too easy, consider upgrading to a roller with strange shapes and edges for targeted relief from muscle soreness.

From reducing risk of injury to crushing big lifts, here are 10 reasons why foam roller exercises will help.

1. Using a foam roller “boosts circulation to the tissues, facilitating smooth movement,” explains Juliet Slade, rehab physiotherapist at Six Physio Fleet St. Being well-oiled is vital for preventing injury.

2. Breaking down tight muscle fascia and softening tendons boosts flexibility prior to a session, says Algieri, quite literally helping reach full potential.

3. It’s thought that foam rolling helps to regulate the nervous system, says Daniel Zambon, physiotherapist at Pure Sports Medicine Reynes Park Clinic. This increases muscle extensibility, i.e. the ability of a muscle to be stretched.

4. Rolling pre-workout will give muscles the pep talk they need to smash a rigorous sweat session. “By increasing circulation using a roller, muscles are prepped for a state of higher activity,” advises Slade.

5. Foam rolling increases blood flow to the myotendinous junction – the area that connects tendon and muscle – helping to relieve leg day tenderness, suggests Algieri. One study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found that 20 minutes of foam rolling immediately after exercise and every 24 hours thereafter helps to reduce delayed muscle soreness.

6. Foam rolling will boost endorphins, but the brain benefits don’t end there. According to Zambon, the exercise may help to reduce sympathetic tone, responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response, and enhance parasympathetic tone, which boosts the “rest and digest” system. Basically, foam roller exercises are a certified stress buster.

7. By breaking down adhesions between fascia and muscles, foam roller exercises improve blood flow, which will boost performance and help clear post-workout nasties. “Theoretically, increased blood flow can deliver more blood flow to working or recovering muscles, supplying more nutrients and oxygen, and assisting with metabolic waste product removal,” says Zambon.

8. For a healthy immune system, healthy fascia is needed, says Algieri. “The lymphatic system detoxifies the body and keeps it healthy,” he explains. “Lymph, or lymphatic fluid, runs along the fascial plane of the body. Foam rolling releases tight fascia, allowing for proper detoxification and immune function.”

9. The result of increased flexibility and supple muscles is better form. Better form means bigger lifts. Plus, by reducing post-exercise muscle soreness and stiffness, one can be back under the bench in record time. “Reduced fatigue could enable extended workouts and increased volume, which could lead to increased adaptation,” Zambon adds.

10. The thoracic spine – the middle section of your back – has been “hammered and hunched by Instagram and Netflix,” Algieri explains. Foam rolling “releases the tight muscles around joints and creates space in-between vertebrae.”

The Best Foam Roller Exercises For…

Warm-up: Longitudinal - Slowly roll rhythmically up and down along the length of the muscle.

Cross Fibre - Slowly roll back and forth perpendicular to the muscle fibers.

Recovery: Contract Relax - Find a tender point, contract the muscle for 10 seconds, and then exhale, allowing the roller to sink further into the muscle.

Inhibition - Find a tender point in a muscle and maintain the position for a period of time.

Mobility: Pin and Floss - Find a tender point on a muscle and then actively move the joint that the muscle group crosses to ‘floss’ the muscle across the foam roller.




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