This article originally appeared in the U.S. News and World Report on February 4, 2021.
Foam Rollers: Should You Use Them?
In certain cases, foam rollers can help alleviate muscle tension. Here's how to use them properly.
The purported benefits include releasing tightness and muscular tension by stretching and massaging the underlying tissues. The idea is to reduce adhesions in the fascia (a form of connective tissue) and muscle, increase blood flow and break down scar tissue, thereby reducing fatigue, improving recovery and enhancing range of motion.
But do foam rollers really work? The answer to that question has been the subject of much debate and some research.
Do Foam Rollers Work?
Understanding the concept behind SMR requires an understanding of the fascial system itself. Fascia is a densely woven, specialized system of connective tissue that covers and unites all of the body’s compartments. The result is a system in which each part is connected to the other parts through this web of tissue.
Essentially, the purpose of the fascia is to surround and support the bodily structures, which provides stability, as well as a cohesive direction for the line of pull of muscle groups. In a normal healthy state, fascia has a relaxed and wavy configuration. It has the ability to stretch and move without restriction. However, with physical trauma, scarring or inflammation, fascia may lose its pliability. SMR is a technique that applies pressure to tight, restricted areas of fascia and underlying muscle in an attempt to relieve tension and improve flexibility.
The research on the mechanisms and benefits of SMR are unclear, as findings are often inconclusive or inconsistent. That said, recent research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise found that a six-week SMR program using foam rollers yielded improvements in flexibility in the lower back and hamstrings and did not negatively impact athletic performance. This is an important finding, as it suggests that SMR, in contrast to static stretching, can be included during warm-ups without adversely affecting performance during competition or the workout to follow.
How to Use a Foam Roller
There are many ways to use a foam roller, and the technique may vary depending on how tender a particular area is and your personal pain tolerance.
Consider this approach:
- Roll over the muscle slowly, feeling for areas that are tight or “hot.” When you find a “hot spot,” your instinct will be to roll away from it. Instead, support more of your body weight with your arms or opposite leg and breathe deeply as you gently apply pressure.
- Focus on small areas. Move incrementally rather than in large repetitive movements that cover the entire muscle, which can lead to greater inflammation.
- Stay on one spot for one to two breaths and then move an inch higher, lower, right or left. If you do not find anything in that direction, move an inch in another direction and repeat this process.
- Avoid rolling over the joints. Keep the foam roller on soft tissue only.
- Avoid causing unbearable or sharp pain on tender areas.
- Consider the type of roller that works best for you. The length and density vary among foam rollers. A longer roller ensures you won’t fall off the ends. Softer rollers are perfect for beginners, but their lifespan isn’t as long as the denser options.
It’s important to note that many people – including the participants in this study – find foam rolling to be a beneficial addition to their workouts. They report feeling better and more relaxed after a session of SMR, and the importance of that cannot be overstated. So, give it a try and see how your body responds. Just be sure to listen to your body and avoid overdoing it, particularly in areas of pain.