Pete McCall by Pete McCall

Over the past decade, foam rollers have become a ubiquitous piece of exercise equipment, found almost anywhere people like to sweat. In general, foam rollers are cylindrical sections of hard foam, approximately 6 inches in diameter, and available in a variety of textures and lengths. Softer foam rollers are pliable and mold to the shape of a muscle, while denser foam rollers are made from more solid foam or have plastic centers, both of which can apply more pressure to muscle tissue. Some rollers are composed of a solid cylinder of foam, while others have textured grooves or patterns that can apply different amounts of pressure to a section of muscle.

While foam rollers have many uses for improving how the body moves, they CANNOT eliminate cellulite. The body stores excess energy as fat in adipose tissue and cellulite, which is the layer of fat interwoven between the muscle, skin and fibrous connective tissue. Cellulite holds water, so if it becomes dehydrated it can lead to the dimpled look we often associate with this tissue that typically affects the thigh, hip and gluteal regions of the body. If you want to get rid of cellulite, the best method is to increase your level of physical activity so that you are burning energy instead of storing it in your body. In addition, maintaining proper hydration ensures that you keep enough water in your cells, which can help reduce the dimpled appearance of cellulite.

Even if they can’t eliminate cellulite, foam rollers are great tools for keeping people active. Here are five specific benefits that you can experience from using a foam roller as part of your fitness program:

  1. Using a foam roller can help reduce tightness in muscle and connective tissue. If muscle tissue on one side of a joint is too tight, it can restrict that joint’s range of motion and change the ability of surrounding muscles to control movement. There are two theories about how foam rolling reduces tightness: (1) the roller places tension on the muscle, which sends a signal for the muscle to relax and lengthen; and (2) the friction from moving on the muscle increases heat in the muscle, causing it to lengthen. The bottom line is that using a foam roller can be an effective form of stretching that reduces tightness and increases muscle length.
  1. Using a foam roller can help break up the collagen adhesions responsible for creating “knots” in muscle tissue. Muscle tissue is organized in layers; collagen is an inelastic connective tissue found parallel to muscle fibers. Collagen helps increase the tensile strength of muscle tissue, thus lowering the risk of strain injuries like a pulled muscle. A sedentary lifestyle with minimal amounts of physical activity means that, instead of sliding against one another, as happens during movement, the layers of muscle tissue rest against one another. If a muscle is not regularly lengthened, collagen will bind between the layers and restrict the ability of the tissue to lengthen and shorten. Using a foam roll can break up the collagen adhesion and ensure that layers of muscle tissue have the ability to slide against one another.
  1. Using a foam roller is like getting a massage. A massage therapist is trained to identify muscle adhesions and use manual pressure to break up the adhesions, allowing the muscle to lengthen and shorten without any restrictions. To identify adhesions using a foam roller, slowly move over the roller until you feel a point of soreness. Slowly move the sore area forward and backward over the foam roller to increase pressure and generate heat, allowing the tissues to lengthen. Getting a daily massage can be expensive, but investing in a foam roller and using it on a regular basis can provide many of the same benefits at a fraction of the cost.
  1. A foam roller can be used during the warm-up component of a workout to reduce muscle tightness, as part of the post workout cool-down to help muscle return to a normal resting length, OR between workouts to help reduce overall muscle tightness and improve feelings of relaxation.
  1. Reducing muscle tightness can help you move into a complete range of motion, allowing you to improve your overall mobility. For example, using a foam roll to reduce tightness in the quadriceps and hip flexor muscles on the front of the thighs can help you increase mobility of the hip joints, allowing you to experience a deeper range of motion during a squat or lunge. Likewise, reducing tightness in the gastrocnemius and soleus (calf) muscles responsible for creating plantar flexion (pointing your toes) can allow the lower leg (tibia and fibula) to experience greater forward movement during the downward phase of the squat.

While foam rollers can’t eliminate cellulite, they are still incredibly useful for reducing muscle tightness and improve overall flexibility, which will enable you to be more active and healthy.