Foam rolling was once reserved for professional athletes. It’s hard to walk into a gym these days without tripping over someone rolling on a neoprene tube. Dedicated classes at trendy NYC gyms are frequented by the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Shakira. Forget protein shakers, resistance bands or Fit Bits: foam rollers are this season’s must-have gym accessory.
The rise of foam rollers owes much to the Israeli engineer and physicist Moshe Feldenkraiswhose pioneering work on body movements to improve muscle function became popular in the 1950s. A black belt in judo, Feldenkrais incorporated them into his system of physical enhancement when he encountered them in the United States a few decades later.
More recently, American sports therapist Michael Clark helped introduce these accessories to the general public with his 2001 book, Integrated training for the new millennium. The first US patent for a foam roller has been dropped as recently as 2004.
For the uninitiated, the practice involves applying your own body weight to a cylinder of foam, using small repetitive undulating motions to exert pressure on the muscle. The internet is full of guides on how to do it right: YouTube has over 600,000 videos that fit the term; a quick search on a search engine returns about 40 million results.
Despite this, the scientific evidence supporting the practice remains surprisingly limited. So does it work – and if so, how?
Most people understand the importance of stretching before exercising. it relaxes you and improves your flexibility. But too many stretches – that is, more than 60 seconds – will weaken your muscles and could interfere with your training. One of the main selling points of foam lamination is that it can improve flexibility to the same extent as stretching, but with an important added benefit – it doesn’t alter strength. foam rolling can also improve performances if combined with stretches. It may be better than doing either, but so far the research evidence is inconclusive.
In the meantime, we can now confidently say that rolling in foam is better than doing nothing. Recent work from our laboratory at the University of Stirling, carried out with Malcolm Fair weather of SportScotland, tested the effect of foam rolling on a group of volunteers doing leg extension exercises.
We found that it took less effort for them to complete the exercise after two minutes of foam rolling than after two minutes of rest. Thanks to this reduction in effort, volunteers who repeated this for three days were able to perform better leg extensions than those who did not foam roll each day.
foam rolling also showed promise as a way to recover from exercise, by reducing muscle soreness. Since muscle pain can seriously hamper healthy muscle function, management of this problem can help people perform better next time.
Beyond that, there’s still a lot we don’t know. A big problem is that we still don’t know how foam rolling works on the body. For years it was considered as a means of releasing tension from the soft connective tissue known as fascia which forms a kind of matrix around the whole human body – including muscles, bones, organs and nerves.
Researchers have become skeptical about this, however: given the amount of force required to manipulate the fascia, many believe it is more likely that the pressure applied by foam rolling Perhaps rather acting on the nervous system.
Findings on the use of rolling to avoid muscle soreness provide further evidence here. We know this pain relief is not linked to the “warming up” of the muscles, while there is only limited evidence that foam rolling increases blood flow. If either were the case, it would suggest that the benefit comes from stimulation of the soft tissues in the area in question. But if we exclude the two, it suggests that there must be a more global or neurological response going on.
So far, all research has focused on the immediate and short-term effects of foam lamination. Our understanding of the longer-term effects remains unclear. So, while we know that foam rolling before and after exercise can complement your workout regimen, we can’t say for sure if these benefits will continue into the future. And although foam lamination has been previously shown to have no negative effects on short-term sports performance, we still cannot say for sure that there are no long-term adverse effects.
We also don’t have enough evidence to say how best to use foam rollers. The researchers adopted protocols that varied between one and five foam rolling episodes per exercise session, and between five seconds and two minutes. There’s no suggestion that longer durations are better, so when in doubt, keep your rollover short.
On the other hand, researchers find that you need repeated bouts to increase your range of motion. So if flexibility is your goal, you should roll and repeat at least twice in a session – just make sure no one trips you while you do it.