Foam rollers have become a must-have gym accessory in recent years. Once used by professional athletes only, they are now being used by workout novices and experts alike.
The practice involves applying your own body weight to a foam cylinder, using small repetitive movements to exert pressure on the muscle.
The internet is full of guides on how to do it right, from YouTube tutorials and millions of search engine hits.
Despite this, scientific evidence to support foam rolling remains limited, so does it work and is it worth considering as a workout staple?
Why use a foam roller?
Muscles work through respiration, either with or without oxygen. There are waste products of this muscle respiration created which are taken away in the blood, recycled or excreted, then the entire process begins again.
When muscles work too hard, the theory is that the body is unable to keep up with what’s being asked of it and some of these waste products get left behind.
It is believed that these products can accumulate within muscles, connective tissue or both – these are commonly known as trigger points.
These ‘trigger points’ lead to a loss of performance in the muscle and a shortening of the length or flexibility. The aim of foam rolling is that we use the pain generated from it to stimulate blood flow to the area which helps transport those muscle waste products away.
The muscles in theory then become looser and perform better again.
What's the evidence for it?
Using foam rollers to remove muscle waste is a relatively new idea and as such, there isn’t much research on the subject but this is beginning to change.
An increasing number of papers are being published on foam rolling. Most of these are small scale but the papers in general agree that using a foam roller does do something to the muscles.
Research has claimed that foam rolling in the short term increases your range of movement and, crucially, does not decrease the amount of force a muscle can exert.
Further studies have suggested that using a foam roller is better than dynamic stretching (that is stretching where you move around to warm the muscles up) and static stretching (where you stand still and stretch) for increasing your range of movement.
Most people understand how it important it is to stretch before exercise; it loosens you up and improves your flexibility, but the main benefit foam rolling offers here is that it can improve flexibility at the same level as stretching, but without impairing strength.
When you stretch for too long – for upwards of 60 seconds – this will weaken your muscles and impair your ability to do your workout.
Foam rolling has also been suggested to be an effective method of recovering from exercise by reducing muscle soreness. As muscle soreness can affect healthy muscle function, managing this issue can help people to perform better in their next workout.
Beyond this, there is still much we don’t know. One of the standout issues is that we don’t fully know yet how foam rolling works on the body. For years, it was regarded as a way of releasing tension from the soft connecting tissue that forms a matrix around the human body – including the muscles, bones organs and nerves.
Researchers, however, have become somewhat sceptical about this given the amount of force required to manipulate the fascia; many believe that the pressure applied by foam rolling may be acting on the nervous system instead.
Research suggests that foam rolling does do something, particularly with regards to improving movement immediately after muscle pain. However, does it fix the underlying movement pattern that causes the problem in the first place. The answer to that would be no.
You can use foam rolling as part of your recovery from heavy training but it won’t be the answer to any underlying injury issues you may have. It may ease them temporarily and enable you to squeeze a bit more from your body, but as a fix for long-term problems it’s not the answer.
There’s also not enough evidence to say how is best to use foam rollers. Researchers have adopted methods that vary between one and five periods of foam rolling per training session, from anywhere between a few seconds or five minutes.
There’s nothing to suggest that longer sessions are better so if in doubt, keep it brief.