Do Foam Rollers Really Work?

Foam Rolling Improves Range of Motion & Reduces Arterial Stiffness

Using a foam roller pre-workout often leads to increased range of motion during exercise by mimicking the restorative mechanisms of massage therapy... and who doesn't love massage therapy? Foam rolling also helps to prevent injury and decrease the body's recovery time after exercising. These benefits can lead to better performance in athletes because their muscles can accomplish more while lifting and working out. Also, because recovery time in between workouts decreases, athletes can exercise more often and gain quicker results.  In contrast, studies have shown that static stretching done for a long period of time before exercise can actually decrease performance during exercise.

In prehab, rehab, and training environments foam rollers are used to restore muscles, ligaments, tendons, fascia, and soft-tissue extensibility. A recent study involving passive ankle dorsiflexion in 11 adolescent athletes concluded that combining foam rolling with static stretching provided the greatest effect on the range of motion in an athlete. The study concluded that there was an increase in range of motion of 6.2% when only static stretching was done and an increase of 9.1% when static stretching was combined with foam rolling. So, though all three cases (static stretching, foam rolling, and foam rolling plus static stretching), acute increases in flexibility occurred, it was the additive effect of foam rolling and static stretching that showed the best improvement in range of motion for these athletes.

Because flexibility is associated with arterial distensibility, researchers have also been interested in looking into foam rolling and arterial stiffness. Another recent study showed that foam rolling reduces arterial stiffness and improves vascular endothelial function.

But Doesn't Foam Rolling Decrease Muscle Strength?

Nope.  Despite the known benefits, a common concern is that foam rolling could decrease the strength of the muscles during exercise. However, a study involving eleven men who worked out regularly showed that there was no decrease in strength. This study involved foam rolling for two minutes on the quadriceps muscle before completing leg exercises. The men did the leg exercise first using a leg-extension device, and then again after foam rolling. There was no decrease in performance on the leg-extension machine. Instead, they saw an increase of 7-20 degrees in the flexion of their knees. The reason for the increase in the range of motion is attributed to the foam roller's ability to bring the muscle back to its original form by getting rid of tight spots that pop up while exercising, or due to injury. These tight spots in the muscles and tissue often restrict movement and decrease exercise performance. Foam rolling helps keep the muscles elongated, as explained by Dr. Rubina Tahir on My New Philly

A similar study involving hamstrings reported similar results range of motion increased (4.3% increase in ROM) and performance was not affected. There was also a study that focused on plantar flexor muscles. This study had 17 participants and concluded that foam rolling improved the range of motion while also leading to small improvements in MVC (maximal voluntary contraction) force.

Foam Rolling for Recovery 

Besides positively affecting range of motion while exercising, foam rolling may also help muscles to recover after a workout in a similar to massage therapy's effects. The foam roller hones in on any muscles that have tightened or stiffened during a workout.
To help deal with sore muscles, it is best to use the foam roller both before and after a workout every day. One popular technique to reap the massage benefits is to slowly "roll out" the sore muscle until a tender spot is felt. Then, bear down on the tender spot for about 30 seconds until the soreness goes away some. After foam rolling a specific muscle, it is helpful to do some type of movement that makes use of that muscle, such as bending the knees after rolling the quadriceps. Other techniques involve muscle flexion and extension while rolling. 

How-to Advice from Health Professionals

Watch videos of professionals showing how-to foam roll (using our RistRoller ®  the mini foam roller). 

Additionally, Washington Park Chiropractic has posted a great collection of Mobility Videos on their website. There are a lot of great resources out there regarding the use of traditional (large) foam rollers and we will continue to post content we like to our blog and Pinterest.

Other Implications and Uses of Foam Rollers

As demonstrated in a number of studies, foam rollers can help improve range of motion. For patients with arthritis, the exercise regimen is focused on improving joint mobility and flexibility, so professionals are exploring the use of soft, small foam rollers to help range of motion. 

Health professionals have already noted qualitatively that small foam rollers are beneficial in cases involving:
  • trigger finger
  • scar tissue
  • burn patients
  • wrist / carpal tunnel
  • plantar fasciitis

Related Videos

The Science of Foam Rollers

Here are the articles we looked at while writing this article. These show scientifically that foam rollers work, or otherwise look into the effects of foam rolling.
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