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What Foam Rolling Can Do for Fitness

By Alexander VanHouten, Master Trainer & Life Time Education Specialist

Most people are familiar with foam rollers, but how do their perceived benefits match up with clinical proof? Debates exist around whether we should foam roll before, after or even in place of certain workout routines for purposes as broad as increased blood flow, enhanced recovery and IT band pain. Are we giving this training tool too much credit, or does it actually deserve a regular place in our fitness programs? Let’s look at what research tells us about foam rolling.

Foam Rolling Improves Range of Motion (ROM)

In several studies under varied protocols, foam rolling was shown to improve range of motion within minutes of execution. Whether you’re looking to improve movement through the knee joint (MacDonald 2013, Button 2014), hip joint (Sullivan 2013) spinal processes (Jay 2014) or ankles (Halperin 2014), foam rolling allows a significant improvement in each.

In one particularly interesting case, simply rolling out the plantar fascia (the bottom of the foot) for 2 minutes on each foot improved subjects’ sit and reach just over an inch! (Grieve 2015) In this study’s subjects, that represented a 10% increase in range of motion after only 2 minutes through the ankle, knee, hip, and back. That’s quite an ROI on ROM!

Range of motion is an important component of an effective workout. The greater the range of motion for each exercise you perform, the greater overall work is done by that muscle group. In other words, if you do a leg press (or better yet, a front squat) with even a slightly greater range of motion, then your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, core and back muscles will get a better workout.

Here’s another way to look at it for you time efficiency buffs out there. When your foam rolling protocol increases your ROM 10% before a workout, you’ll experience 10% more positive strength adaptations without changing any other variables (e.g. weight, reps, time under tension, tempo, rest periods, etc.).

If you’re going to incorporate a foam roller into your warm-up to increase general ROM, consider these points.

  • These ROM improvements are only temporary. ROM tended to return to baseline within the following 24 hours.
  • Time matters. Although there were improvements found with only a couple minutes of rolling muscles pre-workout, the majority of studies found that improvements required at least 10 total minutes of foam rolling with 30-60 seconds per muscle group.
  • Roll like bread dough. These studies did not instruct individuals to hold the roller on painful areas. Rather, they were instructed to roll the entire muscle uniformly from joint to joint.

Foam Rolling Increases Explosive/Plyometric Performance

Due to the immediate increase in ROM provided by foam rolling and the supposed uptick in blood flow to muscles recently rolled, several studies have been done on athletes and untrained individuals to investigate possible performance improvements following foam rolling.

Interestingly, foam rolling does not enhance any performance measure in untrained individuals. (You can’t prime what isn’t already there.) In athletes, it doesn’t improve endurance measures like the Wingate test or isometric force production (Sullivan 2013, Janot 2013, Halperin 2014, Healy 2014). However, in trained collegiate athletes, 1 bout of 30 seconds of foam rolling over 6 muscles groups was found to improve standing long jump distance, vertical jump height, 1RM bench press weight, and 30 meter sprint times (Peacock 2014).

Why plyometric performance and not strictly strength or endurance? It’s possible that the slight increase in ROM increases elasticity and, therefore, a more efficient amortization phase (transition from loading to unloading), resulting in greater power output. It’s also possible that the increased exposure to blood flow through palpation allows a greater concentration of energy storage in the form of ATP in type II fibers. Or it might even be that foam roller stimulation activates neuromuscular pathways more completely than other stretching methods, prepping them for more firing potential in maximum effort movements.

No matter the mechanism, these findings suggest that foam rolling can improve the performance of Olympic lifts, box jumps of every kind, as well as speed and agility work.

Explosion or plyometric performance is important in any athletic or high intensity activity. More explosion means faster starting and stopping in all directions (agility), increased joint stability throughout dynamic movements (fewer injuries), and overall increased output (box jump 50” instead of 45”).

Although more research is needed to confirm the extent of the performance increase in each movement among athletes, you can take advantage of the benefits now. Next time you max out your performance metrics, compete in Alpha, or get your ultimate hoops on, doing 6-10 minutes of foam rolling on your major muscle groups just prior to your workout is a quick, simple and effective ticket to performing at your best.

Foam Rolling Increases Flexibility – Especially Following An Injury

A few studies show conclusively that foam rolling can yield long-term increases in flexibility – not just temporary increases in range of motion. Three to four sessions per week of 20-30 minutes of rolling for only 3 weeks was found to increase hamstring and hip flexibility across study groups (Ebrahim 2013, Mohr 2014). These findings were even more drastic and impressive if the subject had recently injured the muscle groups. Foam rolling can help restore the flexibility of a recently injured muscle complex.

An added bonus? These same subjects reported that their workouts felt better. In other words, in addition to increasing their flexibility, foam rolling seemed to increase their exercise tolerance, making workouts feel less difficult! If your workout was more enjoyable, would you be motivated to do it more often?

Why is flexibility so important? Flexibility ensures that each muscle in the body is the appropriate length for the bones and joints it controls. Therefore, an appropriate amount of flexibility will allow your muscles to respond as they should to produce movement without maladaptive movement patterns, which can grate on joints over time.

In other words, good flexibility keeps your joints in good health, so you can continue doing the activities you love to do without pain, discomfort or injury.

If you’re having trouble touching your toes and have shored up possible nutrient deficiencies (especially magnesium), then either after your workout or in place of it, foam rolling for at least 20 minutes 3 times per week will yield noticeable results in just 2-3 weeks! In the exercise world, any lasting improvement over just 2-3 weeks of consistency is a major success!

Where Research Is Inconclusive

Some questions, however, still exist around particular benefits and recommendations for foam rolling.

Does foam rolling break up fascial adhesions? Does the increased blood flow accelerate recovery? Should you roll your IT band when it hurts or do more hip bridges instead? When should you use a bar or dumbbell instead of the softer foam roller? These are all questions worth asking, but thus far no satisfactory evidence has been put forward to answer them conclusively.

There are several promising studies currently in the works that will shed light on these issues. In the meantime, however, for increased range of motion, more explosive and plyometric power performance, and lasting flexibility changes, it’s worth making the foam roller a part of your workout arsenal!

And, as always, if you need a crash course or just have general questions, check out our workout workshops this month, or talk with a fitness professional at your club’s training desk. We are always happy to help!

Thanks for reading. If you learned something new, please share the post on your favorite social media channel.

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An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. MacDonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, Cuconato AL, Drake CD, Behm DG, Button DC. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar; 27 (3) :812-21

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Roller-Massager Application to the Hamstrings Increases Sit-and-Reach Range of Motion within Five to Ten Seconds Without Performance Impairments. Kathleen M. Sullivan, Dustin B.J. Silvey, Duane C. Button, David G. Behm. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Jun; 8(3): 228–236.

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Roller-massager application to the quadriceps and knee-joint range of motion and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge. Bradbury-Squires DJ, Noftall JC, Sullivan KM, Behm DG, Power KE, Button DC. J Athl Train. 2015 Feb;50(2):133-40. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-49.5.03. Epub 2014 Nov 21.

The effect of Foam roller exercise and Nano particle in speeding of healing of sport injuries. Amany Waheed Ebrahim and Abeer Waheed Abd Elghany. J Am Sci 2013; 9(6): 450-458].

Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion. Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. J Sport Rehabil. 2014 Nov;23(4):296-9. Epub 2014 Jan 21.

Roller massager improves range of motion of plantar flexor muscles without subsequent decreases in force parameters. Halperin I, Aboodarda SJ, Button DC, Andersen LL, Behm DG. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2014 Feb;9(1):92-102.

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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