As we age, we lose some of our flexibility. As a result, we no longer have the joint range of motion we had when we were young. Remember how easy it was to do a split in middle school? That’s why flexibility training is so important. When you work on improving your flexibility, it can improve your performance when you weight train and when you play sports. Being more flexible can also reduce your risk for injury and enhance your posture. Most of us can use a little help with our posture!
The standard method of improving flexibility is stretching to help lengthen muscles and improve range of motion, but there’s another approach to improving flexibility called self-myofascial release. This technique uses an inexpensive foam roller and doesn’t involve a trip to a physical therapist. The goal of using a foam roller is to apply enough pressure to release fascial adhesions that might interfere with how flexible your muscles are and how they function.
The Lowdown on Fascia
Self-myofascial release implies we’re releasing fascia – but what IS fascia anyway? Fascia is tough, fibrous connective tissue that covers every structure in your body, including your organs, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. Fascia consists of three layers from superficial to very deep where it encases the surface of your muscles and bones. Surrounding every muscle fiber is a type of fascia called endomysium. At a higher level, bundles of muscle fibers called fascicles are encased by a fascia called perimysium. In addition, surrounding the entire muscle is a fascial tissue called epimysium, a tissue that organizes muscle and separates it from surrounding tissues like the skin.
Tendons and ligaments are examples of fascia, but fascia even extends between muscle fibers and down to the bone. As you know, tendons connect muscles to bones. Every time you contract a muscle you pull on the tendon, which is made up of fascia. It’s not hard to imagine that if you stress a muscle by repeatedly overworking it that you also traumatize the fascia or tendon. Poor posture and sitting too much also places stress on muscles and the surrounding fascia.
The theory is that with repeated trauma, fascia develops small tears. Just as muscles repair themselves after trauma or stress, fascial repair takes place too, but during this process, areas of excess tissue is laid down called adhesions. These adhesions can interfere with the way fascia, and in turn, muscles move. This leads to decreased range-of-motion and sometimes pain. The fascia can also become dry, which further interferes with normal movement patterns since the muscle can’t move as freely over the bone due to the adhesions.
The goal of foam rolling is to release tight fascia and release the adhesions that restrict your range-of-motion. Physical therapists release tight fascial using their hands and elbows, but foam rolling is a “do it yourself” approach to releasing tight fascia and improving flexibility and range-of-motion. The question is how well does it work?
Despite the popularity of self-myofascial release techniques like foam rolling, few studies have looked at whether it actually works – but the ones that have suggest foam rolling has benefits. One small, peer-reviewed study published and demonstrated that foam rolling, indeed, has benefits. In this study 11 men were divided into two groups, a group who did foam rolling and a control group who didn’t. Researchers measured parameters like range-of-motion at the knee and maximum force of voluntary contraction before and after foam rolling of the quadriceps.
The gist of the study was foam rolling increased range-of-motion at the knee without impacting maximum force of voluntary contraction, indicating it didn’t impact muscle strength. That’s important since some research shows static stretching temporarily reduces muscle strength and power. Yet another study found four weeks of foam rolling improved hamstring flexibility and range-of-motion in participants as documented by the stand-and-reach test.
Physical therapists argue that foam rolling isn’t true myofascial release since adhesions form between the layers of fascia and you can only disrupt them by forcing the fascial layers to move against one another. They claim foam rolling isn’t a sufficient stimulus to cause the fascial layers to move relative to one another. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have benefits. What foam rolling can do is send a message to your brain to relax the tight area.
Choosing a Foam Roller
If you’re ready to try self-myofascial release, you’ll need a foam roller. Choose a foam roller that’s firm enough to adequately massage the fascia without exerting so much force that it’s uncomfortable. If you’ve never used a foam roller before, select one that offers a little more give until your body adapts to the applied pressure. Foam rollers are usually color coded based on their degree of firmness. White ones have the most give and black foam rollers are the firmest. In between are blue and green ones. The black ones will be the most durable and the white ones will generally have to be replaced fairly quickly.
Foam rollers also come in various lengths, the most common being 12 inches, 18 inches, or 36 inches. If you plan on doing upper back work, a 36-inch roller will work best although it takes up more space. If you plan on carrying it with you when you travel, a 12 or 18-inch foam roller is easier to deal with.
Using a foam roller is relatively straightforward although it takes practice to get the hang of it. The goal is to roll your body over the foam roller until you find a tender area or trigger spot. Once you feel an area of pain or soreness, hold the pressure on the area for 30 to 60 seconds.
The Bottom Line
There is evidence to suggest that self-myofascial release, using a foam roller, increases range-of-motion without compromising the strength of the muscle. As little as 5 minutes of foam rolling prior to a workout can enhance your flexibility and give you greater range-of-motion before a resistance-training workout. This can lead to better performance when you get down to the hard work of doing squats, lunges, deadlifts, dips, and other exercises that help you get stronger and more defined.
The take-home message? A foam roller is a small investment that can pay off with better performance and you can do it at home on your own schedule using your own body weight as pressure, and it sure beats taking time out to see a physical therapist. One way to increase the pressure you place on the muscle you’re rolling without changing to a denser foam roller is to cross one leg over the other when rolling your hamstrings and calves. Make foam rolling a part of your warm-up – foam rolling followed by an active warm-up.
J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):812-21. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2bc1.
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: Post Acceptance: May 16, 2015. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001007.
Breaking Muscle. “Does Foam Rolling Really Work?”
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