Foam Rolling, Part 1


by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

The foam roller is a tool that can help transform your recovery from exercise. Each gym has at least one and you should definitely be using it. In this article we'll cover what it is, what it's used for, when you should use it, and why. Tomorrow, we will dive into how to use it properly and what muscle groups should receive the most attention when you are foam rolling.

But first, what is a foam roller and what is it used for? While you can use a foam roller for exercise as well, the primary function of a foam roller is for for self-massage and recovery. With a foam roller, the main idea is to help soothe areas of tightness and soreness and to help release certain trigger points within your muscles. It also helps break up your muscular connective tissue, otherwise known as fascia, which allows for you to increase your flexibility and range of motion. The process of foam rolling is normally referred to as myofascial release. 

Be aware though, not all foam rollers are created equal! The most visible difference among foam rollers is their size. Some foam rollers differ in lengths as well as diameter.  A standard foam roller is usually going to be 3 feet in length and about 5-6” in diameter. A shorter foam roller is going to be better equipped for rolling out smaller areas of the body such as your calves. Along the same lines, a roller that is smaller in diameter is going to be more stable because you will be closer to the ground when you are rolling. Some rollers are also textured as opposed to their normal smooth, round shape. Often times this will include ridges or “spikes” that protrude from the foam roller and allow for a little bit deeper of a massage. Arguably the biggest and most important difference between foam rollers is density. The denser the foam roller, the more pressure will be exerted and therefore the more intense the myofacial release. Oppositely, the less dense foam roller will be more gentle. When determining what density is right for you, think about whether or not you have foam rolled before and how sore/tender your muscles are. The reason you need to make these considerations is because foam rolling can be painful when you find those trigger points and the density will make a significant difference as to how uncomfortable the rolling may be.

One tricky and often debated point regarding foam rolling is when is should be used. Should you use it before or after your workout? Should you even be doing it on workout days or is it better to do on off days? Throughout the fitness community, there isn’t exactly an answer to any of these questions but it has been agreed on that foam rolling at different times will have some different benefits respectively. Foam rolling prior to your workout will help decrease muscle density and assist with your warm up aiding in more blood flow to the muscles. Foam rolling after a workout is helpful in the recovery of your muscles following the stress they received during your workout. Foam rolling can also be done in the comfort of your home because tight muscles and trigger points will show up far more often than just your time spent at the gym. It is also safe to use your foam roller daily, in fact it is often recommended to foam roll multiple times per day in cases of acute pain. 

While we know the foam roller is used for myofascial release, it is important to note the multitude of benefits associated with foam rolling that should give you even more reasons to utilize this tool. The use of a foam roller is associated with increased blood flow and circulation, restoring muscle-length balance across joints, breaking up scar tissue and contusions, overall relief from stiffness and soreness, and increased flexibility. In addition, it is also great for helping increase overall range of motion and helping treat issues such as IT band syndrome, Runner’s Knee, Shin Splints, low-back pain, and Infrapatellar tendinitis.

While the foam roller may look like a very simple piece of equipment, there is quite a lot to it. Albeit, maybe not quite as effective as a massage therapist, the foam roller is a great alternative having the same benefits and the added benefit of convenience-you can use it absolutely anywhere without any assistance. Check back tomorrow for a more in depth guide to using the foam roller so that you'll be able to incorporate foam rolling into your daily workout regimen and feel the benefits for yourself!