Phil Heath, Rob Riches, Robin van Persie, Lebron James – what do these athletes have in common? All of them have incorporated foam rolling into their workout and recovery regimens, and for good reason.
Foam rolling works – elite athletes in every sport are starting to foam roll in order to preserve their prized bodies and keep them in optimum condition for a long time. With 5-day training splits, 82-game seasons, and 90-minute matches, the last thing these athletes need is a mid-season injury or muscle soreness from a workout during an important game.
Ask any reasonably active person you know, and chances are that he/she is already using a foam roller, or is contemplating one. Here are 5 reasons why the foam roller is supercharging the progress of modern athletes.
1. Perform better during workouts
We all know that a good warm-up is key to maximizing your workouts and also to prevent injury. A good warm up:
- increases blood flow to your muscles to maximize their performance
- increases your range of motion to prevent injury
While your hamstring stretches may increase range of motion, many studies have shown that static stretching leads to a immediate, though temporary, decrease in strength and athletic performance – not something we want prior to working out!
Foam rolling, on the other hand, increases range of motion without a decrease in strength. It also increases blood flow to the muscle, supplying more oxygen and increasing muscle temperature. This makes your muscle contract and relax faster so the muscles work more efficiently.
A study by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning research tested the strength and flexibility of 11 men on the leg extension machine before and after foam rolling their quadriceps. It found that foam rolling improved knee flexion by as much as 20 degrees, but the men were able to lift at least as much as before.
By starting your workout with a quick foam rolling session, you’ll be able to lift more weight through a larger range of motion, putting more mechanical stress on your muscles so that you can lift more in the next. If you are into sprinting or jogging, you’ll be able to take larger strides while producing more force in each stride, helping you run faster.
In the long run, you’ll also avoid traumatic and overuse injuries that are common and major setbacks to athletes who have been training for a period of time. An increased range of motion helps your muscles cope with sudden changes in tension (such as during change of direction), as well as helps you place mechanical stress on the correct muscles through proper form. For example, a common injury from barbell squats is lower back pain. This is frequently caused by tight hamstrings and glutes which cannot activate properly. This forces you to compensate with your lower back muscles to straighten your body on the way up, placing way too much stress on your lumbar spine. Over time, this can lead to degenerative disc problems.
2. Recover faster and reduce soreness
From a sports medicine study published on PubMed:
The most important findings of the present study were that FR was beneficial in attenuating muscle soreness while improving vertical jump height, muscle activation, and passive and dynamic ROM in comparison with control.
In the study, 20 male participants did a workout of ten sets of 10 squats at 60% of their one-rep max. Afterward, half of them did 20 minutes of foam rolling on their legs, and the other half followed their usual post-workout routine.
By all measures, the foam-roller group fared better in the days after their hard workout. They not only had less soreness at all times, but their soreness peaked 24 hours after the workout, while muscle soreness peaked 48 hours after the workout in those who didn’t foam roll. The foam roller group also performed better in tests of vertical leap, range of motion, and muscle contraction done after their workout.
Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness (DoMS) is inflammation of your muscles due to microscopic tears accumulated during workouts. New muscle cells heal these microtears, making your muscle bigger and stronger. Foam rolling forces nutrient-depleted blood out of your muscles to allow nutrient-rich blood to enter it and boost recovery – like a pump. It also reestablishes blood flow to trigger points by releasing them. These improve access to muscle building blocks such as protein, boosting muscle growth and reducing DoMS. The effect is that you’ll be able to train harder and sooner following a hard workout, which translates to faster gains!
3. Sleep better and experience improved concentration
We all know feel warm and fuzzy from a back or shoulder rub. Studies have found that massages reduce stress hormone levels and encourages relaxation. Using foam rollers to self-massage right before bed can increase our levels of deep sleep, which improves sleep quality and helps us wake up feeling well rested.
Foam rolling early in the morning will also help kickstart your blood circulation and keep your limber and vibrant throughout the day. In addition, your brain also benefits from this. As your blood circulation improves, your brain receives more oxygen and you are able to concentrate during the day. This is similar to the benefits that morning joggers receive!
4. Say goodbye to chronic pain
Lower back pain when standing up or sitting down? Knee pain when walking down stairs? Sore shoulder when using the mouse? These are all chronic problems that are caused by poor postures and, by extension, muscular imbalances.
Muscular imbalances occur in 2 ways: imbalances in strength and imbalances in flexibility. These are usually caused by regularly staying in one position for a prolonged period of time and/or working one muscle more than the other in repetitive movements.
For example, you will spend up to 4 hours at once and up to 9 hours a day sitting at your office desk. This position puts your hamstrings and hip flexors in a contracted position while your glutes and quads are stretched. Over time, your hamstrings and hip flexors become tight and shortened. As a result, your hip is pulled to tilt backwards when standing or walking, which creates an arch in the lower back. When lifting objects or exerting an upward force, the force is shifted onto your lower back instead of your glutes and hamstrings, which creates all sorts of back problems. This creates even poorer posture and exacerbates the problem.
Foam rollers help with this by restoring flexibility to your shortened muscles. Coupled with a proper rehabilitation or strength training programs to even out the imbalances, your postural problems will be solved and you will be able to load your body correctly again. This allows the overused areas of your body to recover naturally and help you live pain-free!
5. Reported to reduce cellulite
Your skin is attached to your muscle via fibrous connective tissue – otherwise they will just slip and slide about! Between skin and muscle are fat cells, and when these fat cells accumulate fat and expand, they push up against the skin. However, because the connective tissue pulls down the skin wherever they connect, it results in an uneven texture or bumps that we call cellulite.
Dr Diana Howard of the International Dermal Institute (IDI) reports that another cause of cellulite is the due to a breakdown in the connective fibers, due to “loss of circulation to an area–whether caused by lack of exercise, too much sitting, clogged arteries or nutrient deficiency… That is why cellulite generally appears in areas that have poor circulation; unfortunately, once it forms it slows circulation in an area even more.”
Hence we see the only way to get rid of cellulite is to reduce the fat between the skin and muscle. In conjunction with a strength training programme, foam rolling is a good way to reduce cellulite appearance. Foam rolling restores blood and lymphatic circulation, reactivating lipolysis (fat-breakdown) to eliminate stubborn fat deposits. It also helps to break up interwoven fibres of fat that contribute to the ‘cottage cheese’ look, and promotes flushing of excess fluids and toxins from the area – both of these being symptoms associated with cellulite.
According to the Mayo Clinic, positive results are possible with vigorous massage, at least temporarily – not a problem if foam rolling is a daily routine!
The Science of Foam Rolling
Before we delve into foam rolling, let us understand muscle structure first.
Your muscles are composed of basic units of sacromeres that lengthen during extension and shorten during contraction. Hence you can become flexible if: 1) You have more sacromeres in your muscle, or, 2) allowing sarcomeres to lengthen more.
Static stretching, like the dreaded hamstring stretch, break down some connections between filaments to increase your flexibility via the latter mechanism. This also means a weaker muscle more prone to injury if overdone.
However, your muscle accumulates permanently tense areas known as “muscle knots” or “trigger points” through physical stress. These constantly contracted chains of sacromeres shorten your muscle and reduce your flexibility, making you more prone to injury. Blood flow bringing nutrients to these tense areas is also decreased, slowing down muscle recovery. Stretching does nothing to these detestable muscle knots, and stretching past your natural range of motion to get a ‘good stretch’ stretches the ligaments, which are not very stretchable. This can result in a microtear (what we call a pull or strain), or even in a complete ligament tear.
Foam rolling, aka Self-myofasical release, is a self-applied technique that releases your muscle knots and breaks down the adhesions and scar tissue accumulated during exercise. The pressure of the roller on a tense knot of muscle stimulates an excitation-fatigue response: The pain causes the knot to contract harder until the ion energy gradient in the area is depleted. The fatigued muscle is finally able to relax and add to the length of the muscle. Blood flow to the previously knotted area is increased, and the nutrients in the blood help to grow new sacromeres. This process takes only about 20 s to occur.
Foam rolling increases your flexibility and reduces your injury risk while increasing athletic performance. Hence they should be a staple for everyone. Stretching keeps the relaxed portions of the muscle from becoming stiff, while foam rolling releases permanently contracted muscle knots and stimulates new muscle growth.
That said, if you are short of time and only have time for stretching or foam rolling, opt for a foam roll as it improves your flexibility via 2 routes compared to the single mechanism from static stretching.
How to use a foam roller [Infographics]
Head-to-toe myofascial release
Develop abs at home with your foam roller
The “don’t”s of foam rolling
While foam rolling may bring a whole host of health benefits, you should not commit these cardinal sins:
- Foam rolling more than 3 minutes in one location
- Foam rolling over an injured area
- Foam rolling too quickly
- Using bad posture or form
- Foam rolling over bones or joints
Instead, you should follow these tips to extract the most from your foam roller.
Types of Foam Rollers
Open-cell EPE Foam Rollers
EPE foam is a type of low-density, open-cell foam – air leaves the foam when pressure is applied, instead of being trapped as in closed-cell EVA foam. With an open-cell structure like a sponge, these foam rollers deform quickly and provides too little firmness for nearly the entire population, unless you happen to have brittle bone disease. These are the worst kind of foam rollers and nobody should need them. We don’t even stock them in our shop as it violates our promise of quality.
If you really need one, just get some of those foam wrappers that prevent scratches on the metal parts of new IT equipment and bikes, scrounge them together, tape them up, and it wouldn’t be much difference from buying one.
Closed-cell EVA Foam Rollers
EVA foam is a type of closed-cell foam, lasting 3 times as long as alternatives. Unlike open-cell foam, air bubbles are trapped and encapsulated within EVA foam by a complete wall of material. When pressure is applied, the air bubbles exert a force back like a piston. This makes EVA foam compressible but able to spring back into its original shape when the pressure is removed. The non-porous surface of EVA makes it waterproof and easily wiped clean after use.
EVA foam firmness can be varied by changing the composition of the foam. MyoTrigger uses high-density EVA composed of a high percentage of polymer and very tiny air bubbles. When heat-molded into a cylinder, it creates a roller with a firm core and slightly softer exterior that massages without causing bruises, and does not flake or chip with use.
You can tell genuine EVA from its similarly shaped EPE counterpart by observing the surface: If it is a non-porous continuous surface, it is likely to be EVA foam. If the surface has pits and pores, put that EPE roller back on the shelf!
EVA Grid Tech Rollers
Our innovative tech rollers combine the qualities of EVA foam with specifically engineered ergonomics to bring foam rolling to the next level. They specifically target different muscles to eliminate the most persistent muscle knots that simple foam rollers cannot.
Our grid rollers are made by heat molding channels that criss-cross at specific points to produce zones of different sizes. These distrodensity zones each provide a different intensity to create a versatile foam roller capable of targeting a wide range of muscles. Moderate, flat regions; Kneading tubules; Intense studs. By surveying our users, we have reconstituted the foam to a firmness that works best for you.
MyoTrigger’s Centenarian also incorporates a solid core that gives it additional firmness and makes it indestructible – we’re putting a 100-Year Warranty on that!
EVA Spiked Tech Rollers
Spiked rollers bite deep into your muscle tissue, breaking up the most stubborn knots. They can be quite painful on tight or unconditioned muscle tissue, and should be used on larger muscle groups by athletes with substantial foam rolling experience.
Apart from obtrusive spikes, the Fascianator II has a host of features designed to eliminate the most stubborn knots in the most elusive places: a central ridge that penetrates the mid-back and spinal muscles without placing undue pressure on spinal bone and soft tissue; Dense, regular spike placement to hit more points in the muscle. Super-firm EVA foam that is flexes just enough to provide the lateral shear forces crucial to trigger point release.
A must-have for athletes who strive to optimize their performance and minimize their risk of injury – every last bit counts.