Benefits of Foam Rolling
If you experience chronic muscle tension, low back pain or sciatica, it’s important to manage it with a variety of holistic approaches and lifestyle changes. One increasingly popular way to help ease these painful or uncomfortable conditions is to use a foam roller on sore and tight muscles.
Foam rolling is both a form of self-massage and a recommended warm-up technique for physical activity. It can be used before or after exercise or whenever you notice tightness that could use a light massage. Read on to learn more about what foam rolling is, how it helps and who can benefit from this safe and gentle at-home therapy.
What Is Foam Rolling?
Foam rollers are long, cylindrical tubes made of dense, light foam or plastic materials. They come in many shapes, sizes and textures, all made for different applications. When foam rolling, you gently move your body weight over the roller, targeting specific muscle groups—particularly the thighs, calves, glutes and lower back.
Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release—a technique used to target and soften or “release” tight connective tissue that surrounds muscles. These tight spots are known as trigger points. When connective tissue is too tight, it restricts mobility and blood flow and can cause muscles to become stiff and sore. By regularly foam rolling, you can gradually free up these trigger points, possibly reducing muscle and joint pain or tension.
It’s important to note that foam rolling can be painful, especially in the beginning. It’s similar to a deep tissue massage—it’s not always relaxing. But with consistency, muscles and tissues loosen, and foam rolling can start to feel good afterward.
Benefits of Foam Rolling
Many people report a variety of benefits from foam rolling and self-myofascial release. Generally, the biggest differences that foam rolling can make have to do with restoring movement and flexibility in muscles that were once very stiff. By targeting certain muscle groups, foam rolling may also help alleviate localized pain or increase pain tolerance. Foam rolling may also help you relax, offering benefits for emotional and mental well-being too.
Over the years, a handful of studies have looked at the benefits of foam rolling for improving athleticism and promoting injury recovery and rehabilitation. In November 2019, a review of foam-rolling study results was published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Researchers from the University of Cape Town, South Africa found that of the dozens of studies they looked at, the results showed that foam rolling may:
- Reduce muscle stiffness and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
- Increase range of motion and flexibility
- Raise pain pressure threshold (the measurement of the minimum force applied that induces pain)
- Promote faster injury recovery and rehabilitation
According to the researchers, foam rolling is most effective when used in combination with dynamic stretching and active warmups before working out. Here is a more in-depth look at the different benefits of foam rolling:
Alleviate Pain and Tension
A foam rolling practice may help to reduce localized pain by alleviating tension. For instance, sciatica pain may be partially caused by tight tissues and muscles in the quads and glutes. A gentle foam roll can help to loosen up tissues in these areas to prevent compression on the sciatic nerve. Always consult your doctor before treating sciatica pain at home, as it can be a symptom of a more severe underlying spinal condition.
Foam rolling can also help prevent and ease soreness associated with physical exercise. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found that foam rolling helped a group of eight active men reduce delayed onset muscle soreness—a common symptom experienced in the 24 to 48 hours following heavy exercise.
Increase Range of Motion
As connective tissues loosen up under the gentle pressure of foam rolling, muscles and joints become less constrained and can begin to move more freely. Many people report that they notice how much more easily they can bend at their knees and hips after foam rolling for some time.
A recent study from July 2019 published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that foam rolling and roller massaging the quadriceps for two minutes improved range of motion in the hip flexors. Foam rolling may be beneficial before exercise as it can help improve flexibility and performance during workouts.
When connective tissue becomes too tight, it can start to restrict blood flow, limiting the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the area. Some people may even notice a loss of feeling in certain tight spots, particularly around the glutes and quad muscles. The iliotibial (IT) band that runs along the outer leg from the hip to the knee is a thick band of connective tissue. Many people have particularly tight IT bands, and sometimes it can cause numbness in the area due to restricted blood flow.
Foam rolling can release tense connective tissues like the IT band and allow more space for blood vessels to expand. A 2013 study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation examined whether myofascial release techniques increased blood flow around certain trigger points. It was a small study of only two participants, but the researchers did find that one of the participants had a sustained increase in blood flow in the treatment area during and after trigger point release.
Additionally, because improved circulation is also vital for mental clarity, regular foam rolling may have a positive effect on cognitive function too.
Injury prevention is important for anyone at any age. But it’s especially important for people who are physically active and aging adults who want to maintain mobility. Therapeutic techniques like foam rolling can be good preventive solutions for joint injuries and muscle strains. By foam rolling, you can alleviate pressure on the joints and muscles, thereby promoting their ability to perform and function better.
Foam rolling the lower back, for example, may also help to prevent spinal compression by relieving tension on the lumbar spine. The more mobility you have in your low back, the more you can reduce your risk of spinal injuries, such as herniated discs.
Self-massage with foam rollers may also be a way to help reduce stress. Taking the time to gently soften and release tight and sore muscles can help put you in a state of relaxation. A 2011 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that myofascial-release techniques helped improve sleep quality, reduce anxiety and increase overall quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia.
Additionally, foam rolling may be a good post-workout therapy for reducing stress. When done after physical activity, foam rolling may help bring down cortisol levels by providing a gentle and relaxing self-massage.
Tips for Proper Foam Rolling Technique
Generally, foam rolling is a safe and low-risk form of at-home therapy. However, it’s important to perform it correctly to minimize the risk of damaging your sensitive tissues. Here are some tips on how to use a foam roller properly:
When should I foam roll? Foam rolling is typically done in conjunction with exercise, although it can be done as a stand-alone practice. You can foam roll before or after a workout or between exercises during your workout. If you feel stiff in the mornings, you might want to lightly and gently foam roll after you wake up.
Which areas should I foam roll? Many therapists agree that you should concentrate on foam rolling one muscle group at a time. Common areas to target include the quads, hamstrings and glutes, as well as the low back, upper back and shoulders. You can use smaller rolling devices to target the calves, feet, forearms and neck.
How long should I foam roll for? Most evidence suggests that the longer your foam rolling intervals are, the better. You should slowly foam roll one muscle at a time, back and forth, for up to two minutes. You can repeat rolling the area multiple times by taking a break in between intervals. If at any point you’re feeling significant pain, you should stop and not try to push through it. Foam rolling too vigorously can do more harm than good.
What types of rollers should I use? There are several types of foam rollers and massage rollers available that have different functions and applications. Here are some of the types of foam rollers and massage rollers to try:
- Smooth rollers: Good for people who are new to foam rolling, smooth foam rollers are considered the least painful type of roller. They’re made of dense foam, and some of them can be quite soft, providing a more relaxing self-massage.
- Textured rollers: For more advanced foam-rolling participants, textured, deep-tissue rollers have treads, ridges or balls. This type of foam roller is good for working out knots and other tight spots. Be sure to proceed with these foam rollers gently and slowly.
- Massage rollers: Massage rollers are long, thin rollers made from foam, plastic or wood. These types of rollers are designed to give you more control over your massages and work on delicate areas like the calves. Foot rollers can also help relax the delicate tissues in the soles of your feet.
- Massage balls: Massage balls are small, sphere-shaped rollers you can use more precisely than a conventional foam roller. Massage balls can target localized pain in the hip joints, the outer glute muscles or between the shoulder blades.
Foam Rolling and Back Pain Relief
Foam rolling may have many diverse benefits for promoting better physical health and helping with rehabilitation and recovery. If you suffer from tight and sore low back muscles or back pain in general, a regular foam rolling practice may help. With the guidance of a medical professional and licensed physical therapist or chiropractor, you might benefit from foam rolling in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches like hot/cold therapy and ergonomic supports.
If you are suffering from back pain, explore some of the ergonomic and therapeutic wellness solutions available from Relax The Back. Shop online or visit one of our locations near you to learn more about back-pain-relief solutions that are right for you.