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The Beginner’s Guide to Foam Rolling

Parasiliti, Peter D. M.S.; DeSimone, Grace T. B.A., ACSM-CPT, ACSM-GEI

Author Information
ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 7/8 2019 - Volume 23 - Issue 4 - p 6-7
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000496
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WHAT IS FOAM ROLLING?

Foam rolling originated from a technique known as myofascial release (MR), a manual therapy technique that requires a practitioner to compress the “soft tissue” (muscles, tendons, and fascia, with fascia being the intracellular matrix of collagen fibers that connects to all cells in the body) of a patient or client to manage the pain associated with adhesions (commonly referred to as a knot).

In the last 15 years, MR has led to self-myofascial release (SMR), which uses a hard foam rolling cylinder that allows an individual to self-facilitate soft tissue compression using the person’s own bodyweight. SMR can be performed using a variety of other tools, including small balls and handheld rollers. Some might describe SMR as a massage you can give to yourself or simply “self-massage.”

WHY FOAM ROLL?

Foam rolling alleviates tension by compressing muscle tissue, which signals to muscle cell organelles (specialized structures inside of the muscle cells that sense and control tension) to increase the range of motion at the joint (flexibility improvement) and decrease pain pressure tolerance (hurts less).

Problematic movement patterns, poor posture, and repetitive movement, including exercise, can cause microtrauma to the muscle and fascia. As these tissues repair, adhesions (knots) are sometimes formed because of the haphazard nature of the repair process. Ideally, muscle fibers and fascia slide across each other when you move, but if you have adhesions, they can no longer slide as easily. Foam rolling compresses the tissues, which allows it to slide better. Studies show that compression on specific trigger point knots can:

  • help improve muscle imbalances
  • improve muscle relaxation
  • improve range of motion and mobility
  • reduce soreness by increasing blood flow to muscles
  • reduce pain

ANY RISKS? WHAT TO AVOID

Avoid rolling bones specifically with any rolling tool. Foam rolling is meant to be used on soft tissue only. Be mindful of your ribs and spine, in particular, as these areas are at a much greater risk of fracturing with direct force. Remember, the smaller the object, the more pressure it will put on your body, so learning to modify your body positions to get the full benefits of foam rolling is important. It is recommended to the beginner to seek out an ACSM certified personal trainer to learn proper body techniques to maximize the impact of foam rolling while reducing the risk.

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CHOOSING YOUR FIRST FOAM ROLLER

Foam rollers vary in density, length, surface material, and diameter. Start with a 36-inch roller that is 6 inches in diameter. Rollers come in a variety of surface textures with bumps and notches on them. A plain surface is recommended for your first roller. Density refers to the hardness of the roller and how much resilience (or give) it provides. A roller that is too hard can cause bruising, and a roller that is too soft will not produce enough release for the muscles.

FOAM ROLLING TECHNIQUES

In general, you want to find the tender areas of a muscle and focus on compressing it with the foam roller. There are a variety of ways to do this, however, and scientific literature has not demonstrated that there is a one and only “best” way. So feel free to experiment with the following options:

Needling: This technique has you roll over the entire muscle in one pass first and then focus on little tiny rolls back and forth throughout the entire muscle. Think of this like ironing, painting, or mowing. Make long broad sweeps, then hone in with shorter strokes to complete an area.

Search and destroy: This technique also begins by rolling over the entire muscle in one pass first to search for the most tender area. Once located, keep the roller on that area until the discomfort diminishes.

Pin and stretch: This technique begins like the previous two; however, once you find the location that is tender, you flex or extend the joint that corresponds with the muscle that you are treating. This allows the muscle to contract and relax and passes the adhesion through the compression. An example of this is rolling the quadriceps muscle (upper thigh). Position your thigh over the roller so you are lying over the roller face down and supporting your upper torso with your forearms. Roll up and down on your thigh searching for a sensitive area. Once found, hold the roller on that location. Now flex (bend) and extend (straighten) your knee, which “pins” the tender spot while stretching your tissue through the compression point.

During this process, it is normal to feel some pain and sensitivity when foam rolling, but ideally the pain should be a 7 or 8 out of 10 in discomfort. Over time, the pain sensitivity will diminish if you practice consistently.

HOW OFTEN?

Foam rolling can be performed several times per week as needed or even several times per day once you develop the tissue tolerance. Regardless of which technique you use, focus on rolling at least 30 to 90 seconds on the area that you are treating. However, be mindful that if you roll too long, you can cause some trauma to muscle, resulting in soreness the next day, so do not overdo it.

Copyright © 2019 by American College of Sports Medicine.