(This post is part of a series on fixing bad posture. To read all the previous posts in the series, click here.)
Way back in the dark ages when I started my practice, no one knew what a foam roller was. We didn’t cover it in my training. No one talked about it at all.
Now, it’s all the rage. All across the gym universe, everyone’s doing self myofascial release with these big logs of foam, and when those fall short of making lasting changes to tissue tone and mobility, they move on to PVC pipes, rollers studded with nubs, rolling pins, and all manner of torture devices…er, myofascial release tools.
The general consensus seems to be that if a little pressure is good, then really aggressive pressure is great. You have to break up all that scar tissue and those fascial adhesions, am I right?
Now, I’m not 100% against foam rolling myself. I use it, albeit in very specific ways and with precise intention. But, if I can be frank with you, I was always a bit dubious as to its benefits. If foam rolling is so great, why do I have numerous clients who diligently (and painfully) roll their IT bands like they’re trying to make lefsa out of them, yet they still wind up on my table with flexibility issues and pain?
It seems the foam rolling tides have turned. I’m seeing former devotees toss their rollers in the trash and swearing them off forever. While I don’t necessarily think you need to go that far, I will say that foam rolling isn’t exactly all it’s cracked up to be.
Understanding the physiological processes happening inside your body when you foam roll will help you to use it in a more targeted fashion, and with greater intention.
First of all, the premise behind foam rolling is off. When you’re rolling out your IT bands, your adductors, or cringing in agony over the pressure of that log on your super tight lats, you are not actually “breaking up” adhesions. You’re also not “breaking up” scar tissue.
To do so would not only be agonizing, it would also be impossible. Recent studies show that it takes a minimum of 1,000 pounds of force in order to deform fascia a paltry 1%1. This makes logical sense because if the thick connective tissue of your thighs or feet were so delicate as to “break apart” with pressure, you’d be tearing up your soft tissue every time you bumped into a table, sat in a chair, or stepped on a pebble.
So, if foam rolling doesn’t “break up” tissue, what’s really going on when you roll out those tight quads and feel the pain decrease? I mean, the pain is going away, so the muscle must be getting looser, right?
In order to understand how foam rolling affects your muscles and connective tissue, you have to remember that your muscles don’t just “get tight” on their own.
Have you ever seen a raw steak on a plate suddenly clench and tense up? No, you haven’t because that steak is dead, and therefore missing one critical component of muscle function: the nervous system.
Muscles don’t go all rogue on their own; they respond to cues from your nervous system telling them to tighten or loosen for the purpose of locomotion or support. Your soft tissue is scattered with tiny cells called proprioceptors that communicate information about position and movement. Your brain then signals muscles to contract or relax to either maintain upright posture or move your body.
One study2 showed that foam rolling does seem to temporarily increase the range of motion of a muscle and, unlike with stretching, the flexibility boost doesn’t come along with the risky side effect of decreased muscular strength. But, results are pretty much temporary — your muscles return to their normal, habitual tension shortly after a foam rolling session.
So, what exactly is going on here? There are two plausible explanations. On the one hand, you’re stimulating your nervous system with something called novel proprioception3, giving your body new sensory stimulation that “wakes up” your brain. The theory goes that this novel stimulus encourages the nervous system to relax the muscle by causing the brain to reorganize its sensory map of the area contacted by the foam roller.
This phenomenon is what makes foam rolling a good pre-workout warm up. You get a slight boost in flexibility with no danger of weakening the muscle.
The second reason you feel like you’re making progress with foam rolling is due to something called diffuse noxious inhibitory control, or DNIC for short. Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as its name makes it sound.
Essentially, DNIC “turns down the volume” on pain sensations coming from pressure against your muscles (like from a foam roller or lacrosse ball) when the brain decides that actually there’s no threat to your body3. In short, your brain decides that the foam roller isn’t such a big deal and quiets the uncomfortable signals coming from its pressure against your leg, which you in turn interpret as progress or muscle relaxation.
Your brain’s ability to produce its own painkillers is also a factor in foam rolling. The human brain has its own internal pharmacy, no prescription necessary, which can concoct endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and even its own super strong version of morphine4.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with tripping your brain’s pharmacy wire, I do believe it’s important to know that this is what’s causing your pain to decrease as opposed to any localized change in tissue tone. In short, you’re not releasing tight muscles, you’re just taking an internally produced aspirin to calm pain, and the effects are temporary.
This “drug cabinet in your brain” could potentially explain why people who foam roll often escalate to ever increasingly intense levels of pressure. While we don’t yet have any solid evidence of this, it seems likely that over time, the body requires more intense stimulus to produce the same quantity of painkilling chemicals.
You might conclude from all of this that I think you should toss your foam roller in the trash. Actually, I don’t really think you need to go that far. Foam rolling has its place and benefits. For example, rolling the muscles of your back can “wake them up” by providing novel stimulus for people who largely engage in forward-flexion based activities throughout their days.
And I love using a foam roller as a fulcrum to bend around. Placing it across my back, I can extend each vertebra, working up the chain of my spine and dissolving tension in the muscles surrounding each segment of my back.
But this is slow, intentional work that requires mental focus and awareness. It’s not mindlessly flailing about on a foam roller for a few seconds while chatting about your stressful day at work with a buddy.
In order to reap the benefits of novel stimulus, your nervous system has to be “online,” which means your brain has to actually feel things. Most people go through their days paying little to no attention to sensations in their bodies, unless they’re experiencing pain that they can no longer ignore.
But you can start to focus more on the softer sensations in your body, whether foam rolling or not. This is free and something that everyone can learn with a little time and practice. Your brain — and body — will thank you for it.
In conclusion, foam rolling can slightly increase range of motion temporarily, but it also causes your brain to numb out stimulus from an area. This explains why people who roll frequently turn to increasingly aggressive devices in order to reawaken that sensory input and “feel the pain” again.
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1. Chaudhry, Hans, et al. “Three-Dimensional Mathematical Model for Deformation of Human Fasciae in Manual Therapy.” The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. (2008). Web.
2. Madoni, SN, et al. “Effects of Foam Rolling on Range of Motion, Peak Torque, Muscle Activation, and the Hamstrings- to-Quadriceps Strength Ratios.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (2018). NCBI. Web.
3. https://www.bettermovement.org/blog/2013/ how-does-foam-rolling-work?rq=foam%20rolling
Tessa Clist says
I very much agree with your opinion of aggressive foam rolling and ITB especially. I’d love to know your thoughts on gentler methods such as MELT method that utilise very soft squishy rollers and balls. I’ve found it invaluable to use on clients prior to Pilates for increasing ROM and to help wake up otherwise lazy muscles (especially glutes)
Sukie Baxter says
Hey Tessa, great question. I do love the Melt rollers. While I haven’t worked with the creator Sue Hitzmann, Liz Koch uses them as tools in some of her courses, so I’ve used them there. Your application of the roller to “wake up” the nervous system with novel proprioceptive input is perfect, and Pilates is such a great neuromuscular reeducation technique. I think the combo is excellent.