Q1. What Is foam rolling?
Foam rollers can restore range of motion and relieve stiffness, swelling, reduce inflammation and pain and improve circulation across muscles and tendons. It is a form of massage known as myofascial release.
Foam rollers are made of densely packed foam, usually expanded rubber or EVA.
Your muscles are covered, connected and separated with a tissue known as fascia and just like you restore woodwork and paintwork in your home, you can help restore the tissue quality of your fascia with regular applied rolling.
Q2. How does a foam roller work?
Evidence suggests that foam rolling warms up the muscles, it is also thought that you can work out knots (adhesions) with a roller. If anybody is in doubt, if you have ever had a massage and yowled in pain at a trigger spot, it is probably a large adhesion on your fascia.
The fascia is a hard membrane that covers your muscles. It is not very pliable and rolling this is thought to warm the area up, so any bumps can be flattened out and it can be restored to its natural shape.
Foam rolling is still in it's early days so there are no long term research studies on it's benefits. But many people say their bodies recover faster when they roll after a workout or run, or on off-training days.
According to the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy a study into foam rolling suggested that it improved muscle flexibility and range of motion in its group of participants. Most people agree they feel less stiff and can recover quicker between training session if they use a roller.
Q3. Can a foam roller cause bruising?
If you use a textured roller with protruding edges it can cause bruising. If you roll too hard or too long you can cause bruising, and also if you smash any of your muscles into bone, like on the side of your thigh (It Band region). The idea behind rolling is not to induce pain or press too hard.
If you experience bruising the next day you may want to try a thinner roller , or go lighter. Bruising is also the sign that you have an injury, perhaps you damaged something while training and swelling started to induce. If you rolled too hard you may cause the blood to clot and form bruises.
Q4. Is using a foam roller safe?
Generally, foam rolling is a safe exercise. It is best to think of it in terms of a recovery, rehab, and warm up exercise as opposed to an all out routine designed to get you in shape. It can of course work to increase flexibility, improve circulation, reduce sciatica and even ceullulite.
Mobility can be improved and muscle soreness reduced when used in conjunction with stretching, a good fitness regime and diet.
Q5. Can a foam roller help lower back pain?
This is a contentious issue. Many people are advised by fitness coaches, personal trainers and exercise therapists to use a foam roller on the lower back. But the lower back does not have the protective shell that your upper back has in the form of your rib cage.
Using a deep tissue roller can be particular damaging to tender body parts like the neck, shoulder, knee, groin and back. Don't go in all guns blazing on exposed bone.
This area also has a lot of exposed bone and discs so you can essential be just working on bone. Using a roller here can also excessive arch your back. You can read our discussion on using a foam roller on the lower back here.
Q6. Can a foam roller help with sciatica?
Yes, though a tennis ball or some other soft ball, and even a lacross ball can be used to greater effect. The piriformis runs across the sciatic nerve at the top of your thigh, and can be responsible for the pain that runs from your buttock and can go all the way down to the bottom of the leg. Piriformis syndrome puts extra pressure on the sciatic nerve. It can be caused by excessive exercise, sudden high impact twist at the hips, a bad fall, excessive sitting, a high impact collision or sports impact, climbing stairs or a wound to the leg/buttocks.
Applying pressure from the buttocks right down the leg (on the direct plane the pain is felt) here with a soft ball or less dense foam roller (softer foam) can help relieve the tension. You can just sit on the roller and work the pressure out, and if its not too much you can gently roll.
Q7. Can foam rolling make an injury worse?
If undue care is taken a foam roller can make an injury worth. It is not safe to use on strains or broken bones or damaged tendons. A foam roller is not a miracle therapy and shouldn't be used on aeras where you have extreme pain.
If you also use the roller in an abrupt fashion, or apply too much pressure you can cause an injury and make existing injuries worse. This is key on the lower back, groin and neck, but using a foam roller in a haphazard manner could in theory hurt any part of the body.
If you have severe pain, damaged limbs and ligaments, or swelling, treat this with the appropriate methods before using a roller as part of your exercise or mobility therapy. You may need to recuperate to a pain free status before using a roller.
Q8. Can a foam roller cause back pain?
If used incorrectly and when used on the lower back where the discs are exposed it can be painful, and more to the point damage your lower back. See the using foam roller on the lower back page.
Q8. Can foam rolling help relieve knee pain?
You can't use a roller directly on the knee as it is bone. Knee pain can be decreased by rubbing areas close to the knee.
If you use your roller on your quads you can relieve tension from the patella joint (small bone covering kneecap) which can be the cause of knee pain and patellar fractures. Using a roller regularly on your quads, hams and glutes and calves can keep your muscles nimble and roll out the tension which can contribute to knee swelling and inflammation.
Q9. Can a foam roller help with shoulder pain?
Certainly if done correctly, or rather if you can target the specific muscles. I use a foam roller on my shoulder all the time, and combined with resistance band stretches and regular stretches it works wonders.
If you sit a lot your shoulders can hunch forwards, and this restricts shoulder mobility and places extra strain on the joint and muscles. If you also bench press quite heavily or frequently, and notice your shoulders do a lot of the work, foam rolling can break down the tension in these overworked muscles and relieve some of the strain and scar tissue.
See some exercises here.
Q10. Can foam rolling cause injuries?
Foam rolling is quite a safe therapy. If you apply it to vigorously on areas where you have extreme muscle soreness, or on tender areas like the neck and lower back, you can cause an injury. But done in a slow methodical fashion on undamaged areas the risk of injury are quite small.
Q11. Can a foam roller help with cellulite?
In essence can a foam roller break up or reduce cellulite? As a roller deals with inflammation this can help flush out toxins where you use it. This can help reduce the physical signs of cellulite when you roll the offending areas.
- So how is this possible?
Your muscles are covered with a connective tissue known as fascia (mainly made from collagen), which is just below your skin beneath the skin. When this becomes loose or weak, fat appears on the skin surface, ie cellulite.
Rolling these lumpy areas can stiffen the fascia and restore it to its former glory. Rolling here improves blood flow to the area and just the same as exercise improves blood circulation, fresh oxygenated blood helps iron own toxins and inflammation and can help tone and firm the skin, especially when the muscles appear new the skins surface.
Your body is covered head to toe with a fascia. Working on it with the roller can be very beneficial when it comes to
- getting rid of cellulite
- reducing stretch marks
- improving athletic performance
- reducing pain due to intense workouts, scar tissue, poor posture
- reducing scar tissue - scar tissue is often left behind after injuries, repetitive strains or inflammation
- improved circulation- beneficial for feeling healthier, fighting disease, metal cognition, immune system, flushing out toxins, and simple benefits like not feeling the cold weather as much
Q12. Can foam rolling cause headaches?
Some people believe foam rollers can actualy relieve headaches, and believe rolling the neck can help. Personally I have never experienced a headache after using rolling.
As foam rolling can increase circulation and improve bloodflow there is a possibility this could help clear headaches. This is difficult to prove due to the lack of research as it is early days in the life cycle of foam rolling.
Just like with a regular massage though there is a chance that you may experience a headache after foam rolling. It is not particularly common and may be attritubed to blood vessels constricting and relaxing after using your roller.
Rehydrating should help clear any headaches.
Q13. Can rolling help with bursitis?
Rolling the hips, combined with stretching and flexibility certainly helps with bursitis. Bursitis effects the joints (hips, knees, shoulders & elbows commonly) and is a type of inflammation or arthritis.
Before stretching you can loosen the muscles using a roller. Stretching tight muscles should always be avoided. It's easier to pull something when you are tight, especially when stretching.
Whether you ar doing regular or PNF stretches, loosen up the areas with cardio and foam rolling to get circulation flowing trough the muscles and to release tension in them and restore elasticity.
Q14. Which foam roller works best for the IT band?
The IT (Iliotibial) is a massive tendon that begins on top of the pelvis and attaches to the glutes. It runs all the way down the outside of the thigh to the shin bone. It helps with the forward, side and rear lifting of your leg, engaging the hips.
This area can already be in an overstretched state and foam rolling can make it more severe. If you are going to roll this area or suspect or have been told you have IT Band Syndrome read this first.
IT Band syndrome is comon with endurance athletes and runners. With it you experience long term recurring pain at the side of the knee.
If you are going to roll here you should use a flat roller on this area as a deep tissue roller with hard textured edges is really gonna dig into the tendon and into bone.
Rolling on this area is problematic as you will be effectively smashing muscle into bone. It can overstretch the IT band region, and you don't want to do this as this are is naturally overstretched. It is much safer to roll the front of the quads and the hamstrings.
Q15. When should you use a foam roller?
Foam rolling can be done the day after you workout to relieve stiffness and soreness in the muscles. Ever get sore knees after working the quads? Try foam rolling the days after you train. The IT Band region mentioned in the previous question can tighten up after trianing sessions and pull harder on the knees. Loosen this region up with your roller by rolling your hamstrings and front quads to alleviate the tension.
Rolling the hamstrings combined with stretching can alleviate lower back pain, as the hamstrings tighten up like a vice if you have injured or put a lot of stress on the back after hard training sessions.
You can also foam roll after an exercise session to speed up the muscles recovery. I tend to not roll immediately after a workout and leave it to the next day, once the muscle fibers have started to actively prepare the damage they sustained. If I am immediately very sore after my workout is over I will use my rollers.
Foam rolling before an exercise can aid in the warm up process and loosen them up so they don't become overstretched. You want the muscles to be as flexible as possible so when you activate them they aren't forced into a restrictive plane of motion.
Any time you force a muscle or joint out of a comfortable postion with a load on a bar or dumbell you are asking for trouble. Foam rolling the quads and hams is excellent for preparing them for a brutal squat workout. But it is more beneficial to focus on the biggest movement primer in this exercise- the glutes.
Roll the glutes and the calves for added range of motion during squats.