Should You Foam Roll?

There’s a lot of controversy around the topic of self-massage (sometimes called Self Myofascial Release): is it effective long term? Does it cause instability? Can you even effectively do it yourself?! But at the same time, it feels so (bad)good and often produces very quick results.

An industry that used to be confined to the realms of professional Physical Therapists and Sports Masseuses is becoming more widespread and performed by regular gym-goers on themselves.

To add fuel to the fire, so many companies who make rollers, balls, sticks, massage guns, etc. are sponsoring influencers and athletes to promote how effective and helpful they are to their personal recovery. When a dude with a 6 pack or a ripped girl in booty shorts are blasting themselves with a Massage Gun it seems like that’s what you’ve been missing to become as incredibly gorgeous, successful and jacked as them! #marketing… This makes it hard to know if it’s genuinely beneficial or just a gimmick that feels good.
Foam Rolling has been shown to stimulate blood flow to muscles/connective tissue, produce short term increases in flexibility and possibly reduce the effects of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), but it DOES NOT heal injuries, change the way you move, increase joint stability or improve your technique.

For these reasons, rolling/myofascial release was always used as an “add on” to a full training & recovery practice, which includes stretching, stability work, muscle activation, technique assessment, etc. But unfortunately, in recent times it’s becoming more and more common to see people skip all the “hard stuff” and aggressively use Foam Rolling as their only pain-reducing/mobility enhancing tool. This can cause a spiral of reliance without ever addressing root causes.

So, should you use a Foam Roller? 


Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

1.       Do you have a “problem area” that you want to fix?
2.       Do you want to increase your range of motion?
3.       Who recommended Foam Rolling to you? A professional, a friend or a social media post?
4.       Do you think myofascial release/foam rolling is essential for recovery? 
5.       Can you complete this list of ‘Basic Movements’?

(For this blog, I'll use "rolling" or "foam rolling" as a term to include all self massage, using foam rollers, balls, guns, etc!)

Let’s look at why these are important things to think about:


1. Do you have a “problem area” that you want to fix?

If you have pain or tightness in a specific area, then rolling or massaging it can provide some immediate relief. If this pain is new, fairly mild, spontaneous (but not an injury) or is soreness from a previous day’s training, then go ahead and use a roller on it! By stimulating the area, you might find your pain is reduced and it doesn’t come back – wooo!

But, if your pain has been with you for a while, regularly appears when you do a certain exercise/movement, or comes back the day after rolling, then you might want to reconsider.

It’s easy to label yourself with “tight Traps” or say, “my Glute Med is giving me problems again” or “my Hamstrings are always crazy tight” and use these labels as justification to start beating up that particular area of your body. Yet despite the immediate release and relief it brings… there seems to be no long-term improvement. You might start believing that these are just aspects of your body that you simply can’t change.

However, all these things (and any other issues you have) are completely changeable! And it’s a lot simpler than smart people like to make out.

Straight away you can shift your mindset and ask: why is it tight/painful in the first place?

Often where you feel tightness or pain isn’t the place you have the issue. Muscles can feel tight for two main reasons: they’re overworked, or they’re underworked (weak). Let’s use tight traps (Trapezius) as an example.

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Traps are a commonly overworked muscle, things like forward head posture, rounded shoulders, limited scapula movement etc. all add up to the traps having to be “on” all the time. Your traps are literally screaming from having to hold your shoulders & head on because you’re not strong in the right ways!

Once you understand the problem, you can see why releasing tension using a roller won’t fix the tightness, your body won’t actually learn… and in some ways it can be dangerous, your traps have taken over this task for a reason: they’re protecting you! By encouraging your traps to relax when you lack shoulder stability creates the ingredients to cause your own injury. You may get away with it for months, even years, but eventually something will give.

So, instead of reaching for the roller you can try 5 minutes of daily movement:

Move Your Neck in All Directions
Up, down, left, right, diagonal, round and round! You might discover some positions are uncomfortable or especially tight, so go slowly and gently, but don’t avoid a movement you’re body is designed to do.

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Make Circles with Your Shoulders
As a ball and socket joint, your shoulders are built for rotating! Standing up, on all fours or even while hanging off something, make big circles with your shoulders (not just your arms). Hit a full 360 degrees! You might find this clunky... even crunchy at first, but it’s the first step to happy shoulders.

Practice Engaging Your Lats and “Setting” Your Shoulders
Lats are like the opposite of traps: Traps help elevate your shoulder up, Lats depress them! In a good way! Imagine you’re trying to put your shoulders in your pockets, pulling them down your back as much as possible while extending your neck long – can you feel your lats engage? If not, this is one of those lazy muscles your traps are compensating for.
These 3 things: encouraging full range of motion back into your neck & shoulders, teaching scapula control and re-engaging muscles that may have gotten lazy, are all equally important to long term, lasting progress… and none of which can be developed through rolling alone.

What area are you struggling with? Can you think of some reasons why it might be constantly getting tight?


 2. Do you want to increase your range of motion?

I was going to include some links to studies here to help talk about Foam Rolling and it’s ability to increase ROM, but the wildly varying results made it a bit meaningless. Some claim outright “no significant improvement” compared to others who state, “immediate changes”… which just goes to show you how much “it depends”.

It depends on the person, the target muscle, how long the increased ROM lasts and how much change in ROM counts as “improvement”. This study cite a 1.2 degree difference as “improvement”, which, let’s be honest I doubt any of us would notice. 

From what I’ve seen, there is almost always an immediate increase in flexibility after rolling, depending on the person this can be small or a major difference. So, if that’s literally all you’re after – go ahead! But my blessing comes with a big warning: this shouldn’t be all you do.

Depending on what you do after rolling can be the difference between earning that range of motion and keeping it, or catastrophically busting yourself.

If you suddenly increase your range of motion but fail to 1) add strength there or 2) add stability there, you’re just create a weak and unstable position. Without any accessory work, rolling then doing something like heavy squatting can actually be a recipe for pulling a muscle (or worse) because there’s no control in that new range – it’s not “yours” belongs to the roller.

For genuine, long-term, strong (therefore useful) range of motion, I have found that using a combination of stretching techniques and strengthening exercises that support that new range and teach your body how to use – and keep it – much more effectively.

An easy example is ankle dorsi-flexion, where I can use the same exercise for both the stretching & strengthening: the Deep Split Squat.

An Assisted Split Squat allows you to passive push yourself down into a deep (possibly new) range of motion, but because it’s all under your own power there’s no real danger of going too far or over stretching yourself.

Then, you combine this with an Unassisted Split Squat – now you’re not pushing yourself, you need to create, use and stabilise that new range without help.

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 As you start progressing and you want to make it even more transferable to heavy squats/cleans/etc. you can even start to add weight to the Split Squats.

Now you own that range of motion. And built some pretty awesome end range strength at the same time.

In my opinion, looking for a quick way to achieve something will always result in cutting corners. I would rather you earned something gradually through practice, and fully owned it, than try to take a shortcut.


3. Who Recommended Foam Rolling to You?

If you have an acute injury, and a medical professional prescribes rolling to help you get over that injury, then that makes sense. Though it’s role in injury recovery still up for debate, rolling has been shown to help stimulate blood flow which is thought to aid recovery. A Physical Therapist or Doctor working with you for a specific reason may feel like this is a good way to help you get back on track. On a review appointment when you are recovered, they’ll most likely tell you that you don’t need it anymore.

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But there’s much more ambiguity when you just have niggles, soreness, or general tightness. As we learned from point no. 1, where you feel the pain might not be where the problem is. So, if you’ve seen tips online, or got pointers from your friend about how to release a certain muscle there’s a chance you could make your problem worse – you probably don’t know enough about your problem to treat it yourself. Plus, you can start to believe you’re full of knots and adhesions (scar tissue), and in a lot of cases it’s not true… or just normal!

If I’m being truly honest, I don’t think that foam rolling (or any myofascial release) to solve a problem should be done on blindly on yourself – at the very most only if you’ve had instructions from a medical professional.

If you have a consistent, ongoing problem then in-person treatment is always best. A Physical Therapist will be able to work on you and advise movements you can work on by yourself, which will be more beneficial than trying to replicate a professional massage.


4. Do you think myofascial release/foam rolling is essential for recovery? 

 As a kid, did you friends all tell you that if you ate the seeds from your apple, then an apple tree would grow inside you!? Mine did, and I completely believed it. I was terrified of accidently swallowing an apple seed and left a lot of uneaten padding around the core just in case!

This is what can happen with foam rolling, you see your favourite pro athlete do it, read a blog, or watch an instructional video and you’re surrounded by people you trust and respect telling you that foam rolling is an essential part of recovery.

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Bear in mind:

- The professional athlete most likely gets regular appointments with a physical therapist, gets proper sports massages and, most importantly, moves really well and does the necessary accessory/prehab work.

- Blogs & instructional videos are potentially just a snippet of a full rehab protocol which also involves strengthening drills or is only intended a temporary measure.

Once you start thinking you need foam rolling, it can become a ritual and the belief starts creeping in that if you don’t foam roll, you’re going to get injured. This total reliance can be dangerous and ultimately become a hindrance to your training.

The most broken people I’ve ever met are the ones that are always trying to “fix” themselves, instead of working on their lifting technique or mobility restrictions. This chicken-and-egg scenario might begin with a genuine problem, but eventually leads to over analysis and a vicious cycle of chasing symptoms rather than addressing causes. Over time, they just believe that they’re “unlucky” and just “a walking injury” ... not fun!

If your mobility is very limited, e.g. you’re not even close to passing the Deep Lunge Test, or your toe touch barely gets to your knees… the ROM gain and blood flow stimulation from a foam rolling won’t save you - take that from my own personal experience.

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When I first started training my hips were in terrible shape and I didn’t know any better, I was still squatting, and my numbers were increasing. But every time after I squatted my knees and inner thighs ached, I didn’t feel my Glutes and my lower back felt tight as a drum. I religiously rolled my Adductors, IT Bands, Quads, Hip Flexors and Hamstrings just to get me through.

After I learned where my mobility problems were and worked on the simple things from the list of Basics (below) that I struggled with, squatting became a whole different ball game - it made me feel strong! My hips felt amazing and everything felt used equally and no lower back or knee pain at all.

So, yes, while a Foam Roller can play a part in your recovery and warm ups, you should always keep a check on yourself that you’re not relying completely on them (or any other technique for that matter). Your training and recovery should adapt with you as you grow, learn and build strength/skills. Never use anything as a crutch!


5. Can you complete this list of ‘Basic Movements’?

If you haven’t gathered by now, to me Foam Rolling is an added extra that you should only use if you know you’re moving well already.

Problem is, we don’t like being told we suck at simple things (I mean that in a loving way of course) so we’d rather be told we need special techniques that require fancy tools to alleviate our problems. It validates us, makes it seem like our issues were real – not that we simply needed to work on our balance. This isn’t helped by so many online coaches competing for your attention, trying to appear innovate and coming up with new and unique ways to immediately relieve your pain.

Because you’re sore and feel like you have “tried everything” (which you never have) you’re easily drawn to anything you haven’t seen before… but for some reason, your technique or your basic foundation never seems to come up.

As I’ve said before, “The Basics” are not squat, bench & deadlift… that’s just the sport of powerlifting. Basics, by Tom Morrison standards, is having a body that operates well enough for you to safely do whatever it is you spend most of your time practicing.

How well can you do these things?

Is your balance the same on both legs?
Can you easily stand on one leg for 30 seconds? Can you do it with your eyes closed?
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Is your upper body posture good enough for your shoulders to work properly?
Can you fully extend your arms above your head, without arching your back or flaring your chest up, making a close-to-straight line with your spine?

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Are your feet and ankles strong?
Can you move your big toe independently of your little toes?
Can you do lunges and single leg deadlifts without falling or excessive wobbling?
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Can you disassociate your limbs from one another, while maintaining a braced core?
Do you find exercises like Bird Dog, Dead Bug Raises and Side Plank Leg Lifts/Marches easy?
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Do both hips and both shoulders rotate the same way as each other without restriction?
When you sit in a 90/90 (hips) or do shoulder rotations, do you feel any pinching or difference between sides? 

Is your strength relatively equal on both sides, without one side being significantly more dominant than the other?
Do you ever test your single arm pressing? Have you ever noticed your endurance on one leg being a lot less than the other on single leg exercises?

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And the last, but hardest to define:

Do you know the imbalances in your own body well enough to be able to work on them, plus spot new issues if they start to arise?
If you regularly take time to just “move” and stretch, you’ll start to learn where your body is unbalanced/tight/etc. This baseline knowledge is so important to have so that when a real issue starts to develop you will notice before it becomes unmanageable.

Depending on what you practice or train there will be other “Basics” you’ll need, for example the flexibility differences for Yoga and Strongman, but the above questions & tests are relevant across the board.

When differences become too great within your body you start to twist in ways that will murder your joints over time and cause you tons of problems, so when you’re stuck chasing problems with a roller there may just be something more fundamental you need to work on that can only be solved through movement & awareness.


So, Should You Foam Roll?

With all those things in mind, can foam rolling be enjoyed as part of healthy training & recover?

Sure! It just shouldn’t be your only mobility, warm up or recovery tool.

If you do roll, I’d recommend that regardless of your immediate issues, make sure you do a wide area (i.e. don’t just repeatedly smash a single point of your body) and do both sides of your body, even if one side appears fine. 

If you find yourself being drawn to one area consistently and your problem doesn’t go away after a week, book an appointment to be seen by someone rather than upping your frequency of rolling. Remember that ultimately, you don’t really know what you’re doing and cannot assess your body objectively.

Also, look at your activity levels outside of training, are you completely sedentary the rest of the day? Try to add a few five minute movement breaks throughout your day like the example from point no. 1, see if you can keep ahead of tightness rather than trying to play catch up when you get to the gym.

Like all things that feel nice, done in moderation Foam Rolling is fine, like wine. The problem only arises when a couple of glasses at the weekend start to become necessary to get through every day. In Self Massage terms, if you can’t make it through the week (or maybe ever a workout) without using your roller then there might be a problem.


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