If you’ve stepped foot in a gym in the past year, you’ve seen foam rollers in the stretching and mat areas. These inexpensive tools are used for self-myofascial release, or SMR for short. Despite their gain in popularity with both professional athletes and amateurs alike, the science behind the benefits of foam rollers seems to be lagging behind their daily application. There are probably a lot of good reasons as to why studies have proven to be at best inconclusive in terms of the gauging foam roller benefits.
For starters, the studies have generally been short programs (the longest I’ve come across is 8 weeks – if you’ve seen longer studies please let me know) often targeting one muscle such as the hamstring or quadricep. Of course, these studies are expensive to carry out which is probably the primary driver behind their short time tables. The majority of the studies I’ve come across measure two things, range of motion and/or a particular baseline exercise such as squat jumps. This in itself is very limited because their are a wide variety of perceived benefits to incorporating a foam roller into your pre or post workout routine.
What are Foam Rollers Targeting?
The kinetic chain is made up of muscle, ligaments, tendons and fascia. Muscles are the soft tissues which produce force and motion, ligaments are the connective tissue which joins bones to other bones, while tendons attach bones to muscle. Fascia is the tissue which surround muscles and other structures. All of these segments work together to allow our body to function. If any of them are compromised, it affects the efficiency of the entire system. Foam rollers are designed to aid in the recovery process of the kinetic chain.
So what are the benefits?
Using a foam roller works similarly to a massage, in that it promotes blood flow throughout your muscles. As you may know, blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your muscles and nourishes them.
The idea that we can lengthen our fascia is fairly perplexing from a physics point of view. For example, the IT band, which is often the target of foam rolling is a dense piece of fascia that is anchored in place. One of the purposes of fascia is to absorb force thus making it fairly rigid and tough. Based on the experiences of thousands of athletes, it appears that using a foam roller is an effective technique to help improve performance.
Similar to a massage, using a foam roller for self myofascial release relaxes tight muscles, which can help reduce injury.
In addition to stretching techniques, there are countless core workouts you can perform in the comfort of your home. Increasing core strength can have a profound impact on reducing injuries and balance. Yoga and pilates classes are constantly mixing these inexpensive tools into their mix.
Picking up a foam roller is an inexpensive way to realize a wide variety of benefits from injury prevention, performance enhancement and improved muscle recovery. It is such a versatile tool, and for the cost they’re tough to beat.