Tight muscles are normal, especially if you are training hard and pushing your body to excel both on the field and in the gym.
But tight muscles can also affect how you feel, move and perform. One of the most popular methods of loosening tight muscles is foam rolling. When done correctly foam rolling is a great way to feel less restricted, to improve your range of motion and to pave the way for higher performance—at least in the short term.
However it's not the long-term answer to these issues. Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) techniques (like foam rolling) can be used to provide temporary, short-term improvements. They're a good alternative to a Ibuprofen, but ultimately do not change your tissues like some other modalities.
Let's dig into what qualifies as foam rolling, why it works and what it's best used for.
What the Heck is Foam Rolling?
So, what the heck is foam rolling? And is it really that important? Let's talk SMRs, or "Self-Myofascial Release."
Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release. "OK…" you're thinking. "What's myofascial?" Myofascial refers to the fascia surrounding your muscles. Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle, blood vessels and nerves. Your fascia can be thought of as the glue that holds all other body tissues together. Fascia can be responsible for reducing the range of motion (ROM) if it becomes restricted.
Repetitive movements or high-volume loading patterns (like during an athlete's season) create a dysfunction within the fascial system which leads to an inflammatory response. When your muscles spasm, they result in knots or trigger points (micro-spasms) that create weak adhesions in your soft tissues. These adhesions produce pain and possibly contribute to the reduction in your ROM and performance!
Self-myofascial release is a common way to alleviate the pain and decrease the ROM associated with the overactive muscle and fascial restrictions. But how does SMR like foam rolling actually help, and how much can it really do?
Think of using a foam roller as a type of personal massage. When you have a tight painful muscle, rubbing that muscle seems to help it feel better, right? Well, foam rollers are meant to work the same way!
Using a foam roller is a way to tell your muscles to relax when in spasm. By providing mechanical stress to your muscles, it signals to your body to decrease muscle tension and bring blood flow to the fascia.
At the moment, it brings relief and can help stop the feeling of pain or discomfort. But what about my fascia adhesions?
When you wear a backpack all day, do your shoulder muscles get permanently pushed down because "adhesions are broken" and your fascia is getting released? Nope! So using a foam roller isn't doing that, either!
Some fitness gurus will say that foam rolling can create long-term changes in your tissue. But the truth is there is not enough evidence to support this view. Using a foam roller or a massage is not going to "break adhesions" resulting from muscle spasms.
But does it really matter? Are this adhesions really affecting my movement anyhow?
Although research shows us foam rolling does not really change these "adhesions," what we know is they can change our perception of pain. When an athlete perceives discomfort, their range of motion is going to be affected.
When your muscles are in spasm, that tightness is going to cause discomfort when you move. Think about this: If you have tight hip flexors, performing a Squat or sprinting at max speed is going to hurt.
So what do you do? Rolling on a foam roller or a lax ball on your hip flexors can definitely help decrease this discomfort. A number of studies have shown significant acute improvements in ROM as a result of SMR.
This makes sense when we remember how the mechanical pressure of the ball or roller is going to tell your muscles to CHILL OUT. Muscles that are less tense move in a way that allows you to improve your ROM discomfort free!
It is important to note that these ROM improvements are acute or fleeting. Numerous studies have shown a return to previous ROM after 10 minutes post foam rolling. Simply put: Foam rolling is NOT a way to change your tissues in the long run.
And of course it doesn't! Sitting on your butt all day isn't going to make your butt permanently flat. Walking around with your backpack doesn't permanently dent your shoulders. Your tissues do not change in the long run based on pressure.
So how do you get your tissues to "change"? How can you really improve your mobility/ lexibility? With resistance training.
"By definition, full-range resistance training is a form of dynamic stretching that challenges flexibility" (1). "Every strength session an athlete does is a flexibility-strength workout, and as such will lead to increases in not only ROM over time, but more importantly concurrent increases in strength over that full range" (1).
Strength will provide the necessary stability and motor control required to safely realize any new ROM (improved mobility and flexibility) in a sport-specific movement pattern. Improving your ROM, and your strength in that ROM, not only increases your performance, but decreases your risk of injury!
Considering why you want to improve your ROM, it is pretty obvious that foam rolling alone is not going to adequately deliver the range of motion and strength in that range of motion needed for athletes.
When Should I Foam Roll?
So we know that foam rolling is not a way to improve your flexibility or mobility in the long term. But we do know that foam rolling helps relieve a feeling of discomfort and tightness.
Here's the key: For an athlete who is feeling discomfort or tightness, foam rolling is a way to alleviate discomfort before implementing other training methods that will help them in the long run.
So when should you foam roll? Let's consider an athlete about to perform a Back Squat in her strength training session but her knee is feeling super tight and restricted. Step 1 is to prepare her tissues for the session through movement.
Having an athlete perform slow Split Squats will introduce a type of eccentric stretch to help her hip flexors relax and alleviate some pulling on her knee. This type of movement is going to prepare her tissues to perform a similar movement pattern later, but with a heavier demand or load. But what if you are hesitant to move because of the pain?
Then foam rolling might make sense! Remember, foam rolling is going to help alleviate the perception of pain or discomfort. If this pain is inhibiting her from moving (your goal!), foam rolling her hip flexors for a couple of minutes can help her body's perception of pain to chill out. Now that the pain is decreased, it's time to move!
The foam rolling has helped alleviate the pain that was causing the athlete to be hesitant to move, so it's time to re-introduce those Split Squats to help eccentrically stretch her hips through slow and controlled movements.
Next, we'll load the tissue and Back Squat. Now that our athlete is pain-free, and her tissues are better prepared for the higher load of a back squat, it's time to load the movement!
Through the Back Squat, we are not only getting her body to move through a full range of motion at her knees and hips, but we are strengthening that range of motion.
Strength is what provides the necessary stability and motor control needed to achieve a long-lasting range of motion in a sport-specific movement pattern.
So, the moral of the story is…foam rolling shouldn't be your primary response to tight muscles—movement should!
With only 24 hours in a day and only an hour or two in the gym, lying on a foam roller is not the best use of your time to prepare your body to move.
If you feel tight, focus first on the goal of movement (and not a static stretch…) to relieve the sensation.
Perform a couple of slow and controlled bodyweight or Goblet Hold Split Squats or half-kneeling presses to alleviate tightness. If those don't work, we can talk about how foam rolling might fit into the equation.
Think of foam rolling as a way to relieve some of that discomfort so you can move later without popping ibuprofen!
Do we want to implement it first? No way, as it is not essential to our goal of movement. But if we try to move and we still feel pain, rolling out some of the discomforts can help!
Should You Foam Roll After Exercise?
Studies show there is a possible decrease in DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) when athletes introduce a 10-minute bout of foam rolling post exercise session. This is great if we need to perform at our highest the next day.
But DOMS is your body's way of expressing the inflammatory response that occurs after training. In our recovery article, we discussed how this inflammatory response is necessary when telling your body it needs to improve later.
By implementing methods to decrease this response such as foam rolling, ice baths and other recovery methods, DOMS or soreness can decrease but at the possible expense of your training adaptation.
Why? Soreness and DOMS are your body's way of saying: hey we need to recover and adapt so this doesn't happen again. If we do things such as foam rolling to help reduce this signaling process, we reduce the adaptive potential of the activity causing the soreness.
Have a big game tomorrow and you cannot be sore? Adding 10 minutes of foam rolling after your training session can help! But, if you're training hard to improve your strength for next season, just accept the soreness as part of the adaptation process.
The Truth About Foam Rolling
Tight muscles are normal if you are training hard and pushing your body to excel on the field and in the gym. But tight muscles can affect how you feel, how you move and how you perform.
Despite what mobility "gurus" may say—there is not enough evidence to support the claim that foam rolling changes your tissues in the long term to help you move better.
There is extensive evidence that shows movement and progressively loading those movements helps to change your tissues in a way that will improve your performance in your sport. So if your first answer to any type of soreness or tightness is extensive foam rolling, you may see benefit from scaling back its usage.
If you are looking to improve your range of motion and strength in the long run, movement (not foam rolling) is your answer. If your tight muscles are making you feel pain, consider foam rolling instead of popping ibuprofen and then start moving!
Photo Credit: kbycphotography/iStock
- Sargent, D., Clarke, R. (2018). "Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes." Mobility for Performance in Female Athletes. Marlborough: Crowood. pp 111-139.
- Sullivan, K.M., Silvey, D.B.J., Button, D.C., and Behm, D.G. (2013). "Roller masser application to the hamstrings increases sit and reach range of motion within 5 to 10 seconds without performance impairments." The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 8(3), pp 228-236.
- Stone, M., Ramsey, M.W., Kinser, A.M., O'Bryant, H.S., Ayers, C., and Sands, W.A., (2006). "Stretching acute or chronic? The potential consequences." Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(6), pp. 66-74
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- Blumenstein, Borris, et al. "Fatigue, Overreaching, and Overtraining ." Integrated Periodization in Sports Training & Athletic Development: Combining Training Methodology, Sports Psychology, and Nutrition to Optimize Performance, by Tudor O. Bompa, Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2019, pp. 154–176.
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