Author: Bryan Lang, PT, DPT, MHA, CSCS, Cert.DN: Doctor of Physical Therapy, Business Owner, Associate Professor, and Blog Contributor. Explores common client questions, helps find solutions for every day functional health concerns, and interprets difficult theories in healthcare rehabilitation. Committed to life-long learning and education. Learn more about Bryan on Google+.
Have you ever seen someone rolling their body out on a large cylindrical tube and wondered, “What the heck are they doing?” They’re actually not crazy; they’re doing something called “foam rolling.” When you talk to people who foam roll, they will tell you that it makes their muscles feel looser, and it reduces how sore they are the next day after working out. Until recently, it was hard to find scientific studies to back up that claim. However, new research that is now coming out is showing the benefits to foam rolling may not only help your muscles, but also your heart.
1. Foam rolling reduces muscle soreness
Foam rolling was theorized to help with alleviating muscle soreness, reducing joint stresses, improving range of motion, and improving neuromuscular efficiency. One area that people particularly looked at to utilize foam rolling was after heavy workouts when something called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS occurs. Most people can remember a time when they worked out with more weight or performed a new exercise that they weren’t used to and had soreness for a few days afterwards. It was predicted that foam rolling could help with reducing this feeling of soreness. Many people have tried to find other ways to reduce DOMS. The primary modalities that have been shown to treat DOMS are cryotherapy (icing), light exercise, and compression. However, there are also studies that show these modalities not being effective in reducing DOMS. It depends on what study you read, which makes things convoluted in the medical field.
Two studies in 2013 and 2014 aimed to take a closer look at the effect of foam rolling after heavy workouts. Participants squatted 60% of their maximum squat weight 100 times (10 reps for 10 sets). The control group did nothing after squatting. The treatment group was asked to foam roll their gluteal muscles and the front, back and sides of their legs for 60 seconds, two times on each leg. Both groups were then tested on their perceived pain threshold 24 hours after squatting and 48 hours after squatting. Both studies found that foam rolling was beneficial in attenuating soreness 48 hours after squatting. The fact that two independent studies both found that foam rolling reduced muscle soreness enhances the conclusion that foam rolling should be included as a modality that can help reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
2. Foam rolling helps improve flexibility
Up until 2013, there was little to no evidence that foam rolling helped improve range of motion. One of the first studies to test this theory was in 2013 and showed improved range of motion two minutes and 10 minutes after foam rolling. It was a good start to show that foam rolling could help increase range of motion, but more studies were needed to determine if the results of foam rolling had benefits that lasted longer than 10 minutes.
Then, a study was published that found improved passive/dynamic range of motion after 48 hours after exercise when comparing one group that foam rolled and another group that did not.
Finally, a study in 2014 demonstrated that foam rolling significantly improved ankle range of motion 10 minutes afterwards. Although static stretching also had a similar effect to foam rolling, the study showed that improvements in flexibility were not limited specifically to hip flexibility which is what previous studies were observing.
3. Foam rolling improves explosive movements
When testing vertical jumping, it was found that foam rolling increased jumping power 48 hours after exercise. It was also found in a small study that sprint time and power when tested through jump distance also improved with foam rolling.
4. Foam rolling improves blood vessel mobility (which is good for your heart)
A study by Okamoto, Mashuaru, and Ikuta asked participants to foam roll their legs and back for 20 minutes and then measured their blood levels of nitric oxide (nitric oxide regulates arterial stiffness) and brachial-ankle pulse wave velocity (like taking your blood pressure except the cuff is around your ankle). The study found that foam rolling significantly decreased brachial-ankle pulse wave velocity. This means that the decrease could be because the artery became less stiff, and therefore reduced the velocity of the blood being pumped through the artery. The study also found that nitric oxide significantly increased after foam rolling. Nitric oxide helps to vasodilate (open) the blood vessels of your body, and this backed up the hypothesis that the blood vessels became less stiff. The authors concluded that foam rolling may help cardiovascular fitness and should be added to all wellness activities.
5. Foam rolling complements stretching
Are you someone who has trouble with your flexibility? Studies have already shown that foam rolling alone can improve flexibility, but what happens if you combine foam rolling with stretching? A study in 2014 looked at four different groups: those who foamed rolled, those who foam rolled and stretched, those who just stretched, and those who did nothing. The researchers discovered that those who stretched and foam rolled had significantly better muscle length in their hip flexion than those who only stretched, only foam rolled, or did nothing. Therefore, if you want maximal gains in your flexibility, combining stretching with foam rolling is essential.
6. A Foam Roller is Cheap
Well, that statement is somewhat true. The cost of foam rollers range in price, but don’t be caught up buying one with all the bells and whistles. A cheap foam roller can be just as good as a very expensive one. Remember that when buying a foam roller, a higher density (firmer) foam has a greater potential to illicit an improvement in tissue health than a lower density foam roller. When it comes to size, get one that is 36 inches in length. You can do more with it, and if it’s too big for your needs, you can always cut it yourself to make it shorter.