Foam rollers are effectively the poor man’s massage therapist, or to put it another way, soft tissue work for the masses. Physical Therapist Mike Clark is credited by many with the initial exposure of the athletic and physical therapy communities to the foam roller and to what he termed “self myofascial release”. Self myofascial release is simply a technical term for self-massage. The principle being to get a foam roller and use your bodyweight to apply pressure to sore spots.
Foam rollers now come in a variety of forms and colours, though the basic models are simply a cylindrical piece of some type of hard-celled foam. Individuals simply use the roller to apply pressure to sensitive areas in the muscles. Depending on one’s education or practice orientation, these points can alternately be described as trigger points, knots, fascial adhesions/restrictions, or simply areas of increased muscle density. Regardless of the name, most people are familiar with the concepts of sore muscles and the need for massage.
As we age and become less active, or even more active in repetitive ways, the fibres of our muscles can start to move less efficiently due to the accumulation of 'fuzz'. Foam rolling can help restore movement within the muscle and potentially also prevent injuries if performed correctly.
For a better explanation of what 'fuzz' is, watch the video below by Dr Gill Hedley.
Here's another great video from Trigger Point themselves, which not only provides a simple insight into what foam rolling does, but also some good guides on how to do it.
The use of foam rollers has progressed in many circles from an acupressure type approach to a self-massage approach. The roller is now used to apply longer more sweeping strokes to the long muscle groups like the calves, adductors and quadriceps and small directed force to areas like the TFL, hip rotators and glute medius.
Individuals are instructed to use the roller to search for tender areas or trigger point and to roll these areas to decrease density and over-activity. The major areas that respond well to the foam roller are:
Legs: Both the upper and lower legs respond incredibly well to foam rolling, although cheaper foam roller tend to deform with regular use when performing many of these techniques due to the weight of the individuals body bearing down on the roller.
Glutes: The largest muscle in the body and arguably one of the most abused by day to day life. Foam rollers can be effective in the short to mid-term, before the density of the muscle requires a firmer and more focussed approach.
Adductors: One of the most neglected areas of the lower body. Foam rolling these areas can improve posture, biomechanics and stability.
It is important to note that foam rolling can be hard work, particularly initially, as the arms are heavily involved in moving the body. In addition, foam rolling can border on painful. Foam rollers are available in a number of densities from relatively soft foam, slightly harder than a pool noodle, to newer high-density rollers with a much more solid feel. If using a foam roller unsupervised, it is important to gear the feel of the roller and the intensity of the self-massage work to your age, and fitness level. Good massage work, and correspondingly good self-massage work, may be uncomfortable much like stretching, so it is important to learn to distinguish between a moderate level of discomfort related to a trigger point and a potentially injurious situation. Foam rolling should be used with discretion by more slender individuals. Foam rolling should never cause bruising. Remember to stay at around a level 4 on the FACES pain scale shown below.
Rolling provides great benefit both before and after a workout. Foam rolling prior to a workout can help to decrease muscle density and allow for better warm-up. Rolling after a workout may help to aid in recovery from strenuous exercise. The nice thing about using the foam roller is that it appears it can be done on a daily basis. In fact, Clair and Amber Davies in the The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook actually recommend trigger point work up to 12 times a day in situations of acute pain.
How long an athlete or client rolls is also individual. We typically allow 5-10 minutes for soft tissue work at the beginning of the session prior to warm-up.
We’ve used a number of foam rollers over the years and our preferred model is The Grid by Trigger Point Therapy. We find that this is significantly more durable than most others (think 3 years plus in comparison to 3 weeks). Not only that, but our clients have consistently acheive significantly better results with it in comparison to other rollers. Click here to purchase.
Although cheaper foam rollers do allow for a less painful introduction to foam rolling, we find their durability and thus cost effectiveness to be prohibitive. We’ve also found that good technique allows you to modify the intensity in the early stages, thereby negating the need for a softer roller.
As for the other cool tools available: Again, we like the TP Therapy products and recommend the Myofascial Compression Tools (MCT), but we'd always suggest starting with the Grid first, before moving on to these.