How To Foam Roll

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for my website about how to foam roll after doing “research” online. I recently decided to have a better look into the “research” I did and found it was just peoples’ opinions with little or no scientific evidence and then realised how much rubbish there is online (including my old piece).

So I decided to have spent the last few weeks doing actual research and then rewrite this piece.

For simplicity, I will be focusing on foam rolling the quads but these techniques can be transferred to any other muscle.

 

Methods

There are three different methods depending on why you are foam rolling. The three methods are for improving flexibility/ mobility, treating trigger points and addressing adhesions/scar tissue.

 

Improving Flexibility/ Mobility

For improving flexibility:

1. Lay facing down and place the foam roller just above the knee with moderate pressure.

2. Slowly roll up the muscle, no more than one inch per second for around 30 seconds.

3. Then stretch the quads, ideally for 2 minutes, however you may get away with shorter bouts of 30-60 seconds.

To change from improving flexibility to improving mobility, some strength component needs to be added. This can be done either by isometrics or eccentrics in the end ranges.

Interestingly, one of the studies found that even 5 seconds of foam rolling improves flexibility. However, longer bouts are more beneficial, as well as in combination with stretching.

 

Treating Trigger Points

1. Use a lacrosse ball and roll up the quad until you find a sore spot.

2. Once you find a sore spot, pause on the area. When you’re in pain, you will automatically hold your breath. It is critical that you breathe to allow the body and muscle to relax. After 5-30 seconds the pain should reduce. If the pain gets worse, stop and speak to a doctor or a qualified therapist as this could be an acute injury. If the pain does not reduce, see the technique for breaking down adhesions below.

3. Once the pain reduces apply more pressure on the sore spot. This can be done either by applying more body weight on the pressure, using an external weight such as a weighted vest or have a friend apply more pressure. Repeat the process several times.

There does not seem to be any research into this specific method yet, however there is evidence that shows a similar method (NMT) works in a very similar way.

 

Breaking down adhesions/scar tissue

1. Lay facing down and place the foam roller just above the knee with moderate pressure.

2. Slowly roll up the muscle, no more than one inch per second.

3. Once you find a sore spot, pause on the area. While maintaining the pressure on the quad, very slowly bend your knee and then straighten the leg. Do this several times.

Out of the three methods, this one has the least evidence supporting it. As with the previous method, there doesn’t seem to be any specific research to valid or disprove it. However, there is some evidence supporting this and similar methods which are very vague.

 

Things to avoid

Do NOT foam roll an injury unless advised by a qualified therapist. I cannot emphasise this enough. You risk damaging the injury further.

Never roll on a bone or joint (opening or closing sides).

Some muscles may not need to have soft tissue work done. Don’t go looking for sore spots. If you do not have sore spots, move to the next muscle.

If foam rolling an area is causing numbness, pins & needles, or sharp pain, move off this area. It is likely you are on a nerve.

If you have any concerns, please speak to your doctor or a qualified therapist prior to foam rolling.

 

References

Mohr AR. 2014 – Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion
Skarabot J, 2015 – Comparing The Effects Of Self‐Myofascial Release With Static Stretching On Ankle Range‐Of‐Motion In Adolescent Athletes
Sullivan KM. 2013 – Roller‐Massager Application To The Hamstrings Increases Sit‐And‐Reach Range Of Motion Within Five To Ten Seconds Without Performance Impairments
Renan-Ordine R. 2011 – Effectiveness of Myofascial Trigger Point Manual Therapy Combined With a Self-Stretching Protocol for the Management of Plantar Heel Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial
Dr Andreo Spina – Why foam rolling is NOT Myofascial Release (nor is instrument assisted soft tissue techniques)
Dr Andreo Spina – Why Foam Rolling is NOT myofascial release: Part II – suggesting alternative methodology

 

Disclaimer: If you are in doubt or experiencing pain, seek medical advice. Peak fitness and therapy is not responsible for any harm or misadventure caused by the use of this article