Does Foam Rolling Muscles Help With Exercise and Workouts?

what does foam rolling do
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Foam Rolling, Exercise, and Workouts

Self-myofascial release through the application of foam rolling is largely supported in the fitness community for having a number of benefits on performing exercise movements. Is foam rolling useful for before and after exercise health benefits? We’ll show you what the research is supporting for the use of foam rolling.

A Brief Intro To How Foam Rolling Works

The concept of foam rolling is a fairly simple one. I actually briefly wrote about one of the benefits of foam rolling in Sqauts – Six Reasons You’re Bad At Them. The purpose of foam rolling is to apply gentle force to a muscle adhesion or a “knot”. In our muscles there’s something called a Golgi tendon organ or GTO. The GTO is sensitive to changes in muscle tension. When a foam roller is applied to a muscle it generates increased pressure or tension to an area. The GTO then sends a signal to your spine and the spine reacts by sending a message back to the muscle. The returning message to the muscle is simple: relax. Now it takes a certain amount of time for the signal to activate – roughly at least 15 seconds or so but once it does it causes increased relaxation to the specific area of muscle tissue that you’re applying pressure to via the foam roller (1). The concept of foam rolling as a whole is known as self myofascial release. Think of it as a self-massage…

So How Is Foam Rolling Helpful For Working Out?

Range of motion is important especially if you’re trying to keep your joints as mobile as possible. It’s also important because muscles just work better when they have their ability to operate with the full range of motion that they’re designed for. One study analyzed a group of participants who used foam rolling on the hamstring. The study found that foam rolling allowed for increased range of motion but that the foam rolling had no effect on muscle strength (2).

Foam Rolling and Muscle Strength

There are some critics of self-myofascial release that argue that relaxation of a muscle via foam rolling can be a bad thing. Rightly so – as a relaxed muscle might not work as effectively, right? Another study looked at this specific problem. The study found that when foam rollers were applied to the quadriceps it effectively increased range of motion in the knees without having a negative effect on muscle performance (3).

Foam Rolling and Muscle Recovery

So what about foam rolling after exercise? A Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine looked at a group of subjects after exercise who utilized foam rolling. The group that used foam rolling did so for twenty minutes at the end of an intense workout. The study found that foam rolling helped to reduce muscle soreness, improving vertical jump height, muscle activation, and range of motion when compared the the group that didn’t use any foam rolling (4). Pretty impressive, eh?

Foam Rolling and General Health

A really interesting study from the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research took a different approach to how foam rolling effects the body. Since foam rolling is performed over general body tissues, it’s possible to make a case that foam rolling could have an effect on your veins and arteries too. For their study they looked at pulse wave velocity and nitric oxide levels (I’ll explain more).

Pulse Wave Velocity: A pulse wave velocity is a unit of measurement that looks how stiff your arteries are. Stiff arteries can lead to high blood pressure. The study found that after foam rolling pulse wave velocity decreased which means the arteries became more elastic (5). More elastic arteries can improve blood flow by decreased pressure. I found this pretty interesting considering arteries are actually muscles themselves.

Nitric Oxide Levels: Nitric oxide in the body helps to make the veins and arteries widen. The effect of this is improved blood flow and decreased blood pressure. The study found that foam rolling also significantly increased nitric oxide levels in the blood (5). This is important seeing as a large number of athletes or weightlifters often supplement their diet with a pre-workout dose of nitric oxide to help increase blood flow to muscle groups. More blood flow means more nutrients.

So What Can We Learn From Foam Rolling?

Foam rolling research is relatively new – as is the concept of foam rolling itself. All of the studies done have been in small groups so more long term research is definitely needed but the research that’s out there is pretty promising at this point. If you find yourself benefiting from foam rolling, don’t stop. If you don’t do it, maybe you should start. See our list of high density foam rollers from the Your Living Body Store

Should you foam roll before exercise?

Probably. Increased blood flow and rage of motion while not compromising strength? Why not?

Should you foam roll after after exercise?

Probably. Increased blood flow (think of getting nutrients to exhausted muscles) and preventing muscle soreness while maintaining range of motion.

What about foam rolling between sets?

I’d like to see some research done on this idea. All of the research that I’ve come across looked at the before or after effects of foam rolling on working out. For intense lifts with a couple minutes of rest between sets I don’t see why a quick foam rolling session would necessarily be a bad thing.

Do you foam roll? What works best for you? Why or why not?

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1. Clark, M., Corn, R., Lucett, S. NASM Essentials Of Personal Training. National Academy Of Sports Medicine. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2008. 151.

2. Behm, D., Button, D., Silvey, D., Sullivan, K. “Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. June 2013. Web. December 1 2013.

3. Behm, D., Button, D., Cuconato, A., Drake, C., MacDonald, G., Mullaley, M., Penny, M. “An acute bout of self-myofacial release increases range of motion without subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force.” Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research. March 2013. Web. December 1 2013.

4. Behm, D., Button, D., Drinkwater, E., MacDonald, G. “Foam Rolling As A Recovery Tool Following an Intense Bout Of Physical Activity.” Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. June 2013. Web. December 1 2013.

5. Ikuta, K., Masuhara, M., Okamoto, T. “Acute effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roller on arterial function.” Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research. April 2013. Web. December 1 2013.

  • Wes

    Would definitely recommend foam rollers for anyone strength training. I used to suffer a lot with DOMS and a sore lower back, since I’ve started using them I’ve seen a big improvement. Still get DOMS, but nowhere near as intense as before!

  • Your Living Body

    Hey Wes,

    Thanks for checking us out, it’s much appreciated. Glad they’ve made you feel better. I’ve had issues as well with plantar fasciitis and sciatica from too much running/weight lifting and it has done wonders for me.

  • wade

    the foam roller I have is smooth but stiff. what is the ridged type in your illustration and is it softer. Good info and I find the roller adds some flexibility and comforts the ligs and tendons. allows sport activities for older folk like me!


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