I started foam rolling a few months ago after hearing so many athletes talk about the importance of it on the internet. I didn’t know how it worked or what the benefits and/or disadvantages were. I simply thought if the pros were doing it, I should be doing it too. Always a good idea to follow trends blindly!
…Anyhow, after viewing a couple youtube videos on how it’s done, I started incorporating it into my post-workout stretching routine.
I never thought twice about it until the other day, when I was listening to an old Tim Ferriss podcast episode of an interview with world-renowned strength training coach Charles Poliquin (you can listen to it online or on itunes). When asked what people are doing wrong in warm ups, he replied, “The foam roller.” Poliquin went on to say that it’s a complete waste of time and leads to more scar tissue.
I was shocked. Is that true? Had I been wasting all this time diligently rolling away? Seeing as he’s a pretty knowledgeable man, I decided to look into it further and seek out similar positions on the disadvantages of foam rolling. This proved to be quite difficult– most of the articles I found on the internet only discuss the positives, not negatives, of foam rolling. But before I get into my [limited] findings…
What is foam rolling? It’s a form of self-myofascial release. What is myofascial release? It’s a technique used to treat the soft tissue system, often involving massage. So basically, to foam roll is to massage one’s tendons, muscles, ligaments, etc., using a tool that is made of foam and shaped like a roll.
How exactly does one foam roll? The basic idea is to place it under certain body parts (the calves, quads, back, butt, etc) and roll it back and forth. You can take a look at these videos that demonstrate different exercises for different muscles. According to this Men’s Health article, the act of rolling up and down certain parts of the body lengthens muscle tissues and breaks up scar tissue. If done before a workout, this improves your range of motion by loosening muscles, ultimately strengthening the areas that you foam roll. If done after a workout, it helps the body recover faster (i.e. reduces soreness).
So– is Poliquin right? Is foam rolling bad for you? It’s hard to say, since there is very little research out there that explores the effect of foam rolling on sports performance and recovery. I did, however, find one study conducted by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) that sought to measure the effect of foam rolling on performance. The study found that foam rolling slightly reduced fatigue and recovery time. They also concluded that further research should be done “to examine the effects of chronic foam rolling on performance.”
Although the results point to a positive outcome, there is an argument that putting repeated pressure over trigger points can be harmful because we are not professionally trained to perform manual therapy on ourselves. We do not have complete knowledge of our muscle physiology, so for all we know we could be applying pressure in the wrong places, for too long, or too fast, and ultimately do more harm than good to our bodies. Massage therapy is not something we should do to ourselves– it’s much safer to have a trained professional work out the kinks in our soft tissue for us.
Poliquin also believes it takes way too long to get results from soft tissue treatment via foam rolling. It’s more efficient to go to a practitioner, who can get you results more quickly. You can watch his video on the subject here.
So, due to the limited amount of research out there that definitively demonstrates the benefits of foam rolling, and the potential harm I could unknowingly be doing to my body, I’m going to stick with good old fashioned stretching from now on. There are, after all, many reliable studies that prove the benefits of stretching.
I’m no soft tissue expert, so to those avid foam rollers out there: Keep doing what you’re doing, but proceed with caution. Perhaps foam rolling is all hype and fluff. It could also very well be the secret to athletic success. Who knows. In any case, I’m ditching the roller for now. You can find me on the mats holding a downward dog.