By Mico Olivier
BSpSc, MSc (By Research)
Foam rolling, recently referred to as Self-Myofascial Release (SMFR), has taken the world by
storm over the past decade, although probably not as big as Donald Trump becoming the
president of the US recently. The fitness industry is abuzz with instructors frequently
including the use of foam rolling for their clients either during the warm up or recovery.
SMFR comes from the massage term Myofascial Release, which involves massage therapists
applying pressure through the use of their hands to a particular muscle with the aim of
relieving muscle tension and stiffness, increasing range of motion (ROM) and flexibility and
decreasing muscle pain and swelling (Schroeder and Best, 2015).
SMFR is a convenient way for individuals to apply pressure to muscles using a tool of some
sort, typically a foam roller or a roller massage. The convenience comes from the fact that
you do not have to visit a massage therapist to receive the aforementioned benefits.
Foam rolling is claimed to have many benefits, however the exact mechanism by which
these benefits occur are unknown. Propositions have been made regarding fascia and ways
foam rolling alters its physical and mechanical properties. Unfortunately there is more to it
than just rolling over the tissue and supposedly “loosening the knots”.
A study by Chaundry and colleagues (2008) looked at the pressure required to change fascial
structure in three locations. They found that abnormal forces are required to even to
produce 1% change, specifically in the fascia lata (ITB) and plantar fascia (feet). So maybe we
aren’t loosening the muscles and/or fascia, but we may be causing some other physiological
or neurological changes to the body (Contreras, 2013, and Hargrove, 2013).
In 2015 Beardsley and Skarabot conducted a review of the literature to distinguish between
scientifically proven results and anecdotal evidence regarding SMFR and its potential
The authors found the following benefits from using the foam roller:
1.) Foam rolling for 1 – 2 minutes per body part increases joint ROM with effects lasting
up to 10 minutes.
2.) The foam roller seems to have no negative effect on athletic performance as
measured through various tests assessing anaerobic power (capacity), speed, agility,
isometric strength and power.
3.) Blood flow seems to improve in the muscle tissue to which pressure is applied.
4.) Foam rolling seems to alleviate the sensation of pain, possibly redirecting the source
of pain, which is related to the next point.
5.) The feelings of soreness, aka delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS), is alleviated
in the short term, the specific mechanisms by which this happens is still unclear
6.) Foam rolling increases flexibility over the long term, but so does static stretching.
However performing the two together seems to have additive effects.
So, what does this all mean? Are we to abandon foam rolling because it doesn’t release the
“knots” in our muscles? No, of course not. Anecdotally foam rolling clearly makes people
feel like they can move easier and with greater mobility, and it definitely has some valuable
short term benefits which supports its use in the athletic performance and fitness industry.
However, due to infancy of foam rolling and the scientific literature trying to keep up with
its ever growing use, clear guidelines need to be established regarding how to use it, why
we use it and when to use it.
So, to keep it short and sweet, foam rolling does not seem to loosen your muscles per se.
However if used for 1-2 minutes per body part it can lead to short term increases in range of
motion (Beardsley, n.d.) which will not negatively affect athletic performance and may
increase blood flow (Hotfiel et al. 2016 and Okamoto et al. 2014)
Last but not least, using foam rolling as a recovery tool is very useful to get over that ever […]