Foam Rollers…?

Foam Rollers, could we possibly be wasting our time?

Far be it for me to suggest any exercise modality’s application is good or bad. Many factors including goal specificity, current state, volume, preparedness, appropriateness etc should be considered when making those exercise decisions. Personally I think it all boils down to logic. What is the nature of the tissues we are trying to effect? What are the forces we are trying to apply to those tissues? Do the two factors mesh in a way that will get me what I want out of this exercise?
Take foam rollers for instance, millions of people across North America right now are rolling themselves looser IT bands and more usable muscles all over their adhesion riddled, tight muscle laiden bodies. Are they getting the results they actually think they are? Well let’s look at our model of logic and the nature of the tissues in question first.
One of the most mentioned reasons I hear that people are using foam rollers is to loosen fascia and break up adhesions made of Fascial cells (fibroblasts) particularly with regards to the infamous IT Band. Much research has been done on the nature of this type of tissue and its properties. Fascia interpenetrates and surrounds muscles, bones, organs, nerves, blood vessels and other structures. Fascia is an uninterrupted, three-dimensional web of tissue that extends from head to toe, from front to back, from interior to exterior. It is designed to transmit force as accurately and precisely as possible. It is responsible for maintaining structural integrity; for providing support and protection. This being said can we really affect fascia locally if it transmits force through the entire body? Not to mention, do I really have the knowledge base to attempt to change such a vastly reaching influence and be sure that I’m not changing something else negatively? Hmmmmm.
I have also read in more than a few articles and studies that fascia has been measured to have the tensile strength of steel. Can I be so confident that the material of which a foam roller is made can produce enough force to lengthen or stretch something that my Volkswagen is made of?? An even better question wouldn’t you say? Now there are people saying, “ …but I’ve felt my IT bands get looser after a good roll with the foam!!!”
My next question would be; what makes you think you were changing the status of the fascial tissue of the IT band at all? Could it be that you were simply relaxing the muscles that are attached to the IT band like Tensor Fascia Latae and Gluteus Maximus? Since all muscles are enveloped in that same tissue that has that steel like strength, what is actually happening? Typically modalities that are designed to take away tension and provide mobility within soft tissue are good at doing one thing; changing the way that tissue communicates with the brain. The relaxation response from foam rolling, stretching, massage even modalities like ART (Active Release Technique) affect the neurological function of a muscle and dampen the afferent messaging process traveling towards the CNS. This makes contractile tissue less prepared to deal with unexpected load. Wait… I’m UN-preparing my muscles for load??? To tell a muscle to stop pulling so hard when pulling was exactly what it was designed to do just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. So why do people use tools like the foam roller? The simple answer is that they associate the result and the feeling during the application of this cylindrical Goliath with a positive change from their current state… It “feels” good!!! Quite frankly all I’ve ever seen is a look of utter agony when beginners and athletes alike drop themselves full bore into a foam roller and wince away the subsequent 10-20 minutes of “feeling good” until they appear sufficiently pummeled and ready for action. To each their own I suppose. I have actually read recently there are certifications in “Foam Rollerdom”.
This doesn’t mean my assessment of logic and examination of the materials and forces associated with the application of a foam roller negate any positive affects it may wield. Circulatory and Lymphatic benefits alone as one possibility certainly make me not want to throw the baby out with the bath water. It just brings to mind one of my favorite quotes by a man named Edward DeBono, “It’s historical continuity that maintains most assumptions, not repeated assessment of their validity”

Peter Chiasson BSc,MATcms,RTSm,RTS/MAT Instructor
Neuromuscular Rehabilitation Specialist
Biomechanics Assessment and Correction

12 Responses to “Foam Rollers…?”

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  11. Mark Bogacki says:

    Peter, good to see the website developing.

    With respect to foam rollers..thank you for addressing this. I have managed to withhold the use of this device with clients despite watching many club members use this. That is, until recently. A client requested to try it as part of their training. I researched how it was applied and for what reason. Several you-tube and articles later, a client of mine used it for her glutes (we held off low back). Like stretching, the foam roller as you said is a ‘feel good’ thing. For this particular client as well as all others, nothing has increased range of motion like muscle activation techniques–and the subsequent corrective exercises bore proof of it. Indeed, the foam roller may be good for a nightcap, like massage.

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