As a corrective exercise specialist I love when my clients ask questions. As I am handing them the foam roller in their workouts, I frequently get asked, “Why should I foam roll?” Although foam rolling has huge benefits, I still get some resistance from clients because – well let’s be frank – sometimes it is uncomfortable and it takes time (and who has extra time during their day!). But turns out, the discomfort and the time lead to huge benefits, so it is worth it to give it a shot.
Why is it painful to foam roll?
When repetitive motion is done for example sitting or running, certain muscles are used more than others. These muscles then become overactive, tight and inflamed. The muscle receptors create the “pain” sensation and can create spasms causing it to be uncomfortable to foam roll. Sound familiar to anyone?
What does foam rolling do?
This action stimulates the receptions through the slow pressure for certain intensity, amount and duration decrease the gamma loop activity.
Wait, “gamma loop”? Lets break it down a bit…Say you have been sitting at your desk for about eight hours. There are certain muscles such as your hip flexors and muscles in your chest that become tight.
Think of that tight muscle like piece of paper that all of a sudden has been wadded up into a tiny ball. That right there is called a muscle adhesion and it can been fixed by foam rolling. The foam roller “smooths the piece of paper out of the tiny ball” that the repetitive movement has created after about 60 to 90 seconds of applying pressure on the muscle.
This all sounds great but why should I foam roll?
There is one big reason why you should foam roll. When your a muscle becomes tight and overactive it shortens your range of motion.
Shortened range of motion can cause:
News flash -- these are all bad things that can lead to serious mobility issues and or injury.
Shortened range of motion can also prevent you from doing things that you enjoy doing or can leave you coming home from work with aches and pains. But, it could get worse from here. When there is a range of motion is limited you can start compensating. Compensating can take one small issue and turn it into a bunch of new issues. Think about when you have hurt yourself – most of your have at some point sprained your ankle or weaken your neck. You may have found yourself either limping to one side or have trouble turning your head…this is a compensation.
Looking at the larger scale of things when you compensate after a long period of time this can lead to further injury, a DOMINO EFFECT. Example: low back pain, can lead to hip pain, to knee pain, to ankle and foot pain. And who wants any of that if it can be avoided, right?
So, how do you prevent the domino effect?
Lucky for you, there are corrective exercises to help avoid (or recover from) the injuries discussed above. There are multiple ways to foam roll or in corrective exercise terms “inhibit” muscle tissue. You do not even have to use a “foam roller” you can use:
How to know which sphere to pick: the smaller the roller the easier it will be to get into the smaller muscles in the shoulders and the bigger spheres are great for larger muscle groups.
What do I do when it hurts?
So when you start to roll and the pain is unbearable you can do two things to solve this.
- Pick a softer sphere, if you are choosing a foam roller the white rollers are the softest, blue follows and black is the most dense.
- You can place the opposite foot/leg down if you are rolling an IT-Band or hand/arm down if you are working on your shoulder or latissimus dorsi to give a little leverage so there is not so much pressure on the muscle adhesion.
- Don’t forget to breathe! When you hold your breath oxygen cannot get to your muscles allowing them to relax. So it you hit that tender spot just stay on the adhession and breathe.
Coming up Next: Three foam rolling exercises to alleviate low back pain and why, stay tuned!
Sources Clark , M., & Lucett, S. (2011). Nasm's essentials of corrective exercise training. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Sahrmann, S. (2022). Diagnosis and treatment of movement impairment syndromes. St. Louis, Missouri: Moby Inc.