Coach Kevin’s Korner: Making Foam Rolling Work for You

Are you friends with your foam roller? Do you rely on it for class prep and WOD recovery? It is possible that you are not using the tool in the most effective way. Don’t get me wrong, foam rolling and smashing have their benefits when used wisely in training. For you to get the most out of foam rolling, it will help for you to understand what foam rolling and smashing do and don’t do for your body.


Gaining Popularity

Foam rolling has gained popularity in recent years, partly due to the belief that it can make physical changes to your body.  This includes loosening muscle knots and breaking up scar tissue. Sales have skyrocketed for foam rollers and lacrosse balls. However, recent research has shown no evidence that any human tools (foam rollers, lacrosse balls,tool-assisted assisted manual therapy, etc.) can actually remodel or change tissue structure. A study by Chudhry et al (2008) found that we would need around 1870 lbs of pressure in order to create a 1% change in physical tissue structure. So I guess if you do want to make a small physical change, you can run your quads over by a car a few times. (NOT RECOMMENDED)

It has also been suggested that foam rolling can help increase temperature and blood flow in a specific area. A study by Murray et al (2016) examined if muscle temperature would change with foam rolling. The study took an experimental group (foamed rolled) and a control group (did not foam roll) and put them through a single bout of foam rolling the quads. They concluded that there was NO significant temperature change difference between the two groups.

Positive Impact

Even though some recent studies show that foam rolling and smashing do not make physical changes to tissue and do not raise the temperature, there still some positive effects. Through my studying of research and understanding of the human body and the nervous system, I believe what is most likely happening is that when we foam roll (or do any other form of self-myofascial work), we are tapping into the neuromuscular system to make changes in the physiology, which is known as our neurophysiological model. This suggests that by foam rolling or stretching, we’re not causing actual tissue changes.  Rather, we are decreasing the neurological tone by activating receptors in the nervous system that sense tissue tightness and/or pain. In layman’s terms, this means foam rolling is changing our body’s perception of tight or painful tissues.  After rolling or smashing, the brain perceives tissues to be looser and less painful.

Best Practices

Understanding how foam rolling and smashing are truly functioning helps us rethink their best application. Many of us may think of using the foam roller to help aid in recovery post-exercise. However, if foam rolling doesn’t make physical changes or increase temperature or blood flood, it is not very useful as a recovery tool.

Therefore, I would recommend using the foam roller/smashing within warm-ups.  More importantly, rolling and smashing should be used with some form of loaded active movement. If foam rolling helps your body perceive, but not actually create,  less tightness and pain, it is going to be most effective as a warm-up tool, not an actual recovery tool.

Roll and Smash Pre Class

Foam rolling and smashing are most effective if incorporated during the mobility and warm-ups sections of class. Within warm-ups, short, frequent bouts of rolling followed by immediate loading and movement in the newly established range of motion created by the rolling or smashing can be effective. Short bouts can be anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 seconds. A study by Sullivan et el (2013) demonstrated that rolling for just 10 seconds led to increases in range of motions as much as foam rolling the same area for 1 minute.

A 3-Step Process

Effective incorporation of foam rolling can be done in three steps.

1. Start with a short bout of foam rolling to decrease muscle tone and increase a temporary change in range of motion
2. Perform an active movement through the new full range of motion with intent to control the newly-increased range of motion to teach the body control this new range of motion
3. Load the new range of motion with weighted movements

For example, if we are doing squats, we would start out with (1) 30 sec of smashing your glutes to increase range of motion directly followed by (2) hip CARs to teach the body to control that new range of motion, then lastly (3) load the squat with something like the goblet squat.


Class Incorporation

We have been working to incorporate this philosophy of rolling and smashing into our mobility and warm-ups in class on a more frequent basis. The next time you are in class, see if you can spot these three steps in action and know that they are an application of what I believe to be best practices in rolling and smashing based on their positive impact on the body’s perception of tightness and pain.

You can also apply these principles for yourself before class or when you workout on your own. Happy pre-wod smashing!