Happy Monday CCTS family! As always, I want to start off by saying THANK YOU to everyone that read last week’s entry on The Importance of Stretching, and to everyone who’s here reading right now. Now this post was originally going to be apart of last week’s, but in order to keep last week’s post from being impossibly long, I decided to split them up. This week we are focusing on The Benefits of Foam Rolling. This one was also a fun one to write, so I hope you guys enjoy. Let’s get to it!
What is Foam Rolling
Now I’m sure that every single one of us has walked into the gym and seen people laying out on the big mats using a foam roller. They grab this giant foam cylinder, plop down on top of the foam roller, and almost always look like they are in some sort of miserable pain hahaha. I’ve had past clients ask me about foam rolling and say “It just looks like people are torturing themselves whenever I see people using a foam roller”, which honestly, if you had no idea what foam rolling was meant for, that would be a SUPER fair assessment lol. It can suck so much ass sometimes haha. Fam rolling is a form of myofascial release, which is a technique that involves putting gradual and sustained pressure on a muscle. Myofascial release is exactly what it sounds like: it is a variety of techniques used to help release built up tension in the muscle with the purpose of eliminating pain and restoring motion to the affected muscle.
Foam rolling is a form of self myofascial release (SMR). Cheatham et al. (2015) explain “evidence exists that suggests these tools can enhance joint range of motion (ROM) and the recovery process by decreasing the effects of acute muscle soreness, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and post exercise muscle performance”. For athletes and people who frequently exercise, the foam roller should sound like the BEST thing ever. This is exactly why you see so many professional athletes on the sidelines using SMR tools like a Hypervolt/massage gun, tennis/lacrosse balls, or even manual roller sticks.
Foam rolling helps to stimulate the bodies nature healing response. Foam rolling breaks up scar tissue that may have formed in the muscle, releases tension built up in the muscle and the fascia, increases the temperature of the area being rolled, and most importantly, increase blood flow to the affected are. Increased blood flow is awesome because that helps to bring oxygen to those muscles as they recover. It is also believed that the increased blood flow to the muscle brought on by foam rolling causes “(1) increased circulating neutrophil levels; (2) smaller increases in post-exercise plasma creatine kinase; (3) activated mechanosensory sensors that signal transcription of COX7B and ND1, indicating that new mitochondria are being formed and presumably accelerating the healing of the muscle; and (4) less active heat-shock proteins and immune cytokines, reflecting less cellular stress and inflammation” (Pearcey et al. 2015). Now I know that this seems like a bunch of science talk (well, because it is), but these are the same biochemical changes that are brought about by massage therapy, which typically brings about acute benefits.
Now there is a ton of things that we could talk about today in regards to foam rolling, but I want to focus on 2 things specifically
Range of Motion (ROM)
The Effects of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
In last week’s post The Importance of Stretching, we talked about how a tight muscle can affect the ROM of the joint that it influences. Well, like stretching, foam rolling helps to improve a joints ROM also. Regardless of the level of competition, having stiff muscles and joints can have a detrimental affect on athletic performance. I mean, think about it - stiff muscles and decreased ROM can mean the difference between a soccer player making a breakaway or tearing their hamstring while sprinting. Get this: foam rolling has been shown time and time again in the literature to produce acute gains in joint ROM (Wilke et al. 2020). Just so we’re clear, foam rolling has been shown to show ACUTE gains in ROM, not necessarily chronic gains. This means that the increased ROM as a result of foam rolling is very short lived.
It makes perfect sense why athletes of all levels cling to foam rollers before, and sometimes even during competitions - that acute gain in ROM and decrease in muscle stiffness as a result of foam rolling can give athletes can give athletes just the mobility they need to be be successful and prevent muscle strains. Lets think about a sumo deadlift here. I’ll just use myself for an example. My adductors are seriously disgustingly tight hahahaha. Your adductors eccentrically contract during the loading phase of a sumo deadlift; therefore, an increased ROM in the adductors would be beneficial for form and loading. Before I can even think about doing a sumo deadlift, it is vital that I foam roll my adductors. Without the acute gains in ROM that foam rolling provides, I simply would not have the hip mobility to perform heavy sumos with proper form, and I would put myself at a much higher risk of injury.
As far as chronic improvements in ROM, foam rolling alone (based on my research) hasn’t shown to be very effective in maintaining ROM gains; however, a combination of foam rolling and eccentric exercises has been shown in the literature to be very effective at maintaining ROM gains (Aune et al. 2019). When you break it down and think about it, this makes so much sense. Eccentric contractions occur when a muscle produces tension as it lengthens (ex: the downward phase of a bicep curl). The idea behind this is that once you see the acute ROM benefits of foam rolling, you want to capitalize on the increased ROM by activating the muscle fibers in that new ROM. Activating those muscle fibers while in that new ROM is basically our way of telling our muscles “hey, it’s okay to operate in this ROM”. Eccentric exercises are perfect for activating those muscle fibers in the new-found ROM because those muscle fibers activate as they are stretched (lengthened) in eccentric exercises. It’s the perfect match lol.
Decreasing the Effects of DOMS
Alright, who’s ready to talk about DOMS? I know for a fact all of my exercise-science majors out there hear me hahahah. DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, and let me just say, the shit sucks lol. So right after your lift, you’ve got a nice pump going and you feel good about the weight you just pushed. The next day you wake up and you’re a little sore, but it’s whatever because you do this shit and you expected that. But yo.. TWO DAYS AFTER??? Like the two days after leg day where you’ve gotta hype yourself just to be able to squat down to get into your car? That's DOMS. Literally anyone who has ever done anything active ever has experienced DOMS at one point or another. DOMS usually peaks between 24-72 hours, which explains why that second day after a lift is always the absolute worst in terms of soreness. There are multiple theories as to what causes DOMS, such as lactic acid build up (although this is mostly debunked), micro-tears in the muscles, inflammation, and many others; however, there isn’t a 100% consensus in the literature as to the true cause of DOMS (Cheung, Hume & Maxwell 2003). There is. however, a 100% consensus amongst gym goers and athletes that DOMS sucks and there should be a way to help alleviate that pain lol.
Enter the foam roller!!! Foam rolling has been widely accepted in the literature to assist in decreasing the affects of DOMS. Specifically, it is well documented in the literature that foam rolling assists in decreasing the pain-pressure threshold (minimum force needed to induce pain). Although the sample size was rather small (8 participants), a study conducted by Pearcey et al. (2015) found that foam rolling for 20 minutes immediately following a bout of resistance training was 74% likely to decrease the pain-pressure threshold at 24 hours post-exercise, and 94% likely to decrease the pain-pressure threshold at 48 hours post exercise. Now, this is significant information to note. Tender muscles following a bout of exercise are a sign that the muscle was stressed, and is in the process of repairing itself. We kind of like that feeling of soreness because we feel like we worked hard, but we DO NOT like being so sore that its debilitating lol. Foam rolling can help decrease that peak soreness brought on by DOMS, and I think that alone is reason enough to foam roll hahahahah.
All In All
Yeah, foam rolling can suck so bad sometimes when you're sore or tight, but the benefits of foam rolling 100% outweigh the brief moment of being uncomfortable. For those of you like me who struggle with tight hips, foam rolling needs to be apart of every single leg-day warm up. As we said earlier, the acute gain in ROM from foam rolling can be the difference between a successful sumo squat and a strained groin. Again, foam rolling produces acute gains in ROM by itself, but when partnered with eccentric exercises, those gains can be maintained. Eccentric exercise allows our muscles to adapt to producing force in our new-found ROM and trains our body to feel comfortable moving through that new ROM. And if that wasn't enough for you to feel the need to go foam roll, then foam rolling's decrease on the effects of DOMS should do it for you. I enjoy a good sore feeling every now and then yeah, but I don't know a SOUL who loves the feeling of having to think twice before sitting on the toilet because of how sore they are hahahaaha. So go foam roll!!
Here is an awesome video that demonstrates a full-body foam rolling routine. Check this out and give it a try after your next lift!
Again, happy Monday CCTS Family. Thanks for rockin' with me for another edition of The Nerdy Athlete. Go attack the week!!