How, When, and Why You Foam Roll

Knowing what foam rolling is, why it works, and when you should use it will save you time – and maybe embarrassment – before your workout.

What Foam Rolling Is (and Isn’t)
Foam rolling is a form of self myofascial release (SMR). The goal of SMR is to take muscles that are knotted, shortened, or overactive and apply strategic pressure to restore a healthy length-tension relationship in that muscle. 

After years of working 50 hours per week at a desk, John Q. Bickle (get it?) develops hunched shoulders. He most likely has overactive and shortened pectoral (chest) muscles which pull the shoulder forward. SMR is used to trick these tight muscles into relaxing by applying strategic controlled pressure.

SMR is not a total body warm up. Every gym has that one guy who aggressively rolls every single part of his body for an hour before actually lifting anything. That guy is accomplishing absolutely nothing. He’s a prime example of why it’s important to know how SMR works so it can be an effective use of your time.

How It Works (AKA The Fun Science Part)
Individual muscle fibers are grouped into muscle spindles. Muscle spindles monitor and control the length of the muscle. Every muscle spindle has a golgi tendon organ (GTO) at the base when the muscle meets the tendon, which connects to the bone. The GTO’s job is to monitor the tension in the muscle. When the tension in the muscle reaches a point where the GTO thinks injury could result, it encourages the muscle spindle to relax, inhibit, and lengthen the muscle. 

This relaxing and lengthening can remove knots, relieve tension, and relax the targeted muscles. Once relaxed, full firing of the muscle is inhibited for 10-20 minutes. Overactive muscles will be sleepy for that time and less responsive.

In practice, this means applying 30-60 seconds of consistent pressure to tight, sore, bumpy, overactive, or pain-in-the-ass spots in the muscle. This will usually hurt (read: this will suck every time forever). If the knot you’re treating is big and painful you don’t even have to move; just lean into it and breath deep. If you do prefer to roll over the painful spots, do it slowly. Rolling quickly will excite the already shortened muscle and could make your situation worse. 

When To Use It
You should only use foam rolling (or other modes of SMR) on knotted or chronically overactive muscles. Using SMR techniques on underactive, weak, or lengthened muscles will relax and inhibit those muscles further, and those are muscles that need to be activated.

This is why you shouldn’t blindly foam roll your entire body like bike short guy. It completely defeats the purpose. Sure, you’re getting some muscles that need it, but now your underactive muscles don’t have the head start they need to help restore balance to the joint. 

So, for our friend John Q. Bickle – use SMR on the pecs to lengthen and inhibit the firing of those already short and overactive muscles. Now, while the overactive muscles are slow and inhibited, the underactive muscles on the posterior side of the shoulder (traps, rhomboids, rotator cuff muscles) have a chance to fire without being overpowered by the pecs. Over time, those posterior muscles get stronger, pulling the shoulders back and restoring healthy joint movement.

The whole practice should take roughly 1 minute per affected body part. If you’ve been rolling for more than 10 minutes, you’re probably wasting time. SMR won’t solve your imbalances overnight, but it is essential to ultimately eliminating your pain.

“That Didn’t Work For Me”
If SMR hasn’t been enough to fix your pain, there are three questions you need to ask:

  1. Do I know which muscles are overactive and which are underactive? Can I find knots effectively? You could be looking in the wrong place. If you know where to roll, proceed to question 2.
  2. Did I give it several weeks of consistent effort? If not, you’re being impatient or inconsistent and it won’t work. If you’ve been diligent but nothing has changed proceed to question 3.
  3. Do I know a good chiropractor and/or doctor? If corrective exercise isn’t doing the trick there may be something going on that’s beyond our scope of practice. Any coach or trainer that gives you a “final diagnosis” of your pain is full of shit. Once you have a unworkable pain issue it becomes a medical problem, so get it checked out by a medical professional. It never hurts to find out if your chronic low back pain is actually more sinister than tight hip flexors. The more information you have, the better.

If you’re still unsure about your foam rolling skills, feel free to drop me an email with your questions. This is a practice that can relieve pain and help transform your physique.

I leave you to your foam rolling with the inspirational words of Optimus Prime: