Foam Rollers: Road to Recovery or Circle of Death?
Foam Roller: Three Reasons Why I Don’t Recommend Them
Foam roller devotees swear by foam rolling and tout its benefits. Then there are those like me who believe grinding away on a foam roller is nothing more than a band-aid. A poor one at that. While it might ease the pain in the short term, it doesn’t address the underlying cause of pain or discomfort.
Is there a better option?
Self Care & Recovery
Every time I first see a new client I start off by asking them an important question: what is their self-care routine? More often than not their answer includes foam rolling. After all, it’s a very popular tool that we see in gyms and fitness videos all the time. But should this be part of everyone’s regimen? It turns out foam rolling is a polarizing topic.
Pain & Posture
First, we have to answer the question: where did the pain come from? I could write a novel on the varied potential reasons, but the short and sweet of it is: it’s how we move. If you move in an unnatural way you’ll have more pain; move in a natural way, you’ll have less pain. Movement and body position is key to feeling healthy and pain-free. So for a foam roller to help reduce pain, it would have to change how we move… but we know that grinding away on a piece of foam can’t do that. One of my mentors, Tom Myers, once said:
“You can manipulate the tissue all you want. You can loosen it, make it more relaxed, whatever, but manually manipulating it can’t train it. Now you CAN train the tissue properly to fix pain and not manually manipulate it, but it’s a hell of a lot harder.”
You DON’T need manual therapy (e.g. a foam roller) to get out of pain, but you DO need to change how you move. Manual therapy may help make training easier, but the root of the issue is your own movement.
Why Do People Use a Foam Roller?
It’s easy to see why people use them. I found plenty of YouTube videos and articles suggesting foam roller exercises to correct posture. Blogs claiming that foam rolling is excellent at treating neck pain are everywhere. Social media is constantly abuzz with pro-foam roller posts in exercise groups. Its proponents claim it can relieve pain, aid recovery, increase flexibility and correct posture. Could foam rolling be the panacea that we are all looking for? Everyone seems to have their own anecdote about foam rollers, but what does the research say?
To find out I looked at the current research to check the validity of these wondrous claims. I looked at the data to see what benefits if any, foam rollers could provide. The results may come as a surprise to many. After reviewing the research, the answer was clear: I found no data suggesting that foam rolling is effective for reducing pain.
Foam Roller Research
I did find is that foam rolling can be useful to help mask certain issues. Meta-analysis of a variety of studies (Cheatham et al1) suggests that it can help with short-term flexibility and recovery. Sounds great, right? In my professional opinion, no. While foam rolling may make you feel better in the short term, it doesn’t help with lactic acid buildup and the underlying issue remains. In reality, to be pain-free and to have more effective workouts, masking the problem isn’t going to cut it. We need to address the root cause itself.
So what can people do for pain if foam rollers aren’t the magic cure-all that so many people say they are? Luckily there are healthy alternatives that may provide people with better results!
There is a reason why I call them “circles of death”, despite offering short-term relief. Why? Because they don’t address the cause and give people a false sense of progress and well-being. In some cases, they can even exacerbate the issue. I always focus on treating the cause, not the symptom. But when immediate relief is needed, there are much better alternatives to foam rolling.
Foam Roller: Not This, But That
Here are my 3 reasons why we dissuade clients from using foam rollers and our healthy alternatives.
- Foam roller pain
- Tight, Stiff, and Weak Muscles
- Improper Usage
Read on to see what you can do instead of using a foam roller!
1. Foam Rollers are Painful!
Even during a massage, there is such a fine line between “Ahhhhh” and “Ouch!” I can’t stress enough that the “no pain no gain mentality” isn’t beneficial and the same goes for the foam roller. I’ve watched people grimace, hold their breath and tense up as they grind away. As you are trying to “loosen the muscles naturally” you are actually tensing your muscles.
The pain can also be a sign that you’re causing more damage. People can often push too hard on the roller and come away with bruises and muscle strain. This should be a clear sign to back off. Sometimes your knee pain or IT band will feel better after a hard rolling of the quads. But it’s not because foam rolling fixed the problem. It’s because you’ve numbed those areas and now have pain elsewhere that your brain is focusing on. Deep pressure needs to be applied gradually and in the right direction to achieve therapeutic results. Rolling over a piece of foam won’t cut it.
Fix Foam Roller Pain!
If you do have a painful IT band, I have a stretch that I routinely recommend to my clients. It’s one that addresses the real issue and can help you on the road to recovery. To do this stretch, lie down on a flat bench and position yourself so that your leg can hang off slightly. Flatten your back against the bench as shown below. One leg at a time, flex your toes and foot at your ankle back towards your body while extending your arms. This will relieve tension in the IT band to help alleviate things such as knee pain or other discomforts due to the IT band being tight.
2. Tight Muscles, Stiff Muscles, and Weak Muscles
Often the muscle group that is in pain is loose, weak, and overused. These are the muscles people focus on rolling. If you are loosening an already loose muscle with a foam roller, you are compounding the problem!
Fix Those Muscles!
To fix the problem you must fix the muscle imbalance. Many people are unaware they have a muscle imbalance. If one muscle is tight, often the antagonist muscle is weak and causes pain. A foam roller will do nothing to help fix this. You need to fix the problem muscle or group of muscles with proper exercise or therapy from a professional.
3. Improper Usage of the Tool
This is a big one. I once read an article with the headline: “Tips to open up your chest.” I’m always looking for new research and information I can use to assist my clients, so I delved into the article. Much to my horror, I found it was full of photos like this:
Get the Right Stretch!
If you’re worried about rolled shoulders and bad posture, read more on my post: Good Posture & You.
People often roll their glutes and hamstrings as well to help with lower back pain. This requires an individual to put all their body weight on their shoulders. This is a compromising position. As they roll up and down the glutes or hamstring they hyperextend the shoulders. This risks possible injury and more pain–the very thing they are trying to fix!
For the hamstrings, I have a much BETTER option to loosen them up in a HEALTHY way. If you have lower back pain, try this exercise to help reduce pain and keep your body injury-free. All you need is a yoga ball and you can loosen up the fascial tissue to help your recovery in no time. Try it yourself and see how easy it can be.
People don’t realize how easy it is to misuse a foam roller and make their problem even worse. A personal trainer would never recommend lifting with improper form, so why would they introduce improper form for recovery? While I only used a few muscle groups as an example here, there are many other BETTER exercises you can do instead of using a foam roller.
Foam rolling’s benefits are tenuous at best. Evidence shows foam rolling may have short-term benefits, but at what cost? The reasons why it may “help” in the short term are still unknown. What is known is that they don’t address the root cause of the problem. The bottom line is pain and flexibility are a result of how you move. Fixing the problem means fixing how you move. But if you DO have pain now, there are many other methods that are less risky, healthier, and easier than foam rolling. You don’t need to put your body in compromising positions and risk further injury during your recovery.
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1. Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. THE EFFECTS OF SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827-38. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4637917/