Friday, April 18, 2014

Essential Guide To Foam Rolling

Foam rolling may just be the most popular form of self massage for strength trainers…but it is not without controversy.   Read on for this guide to foam rolling and the current debate.

**INCLUDE IN THIS POST** is a downloadable guide to basic foam rolling movements to go along with the video.

Foam Rolling Explained

Foam rolling utilizes a technique called Self-myofascial release (SMR).  Muscles contain a proprioceptor called the Golgi Tendon Organ. The GTO is responsible for saving us from a lot of injuries.  When a muscle is activated to the point of near injury, the GTO reflex sends a message to shut the muscle down.


Before I break it down, I will throw a little more alphabet soup at you – this is called autogenic inhibition.  The Golgi tendon is basically providing the body feedback on muscle tension.  Autogenic inhibition is a safety measure to shut muscles down before they provide more force than bones and tendons can handle.

Without getting too complicated, the pressure created by the foam rolling stimulates the GTO and causes the muscle to relax.    The brief relaxation will allow for an increased range of motion (ROM) and improve tissue quality (Its important to not only have strong muscles, but also flexible – especially for athletes and anyone that wants to feel better from lifting)(1)

Reduction in soft tissue tension will help restore the muscle’s length-tension relationship.

Let me break it down with an example.  The roads here in New York and across the country are full of post-winter pot holes.  Every time I’m cruising down the road blaring some “Bringing Sexy Back” I crush one of these pot holes and have to get off the gas and slow down.

Imagine how much better it would be once someone comes along and smooths the road out and fixes the pot holes?  I will be able to drive more efficiently with out all the stops and starts.

In this example, the road represents your muscles and the car is the muscle activation.  Muscle adhesion and scar tissue build up will cause your muscles to relax (aka get off the gas).

Simply put, foam rolling is one step to returning the muscle back it’s healthy state to fire most efficiently.

Benefits of Foam Rolling

I’ll turn to one Integrated Training For The New Millennium by Clark to list the benefits of foam rolling(2):

  • Address Muscle Imbalances
  • Increase Joint Range of Motion
  • Decrease Muscle Soreness While Increasing Joint ROM
  • Increased Nueromusclar Efficiency
  • Maintain Normal Muscle Length


I have a feeling this question will come up, so I’ll cover it now.  Self myofasical release should not be confused with Active Release Technique (ART).   ART is typically done by a certified provider and uses hand pressure to release fibrous soft tissue adhesion.    There are different levels of ART which include having the client move against the provider’s pressure.

The goals are similar, just the method of accomplishing it is slightly different.

Foam Roller vs Hands

What would you prefer, foam rolling or a deep tissue massage?  I would definitely go for the professional massage.  HOWEVER foam rollers are also called the “poor man’s massage” for a reason.  Many athletes can’t afford an $80+ an hour massage a few times a week.  I certainly can’t.

The foam roller was created so large groups (ie workout groups or teams) could receive some of the benefits of massage while still being practical.

Criticisms Of Foam Rolling

I have read a few articles by trainers advocating against foam rolling.  Their arguments typically point out a lack of studies on the benefits of massage in general and that foam rolling before a workout lengthens the muscle so it is similar to static stretching.

While I respect their opinions, I have worked with SMR since 2003 when it was first introduced to me by my college roommate as he was preparing to break into the NFL.  I would highly recommend you try foam rolling and come to your own conclusions.

After using one for 2 weeks I was sold and have been enjoying the benefits since.  I have not seen a decrease in strength as I have with static stretching (duration of general muscle lengthening before force is applied) pre-workout.  Additionally studies (including a 2008 study ant Vanderbuilt University) have started to pop up validating ART and others in the works on SMR.

How and When To Foam Roll

Alright let’s roll (very bad pun totally intended)!  Foam rolling is incredibly easy to do.  Take the roller, place your body weight on it, and roll on a muscle group.  If the muscle is tender – as some areas like the IT band will be occasionally – then use your off leg to brace some of you weight on.

I do a light foam rolling preworkout, then a full 5-10 minute session after training.  Different trainers have various protocols, but this works best for me.  I also take approximately 30-60 seconds per muscle group when doing a full foam roll session.

If you hit a spot that is sore, then just apply pressure to the area with the roller for 30-60 seconds.  Do NOT roll bruises or acute injuries.  Also, if you have circulatory or other medical conditions I would not advise foam rolling until you consult a medical professional.

If you are worried about forgetting some of the exercises you will see in the video, here is quick print out for you to take to the gym and check off as you roll!

=>Hashey’s Guide To Foam Rolling (pdf) <=

Download the guide, print it out, and throw it in your gym bag!  Like stretching, you will have to try it out for a few weeks to start to see results.

What Foam Roller To Purchase

The harder the more manly!  100% kidding.  If you go with something that is rock solid, like a PVC pipe, to start off with it will HURT your results.

Why?  Well when you put that kind of pressure on your muscles you will naturally tense up and defeat the purpose of SMR.   I’m not saying that PVC isn’t a cheap alternative for some that have experience with soft tissue work, I’m just advising a progression instead of attempting to start with a rock.

Here are some options:

Low Density Foam Rollers: These are typically white, but I see them sold in all colors at Dick’s Sporting Goods.  They are soft and decent to start with, but not worth it in my opinion.  They are so soft they will crush in a matter of weeks and you will have to buy another.


“High Density” Foam Rollers: I have a blue one, but they often come in black as well.  This is my recommendation for starters.  High density does not mean rock solid.  After all, its still foam.  This will last you a long time.  I have had my current high density eva foam roller for about 5 years and it still is in great shape.


PVC Pipe: Real cheap…but real hard.  Make sure you head my warning above and make sure to progress – or at least wrap it in something when you start.


**I will have more creative options for you this week in a new article called “Beyond The Foam Roller…Get on the newsletter below to get that article sent to your inbox**

How To Foam Roll Video

In addition to the downloadable Guide To Foam Rolling for your gym bag, here are some of the common methods demonstrated.  Note:  This is a demonstration only, I usually roll longer each muscle group BUT I think that would make for a boring 10 minute video :)

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- Joe Hashey, CSCS -

1. Proprioceptors. Bess.
2. Self Myofasical Release Techniques. Clark, MA. 2000
3. Feel Better For 10 Bucks. Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson. 2004


210 Responses to “Essential Guide To Foam Rolling”
  1. [..YouTube..] I think that’s why you warm up, so the GTO stimulation isn’t as great but you have improved recovery/ That makes no sense lol

  2. Scott M says:

    When I used to compete in strongman, I would “keg roll” – I didn’t have a foam roller, and I thought to myself “Well hey, kegs roll!” It worked pretty well for the spots I could hit with it.

    What do you think of a swim noodle or pipe insulation around a piece of PVC to start?

  3. Scott,

    I like the idea, but I couldn’t get the foam to stick to the PVC good enough. I’d pick one up on and save the hassle.



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  1. FitMarker says:

    Essential Guide To Foam Rolling : Synergy Athletics &ndash; Muscle and Strength Training For Athletes…

    Foam rolling may just be the most popular form of self massage for strength trainers…but it is not without controversy. Read on for this guide to foam rolling and the current debate….

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