Could you be missing out on the importance of foam rolling? Foam rollers are everywhere — on the gym floor, in the fitness studios, and even on TV. You probably get the fundamentals of how to use this piece of equipment, but do you know the full story on the benefits of foam rolling? Foam rollers act on soft tissue, increasing flexibility, and range of motion. Better range of motion helps with injury prevention, increased muscle performance, strength gains, and fat loss — just to name a few.
How does Foam Rolling Work?
When using a foam roller, you position your body to apply pressure to tender areas in the muscle tissue. This is called self-myofascial release, and it works directly on trigger points. Either through injury, poor posture or repetitive movement, microscopic damage happens to muscle fibers. When this happens, the muscle will spasm and cause the area to shut down. This starts on such a small level that you might not notice it. But over time, it grows. Then, nutrients and oxygen can’t reach the area and waste can’t be removed. This forms the tender, sometimes painful, trigger points, and because the muscle shuts down, it decreases available range of motion.
When using a foam roller, you apply pressure to those areas of muscle. The pressure acts on cell receptors to force a relaxation response in the muscle. In essence, it shuts down the spasm and allows muscle tissue to move more freely. It sometimes feels painful because the receptors also happen to be pain receptors. When rolling, be sure to hold the tender areas for 20 to 30 seconds instead of rolling back and forth. Rolling back and forth might feel nicer, even similar to a massage; however, it’s a calculated effort. The receptors need the 20 to 30 seconds of pressure to protectively force the muscle to relax and ultimately give you a greater range of motion.
How does Greater Range of Motion Help?
It might seem obvious that a greater range of motion implies better flexibility. But there are so many less-obvious benefits you could be missing! From injury prevention to increased muscle mass, better range of motion means a lot for fitness fans.
Over time, especially if you sit at a desk all day or do the same movement over and over, you lose range of motion. This impacts your overall posture and ability to move correctly. When your regular posture is faulty, then movement under stress is faulty, which leads to injury. For example, if you sit in front of a computer most of the day, your shoulders will start rounding forward. Additionally, your hip flexors will get tight from being a seated position for so long. Then, if you come to the gym and do pushups, your shoulders might have sharp pain. This is because you’re trying to do your pushups with a lesser range of motion and incorrect movement. If you ignore it, the problem will grow and potentially lead to injury.
The case of tight hip flexors is a similar example. Maybe you want to go for a run but you notice, after a long day, your lower back hurts. This is because your hip flexors are forcing an arch in your back. This creates pain, and over time can lead to chronic back pain. When you do foam roller exercises to the areas prone to tightness, you prime your body for peak muscle performance. You’re also ensuring better overall movement throughout the day. All of this decreases your risk of injury.
Increased Muscle Performance
When you have the best range of motion, your muscle tissue can perform at its best. On the flip side, a shortened range of motion will prevent you from fully activating the muscle groups to their greatest potential. When at an ideal length, you can lift more because you’re activating a greater percentage of the muscle fibers. When you can lift more, you’re able to build more muscle tissue or size, and also growing your strength gains. When applying foam roller exercises, make sure you target the areas to be worked for that day’s workout. Also target muscles you’re using during your workout. For example, if you have a leg day coming up, apply foam roller pressure to your calves, hip flexors (tensor fasciae latae and quadriceps), and piriformis. This will give you greater strength and lean body mass gains during your lower body workout.
When you do self-myofascial release (foam rolling) after a workout, you can speed up your recovery in the following days. By rolling the areas affected by exercise, you’re increasing blood flow. This, in turn, helps remove waste products from the soft tissue and deliver oxygen-rich blood back to the muscle. As with other benefits of foam rolling, the benefits are cyclical. By recovering faster, you’re more likely to move correctly in the days following an intense workout. This reduces the likelihood of further tissue damage and movement dysfunction. It also helps you perform better and faster.
Body Fat Loss
Hitting and releasing trigger points directly won’t cause body fat loss. However, for all the reasons above, it contributes to it. One of the main reasons people fall off an exercise program is due to pain or injury. Unfortunately, so many times the pain and injury is a result of poor movement patterns. When you correct movement patterns and posture, you’re able to keep exercise and daily activity a more positive experience. You’re also able to continue pushing yourself and progressing in your workouts.
It’s often overlooked, but increases in lean body mass translate to increases in body fat loss. As you build more muscle, you’re burning calories during your workout and in the days following. Muscle repair takes calories to accomplish, so a strength-training program turns your body into a calorie-burning machine. You also know now that foam rolling helps with muscle performance and strength gains. They key is to roll the areas overactive or problematic before your workout.
Implementing Foam Rolling to Get Results
Now that you know the importance of foam rolling, it’s time to put it to use. Use the following tips:
- Stick to problematic areas including the calves, hip flexors, piriformis, lats, and pecs.
- Hold tender areas for a minimum of 20 seconds.
- Find as many trigger points as you have time for in your pre-workout routine.
- To get the best results, foam roll before your workout and follow it up with static stretching of the same areas.
- Use other modalities, like a tennis ball, to reach harder to find areas such as the traps
- Learn about some trainer tips on foam rolling here.