Foam rolling and other self-myofascial release techniques are becoming ever popular in the fitness community with people dedicating more and more time to these techniques, and more and more products are coming out with claims to improve mobility, reduce pain, “break up scar tissue, knots and adhesions”, and “release trigger points.” In the past, we looked at how foam rolling works (click here). Today I am going to tell you why I rarely perform or prescribe foam rolling and other self-myofascial release techniques.  For the sake of this article when I refer to foam rolling, I am referring to all types of self-myofascial release techniques including, but not limited to, lacrosse balls, tennis balls, power tools, sticks, self-massagers, guns, and car buffers.

Should you spend valuable time foam rolling? 

image from here

  1. Time

First and most importantly is time. We all have limited time in the gym; and since foam rolling does not actually make any physiological changes, I would argue that it has little place in anyone’s training program. Your time should be spent performing activities that will drive adaptation and move you towards your goals or make you stronger, more fit, or more resilient. Unfortunately, foam rolling does none of these things.

  1. Unintended consequences

One of the most significant problems with foam rolling is the narrative that is attached to it. Products often claim to help improve mobility, break up scar tissue and adhesions and release trigger points. Unfortunately, none of these claims have scientific backing, and all of these claims can significantly influence a person’s behavior towards training.

For example, if one thinks that ample time must be spent on a foam roller to improve mobility then that person will spend valuable training time rolling out and miss out on training volume that could drive adaptation.

Another scenario is that if a person thinks they have scar tissue, adhesions, knots, or trigger points (spoiler alert: you don’t) and that a foam roller is needed to break up said scar tissue or adhesion, then we could face even more unintended consequences. These beliefs could cause a variety of reactions such as, every time a person feels tightness or uncomfortable during training they stop and roll out even though feeling tight and achy is normal during a workout, especially as you fatigue. In this case, these beliefs caused the person to stop training and miss out on valuable training volume.  

These beliefs could also cause someone to think that something is wrong with them and cause them to not push as hard during training. How many times have you heard or said something along the lines of “I’m going to take it easy on squats today because I have a huge knot in my glute.”

Or maybe you were told to foam roll to avoid pain or keep pain at bay and now you've conditioned yourself that everytime you forget to foam roll you feel pain!

These are only a few of the possible unintended consequences but by avoiding foam rolling all together we can avoid the sales pitches associated with them. By being educated on how foam rolling works, we can avoid the unintended consequences related to the false narrative that is often used when discussing foam rolling.

  1. Money

While the standard foam roller is relatively inexpensive, there is an ever-increasing amount of fancy gadgets and machines designed to help your foam rolling adventures. Some of these products are super expensive and can cost a couple of hundred dollars each and the cost to benefit ratio just doesn’t add up. I would argue that you will get just as much out of a standard foam roller as you will a fancy power tool. So even if you are going to roll, save your money and buy the cheapest thing possible.

Above are my three main reasons I avoid foam rolling; and below I will present two more reasons that don’t have as much scientific backing but based on where the current research is I feel these two things could be issues. However, more research will need to be done to be certain.

Don't waste your money on gimicky gadgets 

Image from Adam Meakins The Sport Physio

  1. Perceived vs. Performance fatigue

When you foam roll most of the time you feel better afterward but, unfortunately, this feeling is not accompanied with an actual performance increase. You have decreased your perceived fatigue, but your actual fatigue has remained unchanged and your performance does not increase. Also because you feel better but are not performing better, you may be tempted to push it in training when it might not be the best idea. If you are feeling crappy and foam roll and then you feel better, it might be tempting to try and go a little harder in training when you otherwise would have backed off. This is especially important if you are using some sort of autoregulation technique in your programming such as RPE. You don't want to be constantly overshooting your RPE just because foam rolling has given you a false sense of feeling good. 

  1. Blood flow

I often hear claims that one should foam roll because it increases blood flow to the muscles and that increase in blood flow could help with the warm-up process or speed up recovery when done post workout. Because foam rolling happens with such little force and that force is placed on top of the skin, I would argue that blood flow is actually being directed away from the muscles and towards the skin. This would create the opposite effect than you are looking for.

Save your time and money and ditch the foam roller. Take the time you use to foam roll and add an extra set of squats or deadlifts. Your future self will thank me!

Written By: Paul Milano

Beardsley. Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. 2015 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26592233

Cheatham. The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance. 2015 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26618062

Cheatham. The efficacy of instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization: a systematic review. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association. 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5039777/

Davidson. Rat tendon morphologic and functional changes resulting from soft tissue mobilization. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 1997. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9139169

Gehlsen. Fibroblast responses to variation in soft tissue mobilization pressure. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 1999. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10211847

Schroeder. Is self myofascial release an effective pre-exercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. 2015https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25968853