Does Foam Rolling Really Work?

Any serious athlete swears by the recovery properties of foam rolling. But what does the research say? Does foam rolling really DO anything? Read on to find out what science says about foam rolling.

Although many bodybuilders and powerlifters would attest to the beneficial properties of foam rolling when it comes to improving muscular performance, joint range of motion, and overall recovery, to date there has been no empirical evidence proving it to be beneficial in in these aspects. New research, however, may lend some credence to the practice of foam rolling.

Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release (SMR) technique used by athletes and physical therapists to aid in recovery of muscles that are prone to being overactive. Fascia is the soft tissue portion of the connective tissue in the muscle that provides support and protection. The fascia can become restricted due to overuse, trauma, and inactivity. Consequently, inflammation occurs and if it becomes bad enough the connective tissue can thicken, which results in pain and irritation, and additional inflammation.1

Self-myofascial release techniques via foam roller are performed by rolling the foam roller under each muscle group until a tender area is found, and maintaining pressure by one’s own body mass on the tender area for 30–60 seconds.2 A recent study was done to determine the effect of self-myofascial release (SMR) via foam roller application on knee extensor force and activation and knee joint range of motion.3

The study involved eleven healthy and physically active males. There were two groups that the subjects were divided into: control group (non SMR) and an SMR group. The maximum voluntary contraction force, evoked force and activation, and knee joint range of motion were measured two minutes and ten minutes prior to two, one minute trials of SMR of the quadriceps by use of foam rolle. These measurements were also taken on the non SMR group. The foam roller used was a custom made device made from PVC pipe and surrounded by neoprene foam.4

The results showed that nothing major occurred between either group for any of the neuromuscular variables (muscle force, rate of force development, and muscle activation). The foam roller group, however, experienced a significant increase in range of motion (ROM). A negative correlation was shown between subjects’ force and ROM before foam rolling that did not exist after foam rolling. In a nutshell, this study suggests that SMR of the quadriceps, or potentially any other muscle for that matter, was an effective treatment method to increase range of motion without suffering muscle performance. Only two minutes of foam rolling displayed increases in the range of motion in the quadriceps muscles.5

This study is one of the first peer reviewed studies on SMR, and it proved what many bodybuilders and powerlifters have been preaching for some time – foam rolling works. Not only can it help improve joint range of motion and overall muscle recovery, it does so without sacrificing muscle performance and strength. Perhaps the biggest benefits of SMR are that it can be done entirely by the individual and is very efficient in that it can take as little as 30-60 seconds to target the desired muscle group.