It is quite common to see people performing foam rolling (FR) after their workouts. Is there any benefit to this? What are the potential mechanisms behind any benefits? These two questions will be answered in this article.

Advocates of FR as a recovery tool after training propose that it corrects muscular imbalances, alleviates muscle soreness, relieves joint stress, improves neuromuscular efficiency, and enhances range of motion (ROM). Foam rolling has been used in several different rehabilitation and training programs to help promote soft tissue extensibility, enhance joint ROM, and promote optimal skeletal muscle functioning [1, 2].

Despite its popular use, there has been extremely scant research on the effects of FR. In fact, there have only been three peer-reviewed articles published to date [1-3].

Given the rudimentary evidence to validate the use of FR as a recovery tool from physical activity, it is practical to further investigate the effectiveness and potential mechanisms.

Many individuals experience exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) resulting in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after an intense bout of physical activity. EIMD is characterized by:
• muscle soreness,
• muscle swelling,
• temporary muscle damage,
• passive muscle tension,
• decrease in muscular strength & ROM [4, 5].

EIMD can also affect neuromuscular performance by decreasing shock attenuation and altering muscle sequencing and recruitment patterns, potentially placing unaccustomed stress on muscle tendons and ligaments [4]. Some treatments (i.e. cryotherapy, light exercise, and compression) have shown potential benefits in treating symptoms of EIMD but no one therapy has proven to be beneficial in treating the full array of symptoms often presented by EIMD.

The research…

A group of scientists from Canada and Australia collaborated on a study to substantiate if FR was an effective tool to aid recovery from an intense bout of physical activity and identify potential mechanisms [6]. They specifically addressed the effects of FR on muscle soreness, voluntary and evoked contractile properties, vertical jump, and ROM. Twenty physically active resistance-trained subjects (≥ 3 yr strength training experience) were assigned into a control or FR group.

The volunteers performed an exhausting 10 sets of 10 reps squat protocol at 60% 1RM that was designed to cause EIMD. Testing sessions were done immediately after the squat protocol and again at 24, 48 and 72h after. The only difference was the FR group performed a 20-min FR exercise protocol at the end of each testing session (immediately after, 24h and 48h after squat protocol). The FR protocol consisted of five different exercises targeting major muscle groups of the thigh and gluteal muscles.

The results…

Results demonstrated that foam rolling substantially reduced muscle soreness at all-time points while considerably improving ROM. In addition, FR markedly improved muscle activation at all-time points and vertical jump at 48h time point after the squat protocol.

Bottom line…

This is the first study that examined the potential physiological mechanisms regarding the recovery benefits seen with FR that have previously been outlined in one study [3]. The most crucial finding of this research was that FR improved dynamic movement, percent muscle activation, and both passive and dynamic ROM while decreasing muscle soreness. Some key findings of this research are:

• There was considerably higher muscle soreness readings recorded at all-time points for the control group, demonstrating the effectiveness of FR in decreasing muscle soreness. The improved recovery rate in muscle soreness in the FR group signifies that FR is an effective means in treating DOMS [6].

• The FR group showed greater muscle activation in comparison with control group after the squat protocol.

• FR improved both passive and dynamic ROM in comparison to the control group. This improvement in ROM was attributed to FR acting in similar fashion to myofascial release techniques, potentially diminishing muscle soreness, decreasing inflammation, and/or reducing adhesions between layers of fascia [1].

• The FR group demonstrated substantial benefits in comparison with the control group when assessing dynamic performance (i.e. vertical jump) at 24h and 48h post squat protocol. The likely mechanism behind these improvements are FR acts by reducing neural inhibition [7, 8] due to accelerated recovery of connective tissue as a result of decreased inflammation and increased mitochondria biogenesis [9], allowing for better communication from afferent receptors in the connective tissue [8]. It is plausible that improved communication with afferent receptors allows for maintenance of natural muscle sequencing and recruitment patterns [8] which maintained vertical jump.

The authors of this study speculate that FR provides recovery benefits primarily through the treatment of connective tissue [6]. Further research is needed to substantiate this, but it was shown in this study that the FR group exhibited considerably less pain at all-time points in comparison with the control group. Connective tissue (i.e. myotendinous junction) is the major site of EIMD disruption and pain [10], therefore FR can be considered to be helpful in the recovery of connective tissue. Below in table 1 are practical guidelines to incorporate foam rolling for your lower body.

Table 1. Practical guidelines for foam rolling [6]:

Perform each of 5 exercises on both right and left legs for two 60-sec bouts each
  1. Anterior thigh
  2. Lateral thigh
  3. Posterior thigh
  4. Medial thigh
  • Place bodyweight on the foam roller, starting at proximal aspect of thigh and rolling down the thigh, using small undulating movements, gradually working your way to the knee.
  • Once reach distal aspect of thigh, return the roller to the starting position in one fluid motion and continue sequence for remainder of 60 seconds
  1. Gluteal muscles
  • Sit on top of foam roller, and place both hands on floor behind foam roller.  Cross right/left leg over left/right knee, positioning body so right/left gluteal muscles are in contact with the roller, with your bodyweight placed on foam roller.  Undulate back and forth, with foam roller running inline with origin to insertion point of gluteus maximus muscle.
Complete all five exercises on one side of body and then switch to other side and repeat

Stretch before or after a workout?
Get your a$$ in gear
This is how i roll

Dr. Paul Henning is leading scientist at the Military Performance Division, United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Paul's an avid bodybuilder, lives the MP lifestyle and is a proud member of the MP Team. Read more from Dr Henning here.

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2. MacDonald, G.Z., et al., An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res, 2013. 27(3): p. 812-21.
3. Pearcey GEP, B.-S.D., Kawamoto JE, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG, Button DC. , Effects of foam rolling on delayed onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train., In press.
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10. Eston, R.G., et al., Muscle tenderness and peak torque changes after downhill running following a prior bout of isokinetic eccentric exercise. J Sports Sci, 1996. 14(4): p. 291-9.