The Foam Roller Isn’t Doing What You Think It’s Doing

by Christopher Chilelli RTSm, MATm, Mechanics in Motion

The Foam Roller Isn’t Doing What You Think It’s Doing.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t doing anything.

If you’ve made to a gym or dance studio, oh, anytime in the past decade you’ve probably noticed a not insignificant number of people sitting on white plastic cylinders. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself. This practice is, of course, foam rollingand involves placing your body’s weight onto specially designed, usually plastic implements and slowly rolling over ‘knots’ and ‘tight’ areas in musculature. It has become pervasive in gyms and rehabilitation clinics recently, but has been a common practice for dancers for much longer. The fancy technical name for the foam rolling is self-myofascial release (SMR) and it’s basically a form of self-applied tissue massage. Implements are not limited to the common rollers but to all manner of hard tools, some specially intended for the purpose and others like basketballs and golf balls, decidedly not.

I’m not kidding when I said it’s pervasive. A leading national fitness educator, NASM, explicitly recommends foam rolling. Various fitness and dance gurus such as Sue Hitzman and Yamuna Zake have developed personal methodologies based around self-myofascial release. Where I live in New York there are entire studios dedicated to variations on it. And seemingly every public complaint of injury or pain from dance friends on Facebook is met with enthusiastic instructions to step on a tennis ball or something similar in the post comments.

Advocates for foam rolling advance numerous claims about its benefits to health and fitness – many of which are common to ‘structural’ models of massage therapy as well. According to several self-avowed experts ‘myofascial release’ is reputed to:

• Improve blood circulation throughout your skin, fascia, muscles, and even tendons and ligaments where you can access them with a foam roller. (Dr. Ben Kim)
• …prevent pain, heal injury, and erase the negative effects of aging and active living…[rehydrate] connective tissue, and [quiet] the nervous system (Sue Hitzmann’s MELT method*)
• Lengthen short (tight) muscles, tendons, and ligaments. (Dr. Ben Kim again)
• …Align, elongate and tone your entire musculoskeletal system (Yamuna Zake*)

Wow! Heal injury. Improve circulation. Tone your entire musculoskeletal system. That’s an impressive list of potential advantages to foam rolling. Were any of this true, you could just roll around all day and not bother with exercise or technical training. Exaggeration is par for the course when it comes to fitness products, but these are especially egregious. I may surprise you to learn that none of the above claims hold up to scrutiny or can be substantiated empirically.

Before I go on the offensive here I want to emphasize that I don’t think that self-myofascial release or structural massage variants like Rolphing are somehow bad. I am not saying ‘don’t foam roll’ or suggesting that simply deforming a little myofascial tissue (to the extent that’s even possible) with a hard implement will lead to injury or some other undesirable outcome. Also, I’m limiting this discussion exclusively to SMR and not other common flexibility practices. ‘Stretching’ is a related, but much larger conversation. I actually enjoy foam rolling occasionally myself and have recommended variations on the practice to several clients over the years – although for slightly different reasons, as I discuss below. But that’s not the point.

The reality is that dancers in particular have a strong professional interest (whether acknowledged or not) in understanding the anatomic and physiological realities to something like self-myofascial release. Your body is your livelihood and you should be well apprised of the risks and benefits associated with activity done in the name of conditioning. Don’t do something just to do it. Know what you’re trying to accomplish.

Whatever the ‘experts’ may think is happening when they advocate SMR is not what’s actually happening. Fascia, the abundant connective tissue that invests around muscle, is composed largely of collagen, a widely-used bodily protein. Collagen is hearty stuff and collagenous make-up of fascia gives it tensile strength close to Kevlar. It is physically impossible to permanently change fascia using manual or other techniques. I have seen video of the iliotibial band of fascia used as tow hitch between trucks to demonstrate this tensile strength. As Paul Ingraham, publisher of the essential website Save Yourself, has said: “If the stuff were much thicker than it is, people would be bulletproof.” Fascia is undoubtedly important to human function. However, the notion that this tissue can be subject to some kind of ‘release’ is a complete invention, with zero basis in clinical research. Parking yourself on a piece of plastic might feel good, but does nothing to the shape of fascia.

Keeping that fact in mind, let’s examine some of the other claims from above. That ‘body rolling’ in Yamuna Zake’s parlance will align, elongate, and tone the musculoskeletal system is easily the most specious assertion. Words like ‘alignment,’ ‘elongation,’ and ‘toning’ call to mind imagery that resonate strongly with dancers and fitness consumers. These are marketing terms, pure and simple, and do not describe bodily reality. While it’s true that massage and other practices deform tissue temporarily, they do not permanently elongate anything. (And while were on the subject, no, Pilates will not make your muscles and bones longer). That there is some magical, ideal ‘alignment’ of the body’s joints is another widely used non sequitur. There are literally an infinite number of ways in which you can choose to ‘align’ your body, all of them quite temporary as the body constantly moves in space.

And ask yourself, what does ‘toning’ even mean?

Dr. Ben Kim’s belief that SMR will lengthen short, ‘tight’ muscles is one that he shares with countless other health and fitness professionals, but that ultimately reflects a poor understanding of how the muscular system actually works. Listen, we need to stop attempting to make ‘tight’ muscles our explanation for everything that goes wrong in the body. This is a huge flaw in how we conceive of flexibility and muscular function. ‘Tightness’ is simply not a property that muscle can develop. Muscle does not become tight in the way a knot can be pulled taught. If this were really the case it would prevent joint motion altogether and not just at the end range.

That ‘tight’ feeling you have at the end range of joint motion or that you feel when you apply your body’s weight onto a foam roller is just that – a sensation. It could reflect an actively self-generated mechanical condition – increased resting tension in muscle – or just a sensation produced in the nervous system. This represents an attempt by the subconcious to communicate something to your conscious awareness. In the end-range joint position that something is that you have reached the limit of the range and that, hey, maybe you should stop. When foam rolling, this discomfort can reflect overall levels of stress and inflammation of the affected tissue. The ‘release’ you feel during SMR is another sensation. The sustained kneading of muscle and connective tissue stimulates sensory receptors in tendons called golgi tendon organs (GTO). These sensory cells regulate the tension in muscle and when stimulated they decrease that tension in a process called autogenic inhibition. This may feel good, but it also decreases muscle’s force producing capacity.

Tension in muscle, by the way, is modulated completely from the nervous system. It is not a constant quality of muscle and connective tissue but in fact changes ALL THE TIME based on demand. No fictitious myofascial release required. The way the body uses ‘tightness’ is really like an internally generated splint, a temporary barrier to discourage you from moving around in general or into potentially unstable or dangerous positions. It’s not some mistake the body is making, but something quite purposeful. That doesn’t mean that increased resting tension isn’t disruptive or that you shouldn’t work proactively to eliminate its effects, but the notion that ‘short’ muscles are somehow the cause of so many problems in the body and deficits to your dance performance is crude and inaccurate – and SMR will do nothing to affect it.

A related claim about foam rolling and massage, not mentioned above, is that it will break up adhesions that form within the connective tissue – the fascia in myofascia again – surrounding muscle. I’ll allow that adhesions may in fact form between muscle and its surrounding fascia. As someone who puts their hands on people for a living, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the character of tissue varies widely from person to person. Some muscle feels healthy and compliant to the touch, where other feels fibrous and just gnarly. But given that the ‘release’ thing is more about sensation than the character of tissue, it’s a mistake to assume that this quality is influenced all that much by deformation of myofascia. Why not nutrition, hydration, overuse and other factors first? These things have a direct contribution to the quality of tissue. SMR and massage are both something more contrived. Adhesions, even if they are ‘worked out’ through massage or SMR, take time (were talking months) to develop. If you foam roll your entire body, feel great, and then in a few days the ‘knots’ return, then they weren’t really adhesions to begin with. I’ve watched people with the nastiest knots foam roll for years and not feel difference.

Very little research has shown that massage reduces pain in the long term and there is no analogous research covering self-applied massage. The neurological mechanism of autogenic inhibition explains any short-term reduction, but this is tantamount to taking an analgesic. The pain doesn’t really go away. SMR does nothing to address the underlying causes of discomfort. It simply masks the problem by tweaking neuromotor pathways. And there is no evidence that foam rolling will prevent injury. How could it? It decreases the capability for force production in tissue that does little else and impairs accurate sensory signaling to boot. Ditto the claim that massage will increase circulation and speed the removal of waste products from muscle following exercise. In fact, the opposite is true. Massage has actually been shown to decrease blood flow to involved muscle.

So most of the claims to sell you on foam rolling are bogus. But that’s not even the real rub. Foam rolling is not without some real risks to athletes and dancers. It’s worth stating again that autogenic inhibition decreases force production in muscle. Aside from the obvious impediment to vigorous physical activity that having a reduced ability to sequence muscular contraction creates, this, by definition, decreases the ability of muscle to stabilize joints and negatively affects athletic performance. Contrary to the common practice, foam rolling prior to activity really should be avoided. Like sports massage, which tends to be more precise and aggressive, foam rolling does damage muscle and connective tissue temporarily. This damage is usually not severe, but in accumulation it can absolutely create problems. Massage and SMR should be applied sparingly – certainly not to the same area every day.

The most persuasive reason I can think of to engage in SMR is simply because, to many people, it feels good. I enjoy rolling my hips in particular on days where I feel sore from dance or exercise. As long as foam rolling is performed after practice or workouts and not before, preferably even at the end of the day, the risk is minimal. And despite what I’ve written above it may help with recovery and tissue regeneration in some way. We just haven’t uncovered the mechanism yet. Many of my friends and clients swear by massage and really, who can’t appreciate the psychological benefits gentle tactile sensation on skin and muscle from another person? So go ahead and foam roll, just don’t have any illusions about preventing injury or increasing blood flow.

*In fairness and respect to Sue Hitzmann and Yamuna Zake, these practitioners do not endorse foam rolling per se, but their branded techniques both emphasize some form of self-myofascial release.

Christopher Chilelli is the founder and director of Logic Performance Conditioning and Mechanics in Motion. He is a strength coach and Muscle Activation Techniques Master Specialist. He lives in New York City. Contact: chris@mechanicsinmotion

Copyright 2011, Logic Performance Systems

Posted on 10/08/2011, in Bio Anatomy, Health, Personal Trainer Education, Stretching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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