Are Foam Rollers Worth It? |What you need to know about this fitness hack

I was pretty dumbfounded the first time I saw a foam roller. It looked just like a short foam log, all smooth and round. I didn’t even bother picking it up, my brain already laughing at the suggested application of it. After all, I had tried so many other things to help relieve knots in my muscles: inversion tables, exercise balls, massage canes and hooks, even laying down on tennis balls for direct pressure. There was no way this six-inch-diameter foam stick would do better.

Well, long story short, my husband wanted a foam roller for Christmas last year. Being a good wife, I did my research, then bought him one.

And that’s why I’m writing this post. Because inquiring minds want to know: are foam rollers worth it, and what do you need to know about this life hack?

What is a foam roller?

Like I said above, it’s a short, log-shaped hunk of foam. They vary in length, firmness, surface type (smooth or knobby), and there are even ones that are heated or vibrate. They are made from a variety of synthetic materials — usually foam — and have different core hardness, can be hollow, etc.

And how you use them, well, there are also a variety of ways. But the primary use is for muscular release, specifically self-myofascial trigger point release. Release is achieved by laying on the roller in a variety of positions, and rolling yourself back and forth. The goal is to apply targeted pressure to specific muscles in your back, legs, sides, abs and so on.

Foam rollers tend to fall into that area between fitness equipment and preventative self-care. All in all, they are popular with fitness and natural wellness enthusiasts, and do take a little bit of education to use properly.

What most people don’t know is foam rollers have been used by coaches, athletes and therapists for years — a lot longer than they’ve been popular in home gyms. They have a long standing use among professionals for recovery from workouts or even injury. It’s only recently they’ve become popular for the average fitness enthusiast.  

To really understand how foam rollers work, we’ve got to understand release

If the pro’s like them, well, that seems like a good enough answer to our are foam rollers worth it? question. Except it’s really not, so let’s delve deeper.

The main reason to use a foam roller is to obtain self-myofascial release or even myofascial trigger point release. Whew — that’s a mouthful; let’s break it down.

We’ll get into the “self” part of that in a bit, but the word “Myofascial,” essentially means the connective tissue in and around your muscle. And a trigger point is an individual knot in your muscles.

For some of us, those myofascial trigger points (or for simplicity, trigger points) are very easy to find — just poke around until you hit a really tender spot. That is a trigger point. And aside from being down-right uncomfortable, they can inhibit range of motion and circulation to your muscles.

How are they formed? When individual muscle strains contract and are unable to relax — due to repetitive motions, tension or injury — they become seized. While your muscles continue their normal tear-down-and-rebuild cycle, those seized fibers remain locked and pull against surrounding healthy fibers, which create further micro-tears result. And since those fibers are locked down and can’t relax, blood flow to those muscle structures is constricted, and the microtears don’t get a chance to heal. As a result, the muscle cannot continue it’s normal, healthy cycle of regeneration. 

Myofascial trigger point pain is one of the most common kinds of muscle pain. And here’s the crux: it’s common knowledge in the athletic community that medications cannot get rid of trigger points. Though they may help with things like pain, inflammation and some relaxation; but only targeted, deep tissue pressure will effectively get rid of trigger points.

And that’s where foam rollers comes in

If you’re trying to get rid of trigger points, you’re probably doing some kind of myofascial trigger point therapy. Commonly done in massage therapy, this has two variations:

Myofascial release involves slow, dynamic stretching and tension on the muscles. The goal is to influence the fascia, focusing on smooth, gliding movements.

Trigger point release is direct pressure on the trigger point to encourage release.

Are foam rollers worth it for this kind of release? Surprisingly, yes. They can help achieve both these releases at the same time. The rolling action acts like the slow, dynamic tension for myofascial release. And since the actual surface area of the foam roller that contacts your muscles is relatively small, it’s easy to target those little trigger points like the fingers, knuckles or elbows of your masseuse do.

Since a lot of us don’t have the resources to visit a massage therapist as frequently as we’d like (or is necessary), finding ways to obtain self-myofascial trigger point release is a hack totally worth learning. And a huge perk to doing it yourself is accessibility, and you know exactly how much pressure you can tolerate — so you can adjust accordingly.

woamn-using-foam-roller-on-her-back
My own personal “study break” between writing projects.

Let’s be real for a moment — what do the numbers say?

That’s a valid question to ask — even half way through this post. When looking for actual studies on the benefits of foam rollers, the pickings are rather slim.

Lucky for us, a group of German researchers also asked, are foam rollers worth it? They pulled a ton of studies in one big meta-analysis, to try and determine if there are benefits of using rollers. The result of their hard work was published last year in Frontiers in Physiology. There was a total of 21 studies involving rollers, 14 of which specifically used foam rollers, the other 7 using rolling bars or sticks.

Of those studies, 14 used pre-rolling (i.e., using a roller before working out, while the muscles are still cool) and achieved a slight improvement in sprint performance and flexibility. They also found foam rollers, specifically, offered a larger increase in recovery from strength performance, as well as reducing the sensation of muscle pain.

The conclusion of the study is down-to-earth: the numbers are small. However, the best of them supported foam rollers could, “increase sprint performance and flexibility or to reduce muscle pain sensation.” And since, according to the study, “Evidence seems to justify the widespread use of foam rolling as a warm-up activity rather than a recovery tool,” working out isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to getting the benefits of a roller.

There are a gamut of foam rollers on the market — how do you know which one to pick?

First, keep it simple

Like starting anything new, the best advice is to keep it simple. Stick with smooth rollers in the beginning — ones that doesn’t have nubs or grooves. Once you and your muscles get used to using a foam roller, then you can progress to fancier styles.

Second, get the right firmness

When I first started looking into this, I found one general rule: if you’re new to using a foam roller, use something smooth, with a soft or medium firmness.

Now, I ignored this rule when I bought my — er, my husbands — foam roller. Because both my husband and I like a fair amount of hurt-so-good pressure, I went with this firm roller. And we’ve been quite pleased with it.

I don’t necessarily recommend going about it the way I did and would agree starting with a soft or medium-firmness, smooth roller is the better route for most people. Once you get used to a milder roller, then you can progress to a firmer density, and from there move on to a nubbed/grooved roller like this one (the grooves simulate the massage therapists fingers — long, full-finger pressure, or short, fingertip-like pressure).

Third, pick your roller length

How long of a roller you buy is completely up to you. They come anywhere from 12 to 36 inches in length.

In general, 18-24 inches are the easiest to work with when you’re starting out. They are short enough not to be cumbersome, but long enough to require less stability as you balance on top of them to roll your muscles back and forth.

Once you become more proficient — and balanced — with your rollers, you may want to switch to a 12-inch roller. The compact size makes it easier to transport or store.

If you’re looking for the ultimate in roller stabilization, the 36-inch would be your friend. It is great for exercises involving laying the length of your spine on the roller.

Expect baby steps when you first start

My first sessions lasted only about two minutes.

If you’ve ever had a good deep tissue massage, you know it can downright hurt. Your foam roller is simulating that same pressure. As you’re rolling your muscles over it with your body weight, you’re trying to press those trigger points out of your muscles. That’s why it’s important to take it easy, breathe through it, and increase the pressure as you bear it.

Over a few sessions — and the release of more and more trigger points — you’ll start to be able to go longer. A general guideline is about 30-60 seconds on each muscle group, for a total of 5-10 minute sessions.

An important tip is to roll back and forth slowly. And yes, when you come across a tender spot, focus on rolling back and forth over it to help release the tension.

So in conclusion, are foam rollers worth it?

Knowing what they are used for, how they work and the little bit of science out there to support them, are they worth it? It’s up to individual interpretation.

We know trigger points happen. A lot. Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast or you work at a desk all day, your muscles take a beating through overuse, poor posture, lack of movement, etc. And we know the mechanics behind self-myofascial trigger point release and how foam rollers can help with that release.

Personally, I think I’ve had knots in my back since 2003. Whether they started because of riding horses (and falling off a lot), sport injuries, working at a desk for 12-hour-shifts, or momlife and constantly chasing Zoom and Speedy around, I know this is one tool in my toolkit to combat the tightness. 

One of my favorite thing about the foam roller is how easy it is to use — I just grab it, hit the floor, and voila. It’s perfect for a break between projects, or as an after-the-kids-go-to-bed tension release. 

Have you tried foam rollers? In your opinion, are foam rollers worth it? Comment below!

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