Easy.. unlike some of those ridiculously complicated gym equipment items. Cheap.. compared to expensive ongoing visits with masseuses, physiotherapists, or myotherapists. An at-home, and portable, fitness solution in our increasingly busy lives. What’s not to like about the concept of foam-rollers? It is yet another self-help option readily available to us, in the popular and ever-growing self-help market.
Fitness professionals and sports experts, alike, are extolling their virtues. Their popularity with health enthusiasts, and athletes, has seen this technique steadily overtake other ‘self-manual therapy’ techniques (where one is able to physically self-treat themselves) such as: self-massage and self-trigger point therapy. It has even been compared to a deep-tissue massage, with the added benefit that YOU get to control the pressure, limiting the risk of getting bruised (or tortured!).
Cylindrical in shape, and available in various sizes and densities (ie. medium, firm), the roller is positioned between the ground and the muscles to be treated. The idea is that you literally roll the muscles over the foam-roller at an even tempo, back and forth, and work on any tightness - at your own pace and in your own time.
Their three (alleged) main benefits are:
- Increased flexibility, including increased range-of-motion (ROM).
- Improved short-term athletic performance, when included as part of the warm-up routine.
- Improved recovery post-activity, through reducing the experience of delayed-onset-of-muscular-soreness (DOMS).
So, it has me wondering... is this just another too-good-to-be-true fitness gimmick that will slowly fizzle out, or is there real evidence behind this technique? And if so, for what exactly? Is there a protocol on how best to use them for maximum effect?
Or are we just... rolling in it? 🙂
Note: If you already know you need a foam roller, you can see our list of the best 5 currently available on this page.
What's The state Of The Research On Foam Rollers
This is an emerging research field. A PubMed search of the more common applicable terms for this technique, including ‘foam rolling’ and ‘roller massager’ yields over 100 papers at the time of this article.
Most of them are based on small to modest-sized trials which have then been analyzed in 5 systematic reviews.
There is a decent amount of research to support the effectiveness of foam-rollers in enhancing flexibility but, as for its effects on improving athletic performance and post-performance recovery, there is very little research to date.
Table of Contents
What Conclusions Has Research on Foam Rollers Drawn?
Firstly, what conclusions hasn’t the research been able to reach?
Foam-rolling is often referred to as a form of ‘self-myofascial release therapy’. Fascia, or myofascia, is the dense, tough tissue that surrounds and covers all of your muscles and bones. Foam-rolling is a form of self-manual therapy which aims to reduce myofascial tightness.
Due to the lack of research on this topic, there is confusion amongst experts and this theory still remains just that - a theory. So, referring to it as a form of ‘self-manual therapy’ has been advised, until this becomes clearer.
Bottom Line: More research is needed to better understand the mechanism(s) by which foam-rolling exerts its effects.
However, in terms of its actual effects, research has been able to shed a bit more light.
Foam Rolling and Flexibility
A 2019 systematic review of 21 studies (14 studies used pre-rolling and 7 studies used post-rolling) concluded that foam rolling resulted in small improvements in flexibility when used as a warm-up exercise (1).
While the good news is that foam-rolling does appear to improve flexibility, the bad news is that any improvement has not been shown to last longer than 10-minutes, unfortunately (2,3,4). Some more good news is that foam-rolling has been shown to improve long-term flexibility when it is performed on a regular basis (5,6).
Foam-rolling has also been proven to increase joint ROM. Interestingly, a 20-second repetition seems to be just as effective as one of 60 seconds (7).
Bottom Line: There is good evidence to show that foam-rolling has short-term benefits to flexibility and, if done regularly, may also improve it long-term.
Foam Rolling and Performance
Foam-rolling has increasingly been making an introduction into warm-up routines, almost as a replacement to static stretching, or at least as an addition.
Why? In recent years, its been found that standard (“static”) stretching may not be so good for our subsequent workout. It has been shown to reduce force production (8,9), power output (10), running speed (11), reaction time (12), and strength endurance (13).
Granted there is a lack of research on the topic, however, foam-rolling has, at least, repeatedly shown to have no unwanted effects on athletic performance (3, 14).
One study has shown that foam-rolling can benefit subsequent power, agility, strength and speed when used together with dynamic preparatory movements (15). However, it had a sample size of only eleven and was published in a relatively new, student-focused, journal (rather than a high ranking one).
The systematic review mentioned in the previous section also looked at a range of performance indicators such as sprint, jump, and strength performance (1). Following a bewildering array of statistics, the overall conclusion was that the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery are rather minor and partly negligible part from increasing sprint performance.
Bottom Line: Foam-rolling may be a worthwhile addition to general warm-up routines. It has no negative outcomes on subsequent athletic performance, as opposed to stretching, and may even have some positive outcomes, though the evidence is weak.
Foam Rolling and Recovery
Speeding-up the recovery process post-exercise, by reducing muscle soreness, has been one of the more popular uses for foam-rolling, despite a lack of evidence.
The science is starting to catch up, however. Recent research has shown that foam-rolling can decrease the sensation of DOMS after exercise (2,16). However, each of these studies had very small sample sizes and may not be the most reliable.
Another 2019 systematic review of 22 studies involving over 1000 subjects found that foam rolling for 90 seconds per muscle group may be the minimum duration to achieve a short-term reduction in pain/soreness, with no upper limit found (20).
Apart from this study, little else is known about how foam-rolling can influence the speed, and nature, of recovery following physical activity.
Bottom Line: There is some weak evidence that foam-rolling may assist with post-activity recovery, through reducing DOMS.
Do Foam Rollers Help?
Do Foam Rollers Help Cellulite?
Could it be true? The pressure applied when foam-rolling, it has been suggested, will help to break up the interwoven fat fibers under the skin, helping to reduce, and get rid of, unsightly cellulite.
I could not find any credible research to attest to this. The closest I found was for a beauty device from a study published in 1998 (17). It found that using the Silhouette ‘roller-massage therapy’ offered ‘modest’ improvement in the appearance of cellulite in “all” of the female test subjects - which constituted 3 patients. The longevity of this improvement was not tested. Not very convincing.
Cellulite is a disorder. Many treatments, historically, have claimed to treat or, at least, visually improve it for periods of time. Some treatments may achieve a short-term aesthetic improvement. A more recent study (18) of fifteen adult women found no benefit to their cellulite following a program of massages (manual lymphatic drainage) and, so, it’s unlikely that foam-rolling massage would, either.
Bottom Line: There is virtually no evidence to suggest foam-rolling improves cellulite.
Do Foam Rollers Help Posture?
I could find no evidence to support this claim.
Is it biologically plausible? Perhaps, through extrapolating the potential benefits of massage, as described by therapists. They state that, by relaxing and re-training the muscles made tense through bad posture, the body is able to re-align itself to its natural state. However, the improvement may only be short-lived if there is another underlying reason for the poor posture.
Bottom Line: There is no evidence to suggest that foam-rollers improve posture.
Do Foam Rollers Help Upper and/or Lower Back Pain?
Likewise, I could find no evidence to support this claim. However, it may be biologically plausible for both upper and lower back pain.
Foam-rolling the lower back directly is NOT advised. It will likely cause the spinal muscles in this region to contract instead to protect the spine, having the opposite effect to what you’re after. According to a certified personal trainer, to release your lower back, try rolling the muscles that connect to it instead, including your glutes, hip flexors, and the muscles in your quads.
The upper back may be directly rolled and massaged with a foam-roller to relieve stiffness and pain. The spine in this region is protected by your shoulder blades and muscles, but stop when you get to the bottom of your rib cage.
Bottom Line: There is no evidence to suggest that foam-rollers improve upper or lower back pain.
Are Foam Rollers Helpful For Runners?
A common practice in warm-ups before sport, regular stretching has recently been shown to potentially reduce running speed (11) and strength endurance (13), amongst other factors. It's for this reason that Foam Rollers have been of great interest to runners.
Foam-rolling, has repeatedly been shown to have no negative impact on athletic performance (3,14) - though more research is needed in this area. One small, student-based study has shown that foam-rolling can improve subsequent power, agility, strength and speed when used together with dynamic preparatory movements (15).
Evidence has identified that foam-rolling improves short-term flexibility and that this improvement lasts up to 10-minutes (2,3,4).
Recovery-wise, foam-rolling may reduce the sensation of DOMS following exercise (2,16) though the evidence is weak.
Bottom Line: For runners, foam-rolling may be worthwhile during warm-up sessions. It has no negative effects to their subsequent running activity, compared with static stretching. Its ability to improve flexibility short-term and potential benefit in post-activity recovery, may also be of benefit to runners.
Are Foam Rollers Helpful For Kidney Pain?
I could not find research in this area.
As kidney pain may be indicative of something more serious, a health professional should be consulted for advice.
Bottom Line: There is no evidence that foam-rolling alleviates kidney pain.
Are Foam Rollers Effective For Scar Tissue?
No studies have been conducted to test this.
Is it biologically plausible? Not really. A 2012 literature review exploring the role of massage in scar management (19) found that, “although scar massage is anecdotally effective, there is scarce scientific data in the literature to support it.” So, likewise, foam-roller massaging is unlikely to be of benefit.
Bottom Line: There is no evidence that foam-rollers are effective for scar tissue.
Can Foam Rollers Help Sciatica?
There are no references for this in the published literature which means that we can't comment on this.
Bottom Line: There is no evidence that foam-rollers are effective for sciatica.
Can Foam Rollers Cause Bruising?
Logically, this is a possibility. Common sense suggests that at-risk groups for bruising would include people who fall off the roller or have an underlying risk for bleeding eg hemophilia, low platelets or use of blood-thinning medication. However, there is no mention of this in the published literature.
Bottom Line: There is no published evidence that foam-rollers cause bruising.
Is Foam Rolling Supposed to Hurt?
This is a good question. When does that nice feeling of a good stretch tip over into the danger zone? Unfortunately, the scientific literature does not help us here at all. I am pretty sure it is not meant to cause moderate or severe discomfort though.
Bottom Line: There is no guidance in the published literature on whether or not foam rollers should hurt.
Is There A "Best Practice" When Using A Foam Roller?
There currently is no consensus on an optimal, foam-roller assisted, self-manual muscle therapy program, due to the diversity of methods used among studies, according to a recent systematic review (1)
Interestingly, whilst foam-rolling has been proven to increase joint ROM, a 20-second repetition seems to be just as effective as 60 seconds (7). A 3-for-1 offer, how great is that!
After reviewing the current body of research, the following protocol is suggested for potentially optimal results:
- 3-5 sets of 20-30 second repetitions.
- 3-5 times per week, performed on a consistent basis, to achieve and retain the long-term effects on flexibility.
When is it Best to Foam Roll?
The emerging literature suggests that the very best time to do foam rolling is before exercise as a warm-up practice.
Bottom Line: There is no established “best practice” for foam-rolling but a suggested program, guided by the evidence-base, is available.
Is A Foam Roller More Effective Than Stretching?
Traditionally, regular (“static”) stretching has been a cornerstone of a typical warm-up routine to increase flexibility. In recent years, however, this form of stretching has been shown to affect the subsequent workout by reducing force production (8,9), power output (10), running speed (11), reaction time (12), and strength endurance (13).
Foam-rolling has increasingly been making an introduction into warm-up routines as either an addition, or a replacement, to stretching. Unwanted effects on athletic performance are unlikely (3, 14). One study has shown that foam-rolling can benefit subsequent power, agility, strength and speed when used together with dynamic preparatory movements. However, it was only a small study in a low-ranking journal (15).
Bottom Line: When intended as a warm-up stretch before athletic performance, foam-rolling is preferable to standard stretching. The latter may produce unwanted outcomes, whereas the former has no negative effects and may even have some positives.
What Do Health Professionals Learn About Self Myofascial Release?
A 2018 survey of 12 undergraduate and graduate allied health programs in the United States found that half of the students had received no training on the topic (21). That being said, the other half had some ideas of how to use self-myofascial release techniques in their future practices and knew where to purchase foam rollers.
Who Should NOT Foam Roll?
Foam rolling is not for everyone (22). People who should avoid foam rolling include people with any of the following conditions:
As always, check-in with your own physician before undertaking any new form of exercise or if you have any questions.
Are There Any Risks To Using A Foam Roller?
They are intended to be used over muscles only. Never roll over a bony joint. Applying pressure here could result in hyperextension of your joints. It's good to get close to the attachment of the joints, but best not to go over them.
Avoid rolling your lower back, as it can create too much pressure on your vertebra, causing the muscles here to stiffen up to protect your lower back.
Don't roll for too long. You don't want to cause further inflammation by overdoing the rolling. Follow the above-mentioned program for the best results.
Can You Replace A Foam Roller With...
It’s easy to use one's imagination and potentially find other round or cylindrical, and firm, items for the purpose of roller-massaging, such as PVC piping and tennis balls. In fact, using tennis balls for a foot massage is quite well known!
However, the density of the foam and the shape of the roller makes foam-rollers preferable to these items. Also, these substitutes haven’t been studied and may not produce the same results as the findings provided for foam-rollers.
It’s early days yet in the field of foam-rolling research. There certainly is potential there, especially in terms of benefits to flexibility (short-term and long-term), but possibly also to performance enhancement, and post-workout recovery. All the other claims for foam-rolling, at this stage anyway, are just that - claims. This article, at least, gets the ball (or, should I say .. the foam) rolling.