For the love of god stop foam rolling everything. Seriously. I’m turning over a new leaf and trying not to curse as much, so please help me out here. It’s difficult enough for me to behave as it is. I know I can occasionally be polarizing and have attitude problems, but hear me out on this:
Stop flopping around on the ground and flailing on a foam roller, indiscriminately, without any rhyme or reason for doing so. Just. Stop. If you are currently rolling around on a foam roller, I want you to take a breath, and really think about what you are doing and why you are doing it.
Let me be clear: Self Myofascial Release (SMR), a.k.a Foam Rolling isn’t all bad. It is a great adjunct to the work you are doing with your trainer or PT or LMT (*cough* ... that’s me).
However, like any intervention, physical or otherwise, you need to approach it with a solid plan in place to ensure you are getting the result you are looking for and not actually making things worse (which you certainly CAN do with rolling).
For starters, people tend to not be clear on what foam rolling is doing. This is fair because the research is scant, but if you think you are “shearing” fascia or “breaking up” scar tissue or “molding” the muscles, I have bad news for you, you aren’t. What you are likely doing, if we look at the science, is creating a neurological response by bringing awareness to the area. You also may be affecting subcutaneous nerves via the skin-stretching nature of rolling.
Now that we are clear on that. Let’s look at some issues and practical tips.
1. We need to ensure we are rolling the right areas at the correct times.
This is important.
As noted above, rolling is creating a neurological response. We are “inhibiting” the neurology, for a lack of better word. This is linguistically hard to describe but suffice it to say we are using the roller or other instruments to calm down an area. We are not mechanically changing anything. Go back and re-read the last sentence, please.
Is this good or bad? Well, that depends on the application and is exactly why you need to have a solid plan.
Glutes are a good example, here. If glute “activation” is an issue for you, and you are about to perform a workout that is heavy on movements involving hip extension, then why would you foam roll your glutes prior to this? If we inhibit the glutes prior to movements where we need them, at best we will perform poorly. The idea with these movements is to maximize the recruitment of the glutes, so we would NOT want to foam roll that area prior to working out.
Interestingly, you MAY find foam rolling the glutes beneficial AFTER a workout like this, which sorta proves my point that there is a time and place for SMR. Rather than doing it blindly, it should be implemented as part of a larger plan and done in a way that contributes to the results you want.
2. We need to be certain that the area we are rolling is where the problem lies.
I hate to rag on trainers, as I am still a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and a meathead at heart, but often the scope and content of a fitness professional’s training causes them to be overly structural in application. What I mean here is that trainers often have a myopic focus on movement and posture, while not factoring in things that fall into the biopsychosocial models. This is ESPECIALLY true when it comes to pain.
Because of this, a lot of trainers have their clients “chase pain”. That is, they will have their clients roll a painful or tight area without pausing to explore what the real issue is.
The hamstrings are a fantastic example here, and there is probably no other muscle group that causes me to bang my head off of a wall with more vigor. I see countless trainees nailing their hamstrings with foam rolling, shoving lacrosse balls into the origin points at the hips, etc. The trainer argument is that the area is “tight” and tender and needs to be rolled. The problem here is that, regarding the hamstrings, they are almost NEVER the root of the issue. Anatomically, “tight” hamstrings are almost always a symptom of something else, be it structural (i.e. anterior pelvic tilt) or something else…even psychological stuff or past trauma.
Because of this, you can roll out your hamstrings until hell freezes over and at best you are only going to feel better in the short-term. Similar to static stretching (don’t get me started, as I could write another article entirely on why static stretching also drives me crazy), if we are not looking at the underlying reasons why a group appears to be tight, we will never see lasting change.
3. We need to stop making this stuff painful.
Another issue I want to touch on is pain. If you follow me on IG (Which you SHOULD…duh…@BrooklynBodyMechanic), you may have seen some IG stories where I rant about people rolling very aggressively…sometimes to the point of extreme pain.
If that works for you, have at it. Seriously. If something feels good to you, and provides you with relief, go for it. I for one am a total meathead and have a slight streak of masochism in me. I don’t mind using techniques like Body Tempering because I am used to lifting heavy loads and have a nervous system that is adapted to extreme tension levels. Have you ever SEEN the “Pain Pill” from Kabuki Strength? I’m infatuated with it. I’m also a maniac.
The reality is that, for most people, pain is NOT needed to illicit a response. In fact, using SMR or other techniques thoughtlessly can result in a “fight or flight” response that actually works counter to what you are trying to accomplish. That’s right…if you are wincing, in pain, or holding your breath while foam rolling, you are actually in a protective/guarded state and are making things worse.
Food for thought.
Let’s wrap this up
Foam rolling, or any other SMR technique, is not a bad thing. Using techniques like these can be highly beneficial for recovery and mobility, and are a great adjunct to what you are doing with a professional like me, or with your PT or trainer.
The main issue is that, just like an exercise program or diet, SMR needs to be thoughtfully planned and executed accordingly. The benefit of working with someone trained in anatomy and manual techniques is that we can look at multiple factors and determine with you should be rolling, when you should be rolling it, and (perhaps more importantly) what other areas need to be STRENGTHENED with resistance training in order to create lasting change.
In the end, simply rolling yourself out without having a solid plan is not only a waste of time, but possible an avenue to making yourself feel worse.
So, like, stop rolling around randomly. Figure out what is really going on and create a program to address it.
Need help? Have comments? I’m here for you, so don’t hesitate to contact me.