Tight muscles are normal, especially if you are training hard and pushing your body to excel both on the field and in the gym. But tight muscles can also affect how you feel, how you move, and how you perform. Many of us turn to foam rolling to help out those tight muscles, and foam rolling is a great way to feel less restricted, improve your range of motion during movement, and pave the way for higher performance.
At least in the short-term.
Beware, foam rolling is not the key to changing your tissues to improve your range of motion and movement quality in the long-term.
Self-myofascial release (SMR) techniques (like foam rolling) can be used in the moment and are an effective short-term solution. They’re a good alternative to an ibuprofen, but ultimately using foam rollers does not change your tissues as compared to other modalities.
Let’s dig into the main components of foam rolling:
- What is foam rolling?
- Does foam rolling change your range of motion (ROM)?
- When does foam rolling work?
What Is Foam Rolling?
Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release. So, if you’re wondering what myofascial is, let me explain. The term myofascial refers to the fascia surrounding your muscles. Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle, blood vessels, and nerves. Your fascia can be thought of as the glue that holds all other body tissues together.
- Fascia may be responsible for reducing your ROM if it becomes restricted.1
- Repetitive movements or high volume loading patterns (like during an athlete’s season) creates a dysfunction within the fascial system which leads to an inflammatory response.
- When your muscles spasm, they result in knots or trigger points (micro spasms) that create weak adhesions in your soft tissues. These adhesions produce pain and possibly contribute to the reduction in your ROM and performance.2
- Self-myofascial release is a common way to alleviate the pain and decrease the ROM associated with the overactive muscle and fascial restrictions.
Think of using a foam roller as a type of personal massage. When you have a tight, painful muscle rubbing on that muscle seems to help it feel better, right? Foam rollers are meant to work the same way. Using a foam roller is a way to help tell your muscles to relax when in spasm. By providing mechanical stress to your muscles, it signals to your body to decrease muscle tension.
In the moment, it brings relief and can help stop the feeling of pain or discomfort. But what about the fascia adhesions?
Consider this, when you wear a backpack all day, do your shoulder muscles get permanently pushed down because “adhesions are broken” and your fascia is getting released? The answer is no—so using a foam roller isn’t doing that either.
Some fitness gurus will say that foam rolling can create long-term changes in your tissue. But the truth is that there is not enough evidence to support this view. Using a foam roller for a massage is not going to “break adhesions” resulting from muscle spasms.
Although research shows us foam rolling does not really change these “adhesions” what we do know is that it changes our perception of pain, and when an athlete perceives discomfort, her range of motion is going to be affected.
Foam Rolling and Your Range of Motion
When your muscles are in spasm, that tightness is going to cause discomfort when you move. Think about it this way, if you have tight hip flexors, performing a squat or sprinting at max speed is going to hurt. So what do you do?
Rolling on a foam roller or a lax ball on your hip flexors can definitely help decrease this discomfort. A number of studies have shown significant acute improvements in ROM as a result of SMR.2, 3 This makes sense when we remember how the mechanical pressure of the ball or roller is going to tell your muscles to chill out. Muscles that are less tense move in a way that allow you to improve your ROM discomfort free. However, it is important to note that these ROM improvements are acute and often fleeting. Numerous studies have shown a return to previous ROM after 10-min post foam rolling.3
Simply put, foam rolling is not a way to change your tissues for the long run just like sitting on your butt all day isn’t going to make your butt permanently flat. Your tissues do not change in the long-run based on pressure alone.
So, how do you get your tissues to change? How can you actually improve your mobility and flexibility? By using resistance training.
“By definition, full range resistance training is a form of dynamic stretching that challenges flexibility. Every strength session an athlete does is a flexibility-strength workout, and as such will lead to increases in not only ROM over time, but more importantly concurrent increases in strength over that full range.”1
Strength will provide the necessary stability and motor control required to safely realize any new ROM (improved mobility and flexibility) in a sport-specific movement pattern. Improving your ROM and strength within that ROM not only increases your performance but decreases your risk of injury.3
Quickly it becomes pretty obvious that foam rolling alone is not going to adequately deliver the range of motion and strength in that range of motion needed for female athletes.
The question then becomes: when can foam rolling be useful to the female athlete?
When Does Foam Rolling Fit In?
So, we know that foam rolling is not a way to improve your flexibility or mobility in the long-term. But we do know that foam rolling helps relieve a feeling of discomfort and tightness.
For an athlete who is feeling discomfort or tightness, foam rolling is a way to alleviate discomfort before implementing other training methods that will help her in the long run. Let’s consider an athlete about to perform a back squat in her strength training session but her knee is feeling super tight and restricted. She should spend some time preparing her tissues for the session through movement.
For example, having an athlete perform slow split squats will help introduce a type of eccentric stretch to help her hip flexors relax and alleviate some pulling on her knee.4 This type of movement is going to help prepare her tissues to perform a similar movement pattern later but with a heavier demand or load.
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Remember, foam rolling is going to help alleviate the perception of pain or discomfort. If this pain is inhibiting you from moving (your goal), foam rolling your hip flexors for a couple of minutes can help your body’s perception of pain to chill out.
Now that the pain is decreased, its time to move. After foam rolling, re-introduce those split squats to help eccentrically stretch your hips through slow and controlled movements. Then it’s time to load the tissue and back squat.
Through the back squat, we are not only getting the body to move through a full range of motion at her knees and hips, but we are strengthening that range of motion. Remember, strength is what provides the necessary stability and motor control necessary to achieve a long-lasting range of motion in a sport-specific movement pattern.
The Moral of the Story
Please stop foam rolling first. Foam rolling is going to help you decrease your perception of tightness and discomfort, but it is not going to help you prepare your tissues for movement the way you want.
With only 24 hours in a day and only an hour or two in the gym, laying on a foam roller is not the best use of your time to prepare your body to move. Remember, the goal of any athletic performance (whether it be a back squat in the gym or a high vertical in your basketball game) is movement.5
- If you feel tight, focus first on the goal of movement (and not a stretch) to relieve the sensation.
- Try performing a couple of slow and controlled body weight or goblet hold split squats or half kneeling presses to alleviate tightness. If that doesn’t work, then we can talk about how foam rolling fits into the equation.
- Think of foam rolling as a way to relieve some of that discomfort so you can move later without popping an ibuprofen.
But do we want to implement fo first? No, as it is not essential to our goal of movement.
But if we try to move and we still feel pain, rolling out some of the discomforts can help.
Studies do show there is a possible decrease in DOMS (delayed muscle soreness) when athletes introduce a 10-minute bout of foam rolling post exercise session.1 This is great if we need to perform at our highest the next day, but don’t forget that DOMS is your body’s way of expressing the inflammatory response that occurs after training. This inflammatory response is necessary when telling your body it needs to improve later.
By implementing methods to decrease this response—foam rolling, ice baths, and other recovery methods—DOMS or general soreness can decrease but at the possible expense of your training adaptation.
Have a big game tomorrow and you cannot be sore? Adding 10 min of foam rolling after your training session can help. But, if you’re training hard to improve your strength for next season, just accept the soreness as part of the adaptation process.
Things to Remember When You’re Foam Rolling
Tight muscles are normal if you are training hard and pushing your body to excel on the field and in the gym. Tight muscles can affect how you feel, how you move, and how you perform. Despite what mobility gurus may say, there is not enough evidence to support the claim that foam rolling changes your tissues in the long-term to help you move better. Rather, there is extensive evidence that shows movement, and progressively loading those movements, helps change your tissues in a way that will improve your performance in your sport.
If you are looking to improve your range of motion and strength in the long run, ditch the foam roller and start moving. If your tight muscles are giving you pain, consider foam rolling instead of popping an ibuprofen.
1. Sargent, D., Clarke, R. (2018). Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes. Mobility for Performance in Female Athletes. Marlborough: Crowood. pp 111-139.
2. Sullivan, K.M., Silvey, D.B.J., Button, D.C., and Behm, D.G. (2013). Roller massager application to the hamstrings increases sit and reach range of motion within 5 to 10 seconds without performance impairments. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 8(3), pp 228-236.
3. Stone, M., Ramsey, M.W., Kinser, A.M., O’Bryant, H.S., Ayers, C., and Sands, W.A., (2006). Stretching: acute and chronic? The potential consequences. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(6), pp. 66-74.
4. Aarimaa, V., Rantanen, J., Best, T., Schultz, E., Corr, D., & Kalimo, H. (2004). Mild eccentric stretch injury in skeletal muscle causes transient effects on tensile load and cell proliferation. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 14, 367–372.
5. Webb, A. (2016) Review of the literature: Functional movement development of athletic performance. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, 24 (3), pp. 23-40.