What’s the Deal with Foam Rolling?

Via  Giphy

Via Giphy

By Jessica Hamlin

You may have seen them at the gym, a store or in a fitness article. Cylinders of hard foam called foam rollers. Perhaps you’ve seen them in action as people roll their legs, backs or other body parts over them.

So, what’s the deal with foam rolling? Why and how do people do it and do you need some foam rolling in your life? Let’s break it down.

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling, as the name implies, involves slowly moving parts of your body over the foam roller as it rolls. This is in order to massage muscles and help them warm up and recover.

The pressure of your body weight on top of the foam roller helps it work more intensely, ultimately making muscles feel more relaxed, like a deep tissue massage. But like a deep tissue massage, it’s not always the most comfortable and pressure may need to be adjusted. Depending on how tight your muscles are and what type of foam roller you use, foam rolling can be painful at first.

“Foam rolling is often described as a form of "self-myofascial release" (sometimes known as SMR),” Time reports. “‘Fascia’ refers to connective tissue that binds and stabilizes the muscles.”

But some experts are skeptical about how exactly foam rolling works with your body, even if they think it’s a good thing.

Some research theorizes that “foam rolling may be knocking out stress and quieting your body’s pain-detection centers, instead of loosening your muscles,” notes Time.

Foam Roller Benefits

No matter how exactly foam rolling works, it has proven benefits.

Foam rolling before a workout can boost performance and range of motion and foam rolling after a workout can prevent soreness.

Experiments conducted by various experts found:

  • Volunteers who rolled back and forth with a foam roller under their leg muscles from five seconds to one minute showed a significant increase in those muscles’ range of motion immediately afterward.
  • Unlike stretching, which blunts muscles' ability to generate force, foam rolling did not affect volunteers’ ability afterward to jump or exert themselves otherwise.

Additional experiments found that even after a “devastating workout” consisting of multiple sets of squats, volunteers who used a foam roller on their leg muscles were far less sore and better able to leap and perform other physical tasks 72 hours later than volunteers who didn’t use the device.

Shape echoes some of these benefits: By slowly “rolling over various areas of your body, you'll help break up adhesions and scar tissue and speed up the healing and recovery process after your workout.”

How to Use a Foam Roller

A foam roller works with your body weight to help relieve muscles. It can be used before a workout to help boost flexibility, circulation, performance and range of motion and after a workout to help muscles recover.

It’s best to do the following when trying foam rolling for the first time:

Start small and slow.

Start with a mild foam roller (we mention the types below) and experiment with using different amounts of your body weight with it. More body weight means more intensity. “For especially tight spots, applying constant pressure might work better than rolling back and forth,” Shape says. Tip: Your outer thigh, aka “IT band” tends to be one of the more painful and tight spots to foam roll and some experts advise you not foam roll it at all. Try slowly rolling a less tight area like the back of your legs first, starting at the bottom of your legs and working your way up.

Consult a health professional.

Especially if you have injuries. Don’t foam roll over injured or sensitive areas like your back or neck unless instructed to do so by a professional who is knowledgeable about your body.

Listen to your body.

If foam rolling is too painful for you, you may need to use a different foam roller, less body weight, foam roll on a less sensitive area or stop completely and seek guidance from a fitness or health professional.

Foam Roller Routines

When you want to get started, what exactly should you do? Some experts weigh in.

Important foam rolling tips on form and frequency are covered in this video from Trigger Point, which offers foam rolling education, courses and products:

Two to three sets of foam rolling at 30 to 60 seconds per muscle seems to be effective at reducing pain and improving flexibility, says human kinetics professor at the University of Newfoundland David Behm, according to Time.

Shape shares 10 Ways to Use a Foam Roller that include incorporating it as a workout prop. But be wary of their suggestion to foam roll your outer thigh/IT band—which they warn against in a separate article—or your back, which may be more sensitive.

If you’re a runner, check out 6 pre- and post-run foam roller routines for different parts of the body from Runner’s World.

What Foam Roller Should I Use?

A variety of foam rollers are available depending on your needs and comfort. If you’re new to foam rolling, it’s best to choose one with a flat texture instead of bumps, which can be quite uncomfortable at first since you feel them more deeply in your muscles. If you belong to a gym that has foam rollers, perhaps see how those work for you first before purchasing one.

To find the best foam roller for you:

EVA Foam Roller

This roller is made from closed cell foam that is soft to the skin. It offers good resistance that does not feel like it is pushing you out or allowing you to sink in too much. This is often a good roller to get started with as you will get good benefits without all the pain.

If this foam roller is too much for you to start with, consider a handheld foam roller that doesn’t involve using your body weight.

High Density Foam Roller

This is a roller made from beads of closed cell foam. Firmly solid throughout, it is designed to withstand the pressure of weight put through it and consistently deliver a dense roll. It feels much firmer to the roll than the EVA.

Rumble Roller

Comes in Blue and Black (blue is easier to start with). This roller provides evenly spaced bumps around it to provide a deeper tissue massage effect. It also uses newer technology (seen in the next foam roller) but rather than having a hollow component it is filled with foam. The solid outer component of the core (seen both in this model and the Grid roller) have been shown by research to have a greater effect on the fascia through increasing pressure whilst rolling. With this particular model you get that benefit and the added extra of the bumps.

Grid Roller

Similar in technology (solid core) to the Rumble except that it is hollow internally and its outer shell is mostly smooth. With this roller you get the benefits the density has to offer your fascia but perhaps without the therapeutic discomfort the rumble provides.

Where to buy foam rollers

You can get a foam roller online, at a sporting goods store, Target or even sometimes Home Goods or TJ Maxx.


(Thumbnail Photo: Sergii Kateryniuk)

Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.