Does Foam Rolling Work?
I spent the past weekend attending the CHP level 1 & 2 certifications and took a lot of invaluable nuggets away, especially when it comes to programming endurance training for strength athletes and also insights into physical and psychological responses during ultra marathons and races far beyond what I have experienced in my own training history.
One of the topics covered was recovery and looking at the effectiveness of the most commonly used protocols. Foam rolling came up in discussion, which tied in with something else called ‘functional tightness’.
To backtrack a little bit, occasionally I get asked by members for my take on foam rolling. Personally I have never found any massive benefit to it or any significant improvement in performance as a result. My own conclusions are drawn entirely from anecdotal evidence but I never got caught up in the mega-mobility craze of a few years ago when, if you weren’t seen carrying a foam roller to the gym, you obviously didn’t gym, bro (as an aside it seems as though you need a personal photographer and a social media production crew as an essential gym accessory these days).
Not only have I not been entirely convinced of its effectiveness, I have also seen folks become entirely fixated in rolling every body part meticulously prior to a training session leading the warm up to become an endurance session in itself. Some of the questions raised at the certification at the weekend backed up my hesitation to foam roll every muscle group into submission before a workout, which leads us back to functional tightness…
Functional tightness is a situation where being tight in a certain position may be (most likely is) more beneficial to the individual – essentially it is a tightness that keeps us safe, much like tight hips not allowing us to descend too deep into a squat and cause us harm.
Also, when it comes to range of movement (ROM), we are strong within the ranges we train most frequently. It makes sense that we would not be trained or strong outside of that range. Again, using the squat as an example, if we have been training half squats for so long and getting stronger in that range, the first time we go ‘ass to grass’ with even half that weight, it will feel a lot more taxing. As with everything we need to respect this and build up our strength in new ranges gradually.
If we foam roll before a session it may actually inhibit this functional tightness and cause us harm and increase the risk of injury as we now have the ability to move into ranges where we have not yet built sufficient strength BUT… this is not a bad thing if we are willing to allow for this and use lighter weights initially. Most folks are not. So foam rolling CAN improve ROM but the question needs to be asked – is this beneficial for the session ahead? This raises an important tenet of training – there should always be a solid reason for doing something and within this reason, timing and context are important.
As an aside – when warming up with any lift (especially something like a squat) it is important to go through full range with optimal focus – approach every warm up set like a heavy work set. Every warm up and sub maximal rep is a chance to program optimal movement patterns, if we just go into auto pilot and drift through warm up sets, I guarantee you will revert back to this, the most commonly used movement pattern, when under pressure. And I have never seen any accomplished lifter just float through warmup sets. If you want to get strong, get out of this habit immediately! Also gaming warm ups and leaving a bit in the tank (especially the last 2 inches of a squat) and expecting it to be there on a 3 or 1rm is a terrible and lazy approach. *Spoiler alert – it wont be there*.
So is foam rolling useless? Not entirely. It is probably best to foam roll at the end of a session so as not to inhibit functional tightness. The same thing goes for static stretching – there is value to it (even before a training session, in the right circumstances). It is ideal to be able to achieve full range to attain optimal positions but once there, take the time to build strength. It is far from ideal to over-ride these mechanisms and jump right in to lifting heavy in the ‘uncharted territory’ of new ROM . Connective tissues need time to adapt to these new ranges.
Of course it is also worth noting that in a lot of cases – especially for general population and outside of the performance environment, it is probably not a good idea to rely on this tightness to get you through lifts. Imbalances, restricted ROM and impingements need to be assessed and a plan put in place to correct them. Once new range has been created then you can look to build strength in this area.
For a time, mobility work became the ‘new thing’ and most folks threw out the baby with the bath water and focused entirely on mobility as a modality of training in itself. Imbalances are a fact of life and throughout a training cycle, some imbalances may occur, frequently assessing and tracking progress helps ensure this does not happen to any large degree or at least gets to a point where injuries or plateaus occur. A fact of life – or a by-product of modern living is that there will usually be some imbalances present.
Improving ROM is important depending on the joint involved and looking at why we are limited in certain ways should absolutely dictate how you train going forward. Cheating ROM or just getting lazy about it for the sake of just being lazy is a bit of a shit house habit to get into and it doesn’t lead to anything beneficial (or worth posting about on social media!).
So maybe the whole point of this post is not to bash foam rolling as it does have a time and a place BUT it is important to know when and where to put it in a workout plan in relation to the bigger picture and keeping in mind how what we do has a knock on effect across various training endeavours and we should have a solid ‘why‘ behind the modalities we chose to implement.