Foam rolling is a common practice for reducing muscle soreness and increasing flexibility. It is often used by gym goers, athletes, and in personal training and physiotherapy sessions.
Though many people swear by them, foam rollers are in the midst of a debate as to whether they are actually effective or not. At the moment, the scientific community is split.
While many studies have found improvements in flexibility and a reduction in soreness, many have found no difference.
A meta-analysis (basically a review of current studies) concluded that the studies that had been done on foam rolling had been of poor quality.
Meaning that any results or lack of results may have been down to poor study design rather than actual science.
In this article, we are going to look at the theory behind foam rolling. We’ll discuss whether it works or not – and to what extent. Then we will talk about three of the best foam rolling exercises, and talk about the dos and don’ts of using a foam roller.
Self Myofascial Release
Contrary to what you might think, foam rolling is technically classed as an alternative medicine therapy technique. It is very popular with Osteopaths and was created by the founder of Osteopathy Andrew Taylor Still.
The idea behind self Myofascial release is that you can reduce pain and stiffness by massaging and manipulating the connective tissue that covers your muscles (fascia).
Self Myofascial release has drawn a lot of criticism in the scientific community. There are many who would call for more research into whether it is effective or not.
As McKenney et al wrote in their meta-analysis “The quality of studies was mixed, ranging from higher-quality experimental to lower-quality case studies.” Overall, the studies had positive outcomes with Myofascial release, but because of the low quality, few conclusions can be drawn. 
This does not mean that self Myofascial release doesn’t work, it just means that the evidence to support it is of low quality.
Many people argue that until well-researched studies have been completed doctors and physios should avoid recommending self Myofascial release to their patients.
A 2008 study in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association looked into whether manual therapy could actually deform fascia – a claim made by most Myofascial release practitioners.
The study found that “The palpable sensations of tissue release that are often reported by osteopathic physicians and other manual therapists cannot be due to deformations produced in the firm tissues of plantar fascia and fascia lata.” 
In other words, using a foam roller will not actually manipulate fascia. Though the study says that lesser fascia could indeed be affected. This means that there could still be a huge benefit to using foam rollers or other forms of trigger point therapy.
The evidence that foam rolling can significantly affect fascia is patchy at best. It seems that true fascia manipulation is beyond the realms of humans using trigger point tools such as foam rolling.
However, that is not to say that foam rollers cannot affect outer or lesser fascia. This is known as superficial fascia.
What is Trigger Point Therapy Exactly?
Trigger points are best described as knots in the fascia surrounding your muscles. When released using a trigger point tool (foam roller for example) can cause a reduction in pain. Not just in the specific area, but also at different sites in the body. For example, working a knot in your hip flexors could release pain in your back.
The idea is controversial for the same reasons that Self Myofascial release is controversial. Not enough scientific evidence that it works.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence though, and many personal trainers and their clients swear by it. How much of this is a placebo effect though? Nobody knows.
Trigger point therapy is often used by physios and personal trainers, and many athletes use it between sessions.
It is not scientifically backed but has a lot of anecdotal evidence to back it up.
Whether it works or not is debatable. Your best bet is to try for yourself and see whether it works for you.
Why Do Some Bodybuilders Use Foam Rollers?
The most commonly stated reason why people use foam rollers is to reduce post-exercise muscle soreness.
After a tough session, the idea is that using a foam roller will help to relax the muscles, increase blood supply to them, and improve recovery.
Other people claim that foam rollers can increase flexibility. Bodybuilders are frequently criticised for a lack of flexibility – no matter how often Kai Greene proves this to be false!
The idea of increasing blood supply to the muscles definitely appeals to bodybuilders. More blood to the muscles means more delivery of nutrients, more protein synthesis, and better recovery.
Theoretically, it would also mean improved muscle growth – though nobody seriously claims this as a benefit.
Improving recovery between sessions is a huge benefit for bodybuilding, as bodybuilders tend to train more than anyone. Six or seven day training weeks are not unheard of, and if a bodybuilder is in the middle of a cut, they may not be getting sufficient calories to repair and refuel muscle. So every advantage possible will be taken.
If a bodybuilder believes that a foam roller can speed up recovery or reduce pain between sessions they are going to jump on it.
Increasing flexibility can also help with muscle building, suppleness is important when performing exercises. Particularly if you want to get the full range of motion, which will increase hypertrophy.
One of the many claims about foam rollers is that they can increase flexibility. It is therefore quite likely that some bodybuilders use foam rollers for this exact goal.
The final reason is related to both improved recovery and increased flexibility, injury reduction.
An injury is every bodybuilder’s worst fear. Straining or tearing a muscle could massively impact their preparation, and could even be career ending.
So, spending some time on a foam roller in an effort to reduce injury risk sounds like a fair trade.
Do Foam Rollers Reduce Soreness?
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a form of painful fatigue that can affect your muscles after intense exercise. Particularly if you’re starting back in the gym after a long layoff.
As with most things, there is intense debate about whether foam rolling has any effect on DOMS or not. A 2015 study in the Journal of Athletic Training found that foam rolling significantly reduced DOMS and enhanced recovery .
On the other hand, a 1997 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that immediate post-exercise massage (similar to foam rolling) had no effect on muscle soreness or DOMS .
However, a similar study in 2005 did see an improvement in recovery and a reduction in muscle soreness and swelling when participants had post-exercise massages .
A 2011 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that foam rolling had no positive effect on performance, but did manage to reduce the feeling of fatigue before a workout .
A similar study in 2014 also found a reduction in muscular fatigue, but also found no improvement in gym performance .
A reduction in post-exercise muscular fatigue seems to be a definite benefit of foam rolling.
Whether foam rolling reduces pain and stiffness is less certain, though there does seem to be quite a lot of evidence to support this. The reduction of DOMS is also up for debate.
At the end of the day, using a foam roller post-exercise appears to leave your muscles feeling less stiff and less fatigued. However, there is no evidence that this improves gym performance.
Does Foam Rolling Increase Mobility?
Whether foam rollers can or cannot increase mobility is a matter of what you define as mobility. If we are talking about mobility immediately after an intense workout, then you could make a case for this.
By reducing post-exercise soreness and fatigue in the muscles your mobility the next day may be slightly improved (though your performance will be unaffected).
But a lot of people claim that foam rolling can increase flexibility/range of motion, and this is absolutely untrue.
In 2006 a study was performed where foam rollers were used on hamstrings in a bid to improve flexibility . The study found absolutely no improvement in flexibility between those using a foam roller and those not using one.
Foam rollers do not improve mobility or flexibility, however, they can temporarily improve it by reducing the effects of DOMS or fatigue the day after an intense workout.
Use foam rollers as a tool for recovery rather than as a way to long-term affect range of motion.
Three Best Foam Rolling Exercises
There are many different stretches and exercises that you can use a foam roller for. This is a quick list of three of the best ones that you can do.
For all of these exercises you will require a good quality foam roller. You can either purchase a small one or a long one, depending on where you need to store it, and how much space you have.
Foam Roller Exercise #1: Calf Stretch
Lie on your back with your hands flat on the floor slightly behind your torso, and your calves resting on a foam roller.
Use your arms to raise your body off the floor and support your weight.
Roll backwards so that the foam roller hits your calves, and then slowly roll forwards again.
You can either do one leg at a time or both at the same time. Depends if you have a small or large foam roller.
Foam Roller Exercise #2: Hamstring Stretch
This exercise is performed almost identically to the calf stretch, but instead of resting the foam roller underneath your calves, you place it underneath your hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your thighs).
Roll the foam roller all the way from your glutes to the back of your knee.
Foam Roller Exercise #3: Outer Thighs
This exercise resembles a side plank except that your arms are fully extended and you have a foam roller underneath your hip!
Start with the area just underneath your hip resting on a foam roller (on your side rather than on your back).
Roll from your hip down to your knee, with the foam roller travelling all along the side of your outer thigh. This will work the IT band and hip flexors. It can be quite painful.
Reverse the roll and return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
Foam Rolling Do's and Dont's
Here are three do’s and three donts of foam rolling that everyone should pay attention to before getting started.
- Be consistent – you’re not going to see benefits if you only use a foam roller once per year. If you want to be less fatigued after workouts and less sore then use a foam roller before or after each session (or during a rest day).
- Invest in the Best – Using a low-quality foam roller is completely pointless, they are just not good enough to withstand the pressure. On the other hand, don’t assume that the best foam roller is automatically the most expensive. Do some research, find good reviews and be prepared to loosen the purse strings.
- Get Trained – Use YouTube videos, hire a personal trainer, and ask for advice. Make sure that your foam rolling technique is perfect. This is not something to mess around with!
- Foam Roll your neck or lower back – There are no real benefits to doing so, and it can be uncomfortable if not dangerous.
- Apply too much or too little pressure – If you don’t roll hard enough for some mild discomfort then it’s unlikely that you are actually doing anything. On the flip side, pushing too hard is unnecessarily painful, and can do more harm than good. This all comes down to technique and experience. Another reason why hiring someone to teach you properly is a good idea.
- Use a short range of motion – The point of foam rolling is to fully work the muscle, from origin to insertion (top of the muscle to bottom). Your foam roller needs to travel the entire length of the muscle if you are only performing very short ROM rolls on each muscle you’re not doing it properly.