The Pros and Cons of Foam Rolling

We’ve all seen foam rollers at the gym, usually in the stretching area. Some of us may have used them, and for some they remain just another of those pieces of equipment at the gym that we ignore because it’s not a treadmill or a free weight. But the foam roller is there for a reason, and for some it could be a huge benefit to your fitness routine, so let’s probe a bit deeper into its purpose as well as its pro’s and it’s cons.

The foam roller itself was originally created by Moshe Feldenkrais who was a practitioner who believed in easing pain through focus on how you move. Originally, the foam roller was used as a body support and to work on standing balance. In 1987, a physical therapist began to use the roller for self massage, and from there, use of foam rollers spread.

So let’s take a look at what the foam roller is, beyond just, you know a cylinder of dense foam. The foam roller is designed to be a form of self-myofascial release designed to improve the health, and help to restore function to the muscles and fascia of the body.

Sounds amazing! But really, what does any of that mean?

Well, through the slog of daily life, and daily work outs, and the effects that the constant, unrelenting march of time have on our bodies, both the muscles and the fascia, a band of connective tissue, beneath the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles, end up developing adhesions and trigger points that can prevent our muscles from gliding and functioning properly.

Yay, more terms to explain!

Adhesions are essentially scar tissue that can form inside the body between two surfaces, in this case between the band of fascia and the muscles they are stabilizing.

Trigger points are something that happens, when a muscle experiences a build up of lactic acid and chemicals lead the muscle to stretch and tighten, putting into a position that it limits specific motions.

So now that we’ve covered the terms lets look at the actual pro’s of the foam rolling process itself. Foam rolling is often referred to as a poor man’s massage because it applies pressure to the muscles and fascia, using your body weight to increase the level of pressure. This in turns will help to increase blood flow through the muscles that will remove waste while also breaking down the muscle adhesions.

Sounds amazing, so how could there be any cons to doing this. It can get pretty complicated, but essentially, if your fascia is super tight, there is a reason. The main function of the fascia is to protect joints when muscles aren’t working properly, so that if a muscle fails, you don’t blow out the knee, as an example. So if your fascia is tight, it’s because something else isn’t working it properly, and forcing the fascia to work overtime. So attempting to stretch the fascia, may in fact be weakening the overall structure of the muscle system, and you should instead seek out the muscle that isn’t doing it’s job ad causing the fascia to pick up the slack.

This is a slightly simplistic way to look at this particular con, but I’m not a doctor and don’t want to overboard on the anatomy.

In terms of the foam rollers potential negative effects on muscles, it is very similar. Certain muscles will tighten up to protect other parts of your body. This is common in the back, where certain muscles will tighten up to prevent the spine from suffering injury. So foam rolling to loosen up any and every muscle can potentially lead to more serious injury. Once again, finding out why any giving muscle is tight is a better call then attempting to loosen it.

Let’s face it, when it comes to the human body, it isn’t always easy to come up with definitive answers. So for some of us, using a foam roller can be amazing. It loosens muscles and fascia, relieving pain and tightness and most people will never cause any of the negative effects that can come from loosening up both muscles and fascia.

The true negative effects that come from foam rolling is that it can mask other problems that can lead to greater injury.  If you are performing a specific exercise repeatedly the wrong way, and putting your body into positions that can lead to injury, but rolling away those warning signs, rather than looking to solve the real problem, which is in your form, or your choice of exercise.

However, rolling can just be rolling, and it can loosen things up and make you feel great, so roll away, just always be conscious of both sides of the coin.


Posted by Lorne Marr.
Lorne Marr is a Toronto-based fitness enthusiast and lifelong advocate of healthy living. He is on a journey to discover the best methods of training and nutrition for athletes and weekend warriors over 45. Connect with Lorne on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Leave a Comment