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Foam rolling, we see it happening more and more in the gym. Athletes who foam roll to relieve some stiffness or employ it as part of their warm up. But how effective is Foam rolling really?
Does it really benefit or is it a waste of time?

We will go through the following points together:

  • Using a foam roller may provide less stiffness but it does not loosen anything. Muscle tissue contains certain sensors that are activated by pressure, creating relaxation in the central nervous system.
  • Foam rolling does not make you stronger, more limber or less likely to get injured.
  • In addition to using a foam roller, it is wise to use other recovery methods.
Foam rolls

Foam rolling and stiffness

Foam rolling definitely makes you feel like something is happening. It can hurt or even feel good in a pleasant way. Foam rolling can be useful to reduce stiffness from exercise. The mechanism behind foam rolling works as follows:
By applying pressure to muscle fibers, you cause activation of certain receptors (mechano-receptors). The same goes for massage. Massage causes activation of muscle fibers which decreases stiffness and increases mobility. This stiffness is also called a neural lock in the literature. Neural thus stands for the nervous system. So nothing is literally locked in the body as we have always thought but the muscle tissue is stiff. By activating muscle fibers and especially the mechano-receptors as previously named, mobility often increases rapidly. This is always temporary. Another confirmation that we cannot literally loosen or lengthen anything. Otherwise we would not have an increase in mobility so quickly, often within a few minutes of foam rolling you already move much easier.


Foam rolling and flexibility, strength and injury prevention


Foam rolling by itself has few benefits. When you don't apply other important things just the foam roller has little added value. By this I mean that if you want to become more limber it is probably much more useful to start moving in the angles and positions in which you want to become more limber. If you want to be able to squat deeper, start focusing mainly on a good squat technique. If you experience a lot of stiffness in your low back, make sure you ask mobility of your spine on a daily basis. Another thing is that you obviously won't get stronger from foam rolling. If you want to gain strength, train strength! Nor is it true that you are less likely to get injured with foam rolling. Foam roll all you want but when your sleep, recovery time and training program are not in order, forget it!

Foam rolling is best combined with other recovery strategies
If you do want to foam roll then it is wise to combine it with other recovery strategies such as, for example hiking and cycling. Foam rolling by itself has too little benefit for recovery between workouts. If you really experience too many limitations such as a lot of minor aches and pains and stiffness combine foam rolling with walking or cycling. At a recovery training the goal is to exercise as much as possible without putting extra strain on muscle tissue. What exactly you do doesn't really matter that much. Just make sure you enjoy moving. It can also be useful to give your body a longer rest between workouts. When you notice that you are not performing as well as you would like to, skip a day. If, as a powerlifter, you spend a day doing only your supporting exercises (triceps, trapezius, etc) or, as a bodybuilder, a day doing arms, calves and abs, this is the ideal day to skip once. You can probably catch up on these when you take a break from this session the following week. But trust me that your performance won't suffer if you just let this one go. There is still too much fear about not training. Several studies show that literally nothing happens to muscle mass and muscle strength when you take a week of rest. Of course, this shouldn't become too many weeks in a year but you get what I mean.
Personally, I am not for or against foam rolling, but am annoyed when it is magnified to the point of forgetting to actually train. Moving a 300-gram foam roller doesn't really count as a workout. Also, too much energy is often wasted on foam rolling that it seriously affects your first exercise! So if you enjoy doing it, do it after your workout or on a separate day and combine it with walking, running or another light workout.
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