If you foam roll, you probably know about the host of benefits it offers to your weightlifting or athletic performance.
If you don’t foam roll…
Do you even lift, bro?
Let me tell you a story…
I had been lifting consistently for about 2 years and, when I was a full-time personal trainer, I was literally in the gym from 7am to 7pm either with clients or prospecting them.
Needless to say I was working out during my downtime. A lot. It was awesome to get paid to train other people as well as myself.
Then one day...it happened.
I stepped up to the platform to do my deadlifts. Just a warm-up set of about 15 reps. Only about 40 pounds on the bar.
When I went to rip out my 4th rep, the bar dropped. I couldn’t move. I had pulled muscles in my back that prevented me from being able to twist either way or bend over. I could barely walk without being in unbearable pain.
Needless to say that ended my workout. I was so bummed. I was nearly immobile for 3 days and I didn’t know how long I would have to take a break from lifting. Or WHY this even happened??? IT WAS A WARM UP SET FOR GOD’S SAKE.
And then my fellow personal trainer buddy, Tomas, forced me to get on one of the massage tables and mercilessly dug his elbow into my TFL (tensor fascia latae) which is a strip of muscle on your hip. It was excruciating and I hated him for it.
But, seemingly miraculously, after only about 10 minutes of whatever it is he did to me I stood up completely pain-free.
I felt like I had been touched by a witch doctor. A faith healer. It was literally like magic.
Ever since that day I had been introduced to SMR (self-myofascial release) and I haven’t looked back since. Now, I foam roll before every single workout I do and I make my clients do the same.
In doing so, I have helped dozens of people relieve chronic pain they never knew the cause of...and it was all because they were lifting heavy without ever foam rolling. Just as I had done.
So, back up.
What is Foam Rolling Exactly?
Foam rolling, or SMR in trainer’s terms, has a mechanism that’s too complex to explain at length in this article. And to be honest, the science isn’t all the way there for us to know exactly what foam rolling does.
But for now, let me put what we know in simple terms. You know that very thin layer of tissue that covers your chicken breast? That’s called fascia...and it covers every single one of your own muscle fibers. In a perfectly functioning body, when your muscles move, these fascia slide by each other with ease.
However, whenever your muscles get “tight” due to consistently heavy lifting (typically with bad form), injury, poor posture, inactivity or even sickness, these fascia start to stick to each other forming adhesions or “knots.”
These knots cause that “tightness” you feel sometimes before or during a workout when you feel stiff and inflexible. If it’s bad enough, you can even feel it when doing daily activities.
Sometimes though, and this is important, you can’t feel tightness at all and only find out your body is riddled with knots when you get injured.
It doesn’t always happen whenever you’re squatting 300 like most people think. On the contrary, it probably happens most often when you’re just warming up or, hell, just bending over to pick up your cat.
That’s exactly what happened to me.
Whenever you foam roll, that holy-shit-make-it-stop pain you feel is the foam roll putting pressure on one of those knots. If you hold this pressure long enough, receptors in your muscles tell the fibers to relax. It’s then theorized that the relaxation of your trigger point allows the muscles to stretch out, loosen those painful knots and realign your muscle.
So, cool. You have looser muscles. Now what?
The 4 Benefits of Foam Rolling
Well, the benefits are not entirely known, but what the consensus is amongst fitness professionals (and what I’ve seen with athletes) are the following benefits should be enough to make you a believer too:
1.) It Helps Prevent Injury
This is a simple one. All of my D1 athletes roll before every workout and the in-season athletes will take 1-2 full days off from lifting just to spend the hour foam rolling and stretching.
This is because athletic strength coaches understand the stress regular weightlifting puts on the body and how strongly it can tighten the muscles to harmful levels.
When muscles are allowed to become tight, like a rubber band that’s been stretched and pulled tighter, and tighter, and tighter day after day for weeks, all it takes is the smallest amount of force for it to snap. The last thing we need is someone pulling a calf muscle or straining their back in the middle of a playoff game just because they skipped their foam rolling.
And the last thing you need is to be dropping your fully-loaded deadlift bar in the middle of a crowded gym because you didn’t make the time to roll beforehand.
*points at self in shame*
2.) It Can Improve Posture and Alleviate Mysterious Pain
Ever find yourself hunched over with your shoulders rounded and head forward without even realizing how awful your posture is? This is called Upper Crossed Syndrome and it’s super common amongst people who work an office job or play a lot of video games.
If either of these is you, you can probably think of some pain you’ve had in your neck or back. Try to pay attention to how your upper body is positioned next time you’re at your desk or playing Warzone. You might be surprised at how easy it is to default to this without realizing it.
This forward posture causes tightness in your chest and upper back/lower neck. When you can use a ball to loosen these areas (yuppp still foam rolling) and strengthen the muscles that weakened due to the tightness, you can improve your posture and possibly alleviate pain.
Have unknown lower back pain?
It’s almost definitely tightness in your hips or elsewhere in your lower body and these tight muscles pull on muscles in other areas you wouldn’t have even thought of, most notably your back.
3.) It can help you lift more with less effort
In a 2018 study, 16 male weightlifters performed two sets of workouts: One where they did no SMR and another where they foam rolled for 3 days straight. The subjects reported that, the week they did consistent SMR, they were able to lift more with less perceived effort than the week they did not foam roll.
4.) It Helps with Muscle Activation to Make Your Workouts More Effective
(And lead to more muscle gain).
To the previous point, SMR can help you lift more and feel less fatigued. However (and this has made a world of difference in my own gains), it can make your workouts more worthwhile.
Let me explain.
Before I do my booty workouts, I always dedicate 15 minutes to rolling my quads, TFL, QL (quadratus lumborum) and calves because I know that all of these muscles are involved in executing glute workouts. If these muscles are tight, these tight muscles take over and compensate.
Thus, little force is actually going to be generated by your glutes and that heavy barbell glute bridge is going to end up being more of a quad workout. Not what we want.
By loosening these muscles, stretching and warming up your glutes before just jumping in, your neuromuscular system is able to focus on activating your glutes during the workouts rather than the surrounding muscles, making your hump day more effective and making a better use of your gym time.
If you started working out with crazy gains and then one day all of that stalled. Or if you used to be really sore after your chest days and now you aren’t despite doing the same exercises and you haven’t been foam rolling, it’s likely your body can’t activate the targeted muscles effectively anymore. At this point, the surrounding muscles are probably stronger than the muscles you’re actually trying to work and you’re just wasting a lot of time in the gym if you aren’t rolling.
Are you a believer yet?
The bottom line?
Foam rolling has a host of benefits and, if you truly care about taking care of your body, you should include it in your fitness programming.
After all, being swole and lifting crazy amounts of weight are cool and all, but not really worth it if you’re not taking care of your body. It’s also massively counterproductive if you’re setting yourself up for injury or are so tight your workouts aren’t even efficient because you aren’t activating your muscles to their full potential.
Now keep in mind: rolling these areas won’t loosen them overnight (after all, they didn’t tighten overnight), but rolling daily can definitely help with pain and posture over time.
As a final note, foam rolling is not appropriate for everyone, if you have heart failure, kidney problems, low bone density, a blood disorder or a skin condition, you shouldn’t foam roll. If you have any other medical condition, definitely check with your doctor before you start any sort of SMR.
But if this isn’t you, I highly recommend you get started...and today.