Do Foam Rollers Really Work?

As a massage therapist, I have always been skeptical as to whether foam rollers can provide some amount of relief for my clients when compared to a traditional massage. After realizing that there is a huge need for home care exercises and tools, I started doing some research into different foam roller products.

Many people ask the question – Do foam rollers really work? The short answer is “yes,” but let’s take a look into why they work and how you can use them at home, work, or in the gym to provide the relief you are looking for.


What is a foam roller? 

A foam roller is a tool used to help release tension and pain from muscles after an accident, after a workout, or anytime the muscles are tight and tense. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and density levels. 

There are many types and they each have their own purposes. Let’s take a look at some!


What are the different types of foam rollers?

Low density: Low-density foam rollers are also known as soft foam rollers. They are great for beginners and those with low pain tolerance.

Medium density: Medium density foam rollers are a step up from soft foam rollers and are used when the soft versions are not quite digging deep enough.

High density (firm): Firm foam rollers are the hardest, and they are used for the really tough knots and kinks, or for those that have a higher pressure tolerance.

Short: Short foam rollers are twelve inches and under. They come in any density level or texture and are chosen for their ease of use and portability. 

Bumpy/knobby: Bumpy/knobby foam rollers are the closest equivalent to a deep-tissue massage. They work well for really deep pain, but they are not the best option if you are already in severe pain.

Fascial Grid: The fascial grid foam rollers are multi-density rollers in a grid shape that allow you to better control how you work your muscles with the roller.

Vibrating: Vibrating foam rollers are similar to traditional foam rollers, but they have electronic vibrating components inside.

Heated: Heated foam rollers are also similar to traditional foam rollers, but they are heated to promote blood flow and the release of muscle tension.

Cooled: Cooled foam rollers are used to ease inflammation and swelling, much like an ice bath. 

Stick Roller: Stick rollers are foam rollers on a stick with handles. They allow the user to hold it by either end and use it to massage themselves, or someone else can hold it and use it to work out their muscles. 


What are the benefits of foam rolling?

Unfortunately, the research done on foam rolling is inconclusive thus far. We don’t actually fully understand the effects that foam rolling can have on the body. Most of the benefits reported are theories and personal experience stories. I hope in time there will be more concrete and robust studies done on the benefits and the effects of foam rolling. 

From my experience in observing thousands of clients of the clinic and from my own foam rolling practice, I feel that foam rolling does in fact aid with muscle tension, stress relief, pain relief and in reducing DOMS! We are going to dive into the benefits reported by many people out there based on their personal experiences and how they feel.

The reported benefits of foam rolling range from helping your muscles warm-up before an exercise or event, to decreasing the recovery time after physical activity. 

Here is a full list of the reported benefits that foam rolling can have:

  1. Reduced muscle and connective tissue tension, or tone
  2. Reduced muscle soreness and pain
  3. Reduced inflammation
  4. Increased joint range of motion (ROM) and flexibility
  5. Increased circulation
  6. Aid in relaxation and stress relief
  7. Aid in your warm-up and in your cool-down
  8. Injury prevention
  9. Improved fascial hydration
  10. Improved proprioceptive refinement
  11. Improved fascial remodeling
  12. Improved elastic recoil of fascial tissues
  13. Improved myofascial health
  14. Improved strength and jump performance
  15. Improved anaerobic capacity
  16. Improved sensomotoric function and coordination

How does it work?


Unfortunately, the research done on foam rolling is inconclusive thus far. At this point, we are not 100% sure how foam rolling works. Hopefully, in time there will be more concrete and robust studies done on foam rolling. 

That being said, now we will go over how foam rollers work and what the effects are based on the current research that has been done for the above benefits.

First, we should point out that no one really knows how foam rollers work. What we have are theories; they’re good theories, and they make lots of physiological sense, but they have yet to be confirmed by science.

The most widely-accepted theory about what foam-rollers actually do is called myofascial release. We’ll explain what fascia is in detail soon, but for now just know that fascia is what gives muscles their shape.

During exercise, muscle fascia form adhesions, or trigger points, that make it difficult for your muscle fibers to slide past each other the way they’re meant to. These can also be formed because of inactivity, injury, or inflammation. In any case, what they do is cause your muscle fibers to bind to each other, lose elasticity, and form bands of tissue that are taut and firm when they shouldn’t be. A good analogy would be getting a piece of gum stuck in your hair, and not noticing for a while. The hair gets matted into a tight clump that doesn’t move, all the hairs are sticking to each other, and it can be quite painful.

Myofascial release helps separate these muscle fibers and helps get them back into the proper alignment so that they work properly again. This works because muscle fascia have become more malleable when you apply pressure and move them, even if the movement is microscopic. That pressure and movement from the foam roller allows the muscle fibers to relax, separate, and move naturally again.


What is Fascia?

Now that we’ve explained what myofascial release is, we need to understand what fascia is. 

Fascia is connective tissue made up mostly of collagen that separates your muscles from internal organs and attaches them to other muscles, skin, and organs. There’s a layer of fascia, a sheet really, underneath your skin that connects your skin and muscles. You also have what’s known as deep fascia, which both surrounds and penetrates your muscles. They separate muscles from each other and, in addition to helping transmit the force your muscles generate when they move, they also reduce the effect of friction within your muscles. Every muscle is surrounded by and filled with fascia.

In fact, each muscle fiber and each muscle cell is surrounded by a layer of fascia, in addition to the layer that surrounds the whole muscle. This way the friction created during muscular activity doesn’t cause damage because each cell has this protective layer and, when working properly, each muscle fiber can slide easily past the fibers around it. 

As you can see, fascia is incredibly important. It creates an interconnected system throughout your entire body. Your body literally cannot function without it, because it’s what connects your muscles to everything else. It allows your muscles to function without generating so much friction that they destroy themselves. This means you want to be somewhat careful when using a foam roller; you’re applying pressure to and moving your fascia, which means you’re directly manipulating some of the most important tissues in your body.


Is foam rolling safe?

Foam rolling is relatively safe for the average healthy adult. If someone is already active and in good physical shape there is no reason not to treat the foam roller as anything more than another piece of gym equipment. 

However, if someone already has any injuries or health conditions, foam rolling should only be done under the supervision of a professional. If muscles or ligaments are rolled or stretched the wrong way they could be further damaged. Anytime you are learning to use some new equipment you should be making sure you are using it the right way.

Other Cautions:

  • Pregnancy: always ask your doctor before starting any new exercise programs.
  • Serious injuries such as muscle tears, disclocations, breaks, open wounds, etc. would be reason not to attempt foam rolling.
  • Avoid rolling over specific joints, such as the knee joint, elbow joint and ankle.


Should it hurt?

Everyone talks about how foam rolling hurts “so good”. The reality is that although you will feel the soreness of the muscles in the area, the rolling itself should not cause you pain. If you start to use a foam roller for an exercise on an area that is in no pain, and it really hurts, you should stop, or at the very least, use less pressure. Foam rolling itself should not be the cause of pain.

If you feel a little soreness or tension after a workout and use a foam roller, you can expect there to be some pain because of the already sore muscles.


How do you actually use a foam roller?

Foam rollers can be used in many ways, but let’s focus on the most common. 

  • Physical therapists use foam rollers as a way to help patients do stretching and balance exercises.
  • Some massage therapists use foam rollers to help relieve “knots” and tension within the muscles.
  • Athletic coaches use foam rollers to help their athletes release muscle tension after a workout.
  • Fitness instructors use foam rollers both as a piece of exercise equipment and as an after workout massager.
  • Athletes such as runners and cyclists use foam rollers after long runs or rides to loosen muscles and release tension. 
  • Bodybuilders and other weight lifting athletes use foam rollers to help relieve the burn caused by heavy lifting, ease cramping and reduce tension.
  • Normal, everyday people use foam rolling for overall self-care and relief of tension, pain and postural stress.

There are many exercises that can be done with a foam roller. It can be placed behind your back while you lay on the floor to help stabilize you during pelvic lifts or bridges. A half foam roller can be used to stand on to work on balance. You can also use the half foam roller to stretch your calf muscles. 

There are many ways to use foam rollers, and ultimately what you need to keep in mind is that you do not only want to learn to use them, but you need to learn to use them safely. Anytime you start using a new piece of equipment you should know how to properly use it to avoid injury.

Videos and exercises that you can actually do!

How often and how long should I foam roll? 

Doctor Armin Tehrany, of Manhattan Orthopedic Care, suggests using a foam roller daily for five to twenty minutes, before and after you exercise. His suggestion is to roll slowly and focus on your breathing to make sure that your muscles relax. Using a foam roller before exercise reduces tension while increasing blood flow, and rolling after exercise speeds up your recovery.


Can I foam roll too much?

The answer is YES! You can most definitely over-foam roll, just like you can over-stretch, or over-train. Some things to keep in mind when foam rolling:

  • Do not foam roll to excessive soreness or to the point of excessive pain
  • Placing sustained pressure on a specific point, or area can cause damage to the tissues
  • 20-30 seconds per point, or area is recommended
  • Give your body some time in between foam rolling sessions. We recommend 24 hours between sessions. If you are very sore, or performed really intense activity, perhaps 48 hours in between sessions would be a good idea to let your body recover.

Some Do’s and Don’ts of Foam Rolling…

  • Do not cause yourself a lot of pain
  • Do not roll your IT Band
  • Do pay attention to how you move your body
  • Do stop if you feel uncomfortable or unsure of a specific move
  • Do consult a professional about the proper use of foam rollers
  • Do not use a foam roller if you have any breaks, tears, or injuries to your body
  • Do not start with a firm foam roller
  • Do choose the right foam roller for your body type and use

Ultimately what it comes down to is:

DO always listen to your body. If the foam roller, or any other equipment, is causing you pain, it is time to stop using it. Readjust. Ask a professional. Always consult professionals when you are learning to use a new piece of equipment.

DON’T do anything that hurts or causes discomfort on purpose. Do not use foam rollers on parts of your body that can be seriously damaged by improper use. Listen to your instincts.


How do I choose the best foam roller for me?

Choosing the best foam roller for you is not as hard as it may sound. The very first step is to think about what you plan to use it for, and then research the different types of foam rollers. If you get the wrong foam roller for your skillset and your needs you may end up injuring yourself. At the very least you would have wasted time and money.

Think about your skill level. Have you ever used a foam roller? If the answer is no, you should almost always choose a soft density model. If you have used one before and you are comfortable with it, you need to decide on how will use it. 

Are you using it for exercise or recovery? If you are using it as exercise equipment for every day self-care, yoga or pilates, you will want a medium or firm density foam roller that has a smooth or only lightly textured surface. If you want to use it for recovery you will want something textured or maybe a fascial grid version that can work out the muscles and kinks without causing you pain.

No matter what, the main thing to remember is that you need to keep your own skill level in mind. It is better to start softer and smoother and then adjust as needed. Starting with something too textured and firm can cause you pain and discomfort, and possibly even injury. 


In summary, for the best results and to ensure you are doing what is best for YOUR body…

Go slow, roll daily, and don’t hurt yourself. Foam rolling is not supposed to hurt, it is supposed to stop you from hurting and get you back to proper function. Remember that you’re loosening up and massaging tight, “knotted” muscles. Buy the best foam roller for your intended use, and use it as you feel comfortable using it. Happy Rolling!

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