A Treatise Against Foam Rolling
Taylor Weglicki, PT, DPT
For some time now, mobility has been taking the fitness industry by storm. Everyone is too tight, we sit like crap, we move like crap, and only the foam roller and mobility workouts of the day can fix it. Now before everyone jumps down my throat about this, remember: it’s only a tool for the tool box. The way you hear some people bandy about on the internet, foam rolling/mwod could cure cancer.
I’m not saying that neither of these options is useful. Quite the opposite really: they can be amazingly useful, but only if done right. Mobilizing every day is useful for the absurdly tight with terrible movement patterns, and I often use this with my own patients – but only in 1-2 week intervals. Mobilize everything, everyday, and soon you’ll be dumping torque and tightness left and right. Literally.
My goal for this article is to discuss foam rolling in particular: why it’s good, why it’s bad, and why you should honestly think about why the hell you’re using it. This process in my own training resulted in a complete revolution in my warmup, and subsequently considerably less pain before, during, and after training. I’m hoping this article can help do the same for you. Now let’s get down to it.
Look at him. So supple. I bet he foam rolls every day.
Get Your Learn On
First thing’s first. The Science. Yeah, we fancy, huh? So, the scientific term for foam rolling is SMR, or self myofascial release. It’s a nifty style of soft tissue work often used by chiropractors, massage therapists, and physical therapists for a particular purpose: INHIBITION. You read correctly folks, inhibition. So what about all those minutes of foam rolling you’re doing before your workout? That work is essentially turning off the muscle groups through a concept known as autogenic inhibition(1). Many people have experienced this in a different way. Everyone knows the feeling of going for a max effort attempt, and then suddenly it seems like your body simply shuts off. That right there, folks, is the activation of the autogenic inhibition reflex from the Golgi tendon organ to prevent muscle tearing, thus inhibiting the muscle and “saving” it.
The development of high tension is the key. Therapist will often use focal point tension on trigger points to elicit the same effect. Trigger point work feels like hell (as can foam rolling, but it’s highly effective when used properly. It can be therapeutic, but can also be detrimental to your performance. You do something similar when you foam roll at length. That’s why those nasty spots that feel so bad when you’re rolling suddenly seem to relax and feel better. You’ve inhibited the tissue and caused it to ease up on its focal point contraction.
Knowing Is Half the Battle
How many of you go attempt a max deadlift after a massage session? Or get under the bar for a record setting squat after being adjusted by the chiropractor? Hopefully at this point the NBS team has taught you better than that. You shouldn’t do it. If you go attempt to straight in to heavy work after inhibiting primary structures, something is going to fail. Could be muscular, could be ligamentous, but something will fail. On a similar note, then, why do you foam roll before a heavy workout? Why?
My major point here is this: THINK about why you’re warming up. Are you doing a particular thing for a purpose? Or because you read it was useful somewhere on the internet? Inhibition can serve to help us in certain circumstances, but gone (should be) are the days of foam rolling from head to toe for 20 minutes prior to training. It doesn’t make sense. So stop it, and attack your warm-up from a different angle. David and I both have options that should work pretty well. Feel free to come talk to us and ask. Or read any of David’s articles really.
But I Love It, and Can’t “Let It Go”
She can let it go. But does she even lift?
I’m not saying you have to give up your precious foam rolling completely. Not at all. I’m just saying use that noggin’ of yours and make sure you’re doing it with a purpose. On training days? Use it only to inhibit that which needs inhibiting. In most lifters, you’re looking at IT Bands, maybe adductors, and maybe calves. That’s it. Don’t stretch your back over the roller, don’t pop your midback on the roller before a workout. Just don’t. Mobilize intelligently and with a purpose. Best times to go all in on the foam roller are after meets, during deloads, or on off days. Feel free to roll the snot out of everything after you can after a rough ME day. Just be smart about what you’re doing on the days that you train. Your body will feel better, and you’ll perform better as a result.
Now get in there and lift heavy.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Cries of Outrage? Leave them in the comments section below!