Foam Rolling – What Are We Actually Doing?

It is now commonplace to see various tools at the gym to improve muscle length and tone, with foam rolling and lacrosse balls being the most prevalent. These tools are used to improve the mobility of the muscle tissue that you are targeting, typically before and after your workout, aiming to reduce muscle or joint pain.

There is not a lot of research to support that you are stretching the fascia, but what you may be doing is improving the muscle quality underneath the fascia if there is what is known as a trigger point or more commonly referred to as a muscle “knot.” Fascia is designed to be resilient to tensile stress, and therefore, does not respond to stretching. A trigger point is a taut band of muscle located within a larger muscle and may be tender to touch, although they don’t have to be. Normal muscle won’t have trigger points and will not exhibit the same tenderness.

The pain associated with trigger points is caused by the release of various chemicals that occur with tissue damage. Strength training will cause small microtears in the muscle, and this damage, time after time, can develop knots in the muscle and cause subsequent pain. Knots in the muscle can occur for a variety of reasons whether it is trauma, illness, inactivity, or workouts.

When there are several trigger points within the larger muscle it can affect the tension on the surrounding joints. As you can imagine, if there are multiple trigger points in the muscle, the muscle is effectively shorter, thereby pulling more at the joint.

So, when you are foam rolling, for example, you are not actually stretching the fascia, however, you are manipulating the tissue to make it more malleable in order to address the muscle knot. Adding sustained pressure to these trigger points can cause a release of these chemicals, improve the underlying tissue length, and thereby improve your pain.

Therapeutically, it would be beneficial to address both of these concepts. Generally speaking, spending two minutes per muscle region is ideal, both rolling up and down the muscle, but sustaining a hold on the tender areas of the muscle. Rolling before your workout is a good idea to improve the muscle length of the muscles that you intend to work to optimize function, and then roll or mash again after your workout so that the muscle is better able to repair without developing trigger points.

It is important to remember that this mobility work will be uncomfortable at first and that it is uncomfortable because there is dysfunction. However, consistency is the key and the more you perform your mobility work the less uncomfortable it will become.

– Cat, PT, DPT

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