Foam Rolling

Get Off the Foam Roller
Foam rollers are common these days and can be found in every sports catalogue in various types, styles and colors. Many top coaches and trainers recommend their use by athletes of all types. Some people are even said to SLEEP with them (1) (you know who you are Mr. Kevin Larabee of The Fitcast fame).
Background and the reasons why people foam roll
The standard argument for self-myofascial release (SMR) on a foam roller is possible thanks to the principle known as autogenic inhibition. Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard of the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) at some point. The GTO is a special mechanoreceptor (remember those from previous articles ) in this case found at the muscle-tendon junction. It’s job in life is to detect changes in tension in the muscle and to work as a safety mechanism by releasing muscle tension when the force becomes too great to potentially cause injury.
The fancy name for this reflexive relaxation is autogenic inhibition. When you apply force to the muscle via a foam roller you add muscle tension, and thus causing the GTO to relax the muscle.
Sounds awesome doesn’t it? Just 10 minutes a day and I should be all set right?
This simpleton argument has been questioned within the past few years (for an overview on reflexes click here ) Plus this argument also leaves out the whole rest of the nervous system! As I’ve said before, physiology is messy and seldom that simple.
A full discussion of the GTO is beyond this article (I hear a sigh of relief), but Fallon, JB et al. (2) stated recently, “The responses of the various muscle receptors to vibration are more complicated than a naive categorization into stretch (muscle spindle primary ending), length (muscle spindle secondary endings), and tension (Golgi tendon organs) receptors”. Cui, J. et al. (3) recently have shown in healthy humans mechanoreceptor(s) stimulation may even evoke significant increases in blood pressure. It is all connected via the nervous system.
Here the 2 main arguments of why I don’t think people should foam roll

  1. Tissue properties
    What are you trying to achieve? What is your goal? Most then cry “I want, better tissue properties”–ok, fair answer, but what does better tissue properties get you? Most are after better muscle function and some to get out of pain and better tissue properties is a step in that direction.
    The nervous system is the key (notice a theme yet?) Now before you get all crazy on trigger points and how they effect muscular force (which is a good point), how did the trigger point get there? I’ve done a fair amount of cadaver work and so far I have yet to see one trigger point. Actually non-fixed (fresh) tissue does not hold tension on its own. I have yet to see a slab of muscle get tense! Yes, certain structures are stiffer than others, but I have yet to see any muscle or tendons that resemble piano wires that I see most people’s necks. The nervous system is controlling the level of tension.
    Plus the thought of adding high amounts of external tension to your body in order to relieve tension seems odd to me. So I should add the thing I am trying to reduce? I know physiology is messy, but food for thought.
  2. Foam rolling can be painful.
    Pain will actually inhibit your gains. Now I know some will get up in my grill about how they are making gains in the gym and they are in pain and I agree that this can happen, but my argument is that it is not OPTIMAL.
    First, what is pain?
    The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain “as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.”(4)
    The take away here is that pain is associated with actual or potential damage. Pain is produced when the brain perceives that danger to body tissues exists and that action is required as a survival response. Imagine early cave man days and Captain Caveman sticks his hand in the fire. What happens next? He yells some unintelligible explicative and promptly removes his hand from the fire! Pain is an ACTION SIGNAL—move your darn hand out of the fire!
    Remember that pain does not live in the ankle that you sprained or Captain Caveman’s hand, but it is an interpretation of the brain. The signal from your Captain Caveman’s hand is sent up to his prehistoric brain where his brain then interprets the degree of pain.
    It was rumored that civil war soldiers that lost entire limbs were initially NOT in pain since they were so grateful to be alive that the thought of even loosing a limb was nothing compared to be pushing up daisies.
    It is true that if the damage sustained is severe enough, the pain and resultant shock can become the highest threat and require a survival response (5).
    The brain and the nervous system control ALL muscle movements. When pain occurs it inhibits the nervous system as a protective mechanism.
    Remember that the body only cares about survival and does not give a hairy rat’s butt about performance. If I injure my elbow, my nervous system will start to shut down the muscles around that joint as a protective mechanism to try to prevent further damage (ala arthrokinetic reflex).
    So the windy road back to our friend the foam roller. If you are on the ole foam roller before a training session and it is painful, you are turning on the "neurologic brakes” and thus decreasing your performance.
    Confession time
    I used have athletes foam roll over there ITB/TFL (lateral quad) and if they yelped in pain I would promptly declare “You there-- you have some ITB/ TFLs that are so tight you can bounce quarter off them” and would promptly have them do multiple foam roller sessions each day. Most times in a few weeks the pain would become less and I would then declare “Good thing I fixed that issue,” but did I? Why were they still foam rolling (albeit in less pain). Wait, I thought this was the solution? Why did I not see a huge change in their movement? Are they doomed to the foam roller the rest of their life?
    What do you think is causing those “tight” muscles you are foam rolling?
    Hmmmmm. I have an idea!
    The joints (along with the nervous system) are causing those “tight” muscles, and this is one of the main tenets of the Z Health system. If the joints are sending noxious stimuli to the brain (which may or may NOT be painful, remember that interpretation of the signal in the brain), the brain will try to protect the joints by decreasing strength done by the muscles around it (and other muscles also). If you have tight hamstrings, foam rolling your hamstrings will probably not solve the issue LONG TERM. Working on the foot/ankle and some times elbow circles may help hamstring issues, but that is another topic.
    Anyone want to buy a foam roller?
    The current trend in some areas seems to be going to more and more aggressive pain inducing massicistic massage. If I had no scruples, I would file IP on a foam roller with spikes on it! Seriously, I think that could have been my retreat to Fiji idea. If someone reads this and does do it, please drop me an invite to your private dessert island.
    Foam roller work must also follow the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) principal meaning that your body will ALWAYS adapt to EXACTLY what you do. So we know that doing foam roller work will make you better at doing foam roller work. Last I checked, there was not a foam roller competition, but maybe they have one now. I doubt there is much positive transfer from foam rolling to many other activities, but I will leave that for you to test out.
    Does this mean that all soft tissue work is bad?
    Of course not! A foam roller even by most of its biggest advocates admits that it is rather limited and works well primarily for the lower extremities. Massage has a neat feature where the hands working on you are attached to someone else’s brain that can intrepid what the heck is going on and adjust accordingly. Last time I checked, foam rollers were pretty dumb (another free IP idea is a “smart foam” roller that increases density in response to force). Even some ART practitioners are experimenting with lighter pressure with good results. I do think there still is a tendency to only treat the site of pain (although this is changing) and many times the relief is short lived.
    So what do I do? Help!
    I am a realist and know that very few are going to have a foam roller burning party based off of one article on my blog, but one can dream right. Wait, check that, Al Gore just called and said that the burning of foam rollers is bad for green house gases so please recycle them instead. No green credits for you, bad dog. Instead, you could use it in place of board presses at your local gym.
    To quote Jim Wendler “You don’t have to smuggle the foam into a commercial gym like you would the boards. You can simply state that it is a rehab tool. And when you say “tool” you can smile and make sure the Jabroni at the front desk knows that you are actually talking about him.” (6)
  3. At minimum, don’t do any foam roller work before a training session and maybe only some light work afterwards
  4. Make sure it is NOT painful, especially if you are doing it before a lifting session. Remember pain decreases performance.
  5. Try replacing some foam roller work with some precise joint mobility like the Z Health Neuro Warm Up
  6. Find a trainer/therapist that uses non painful hands on work combined with active mobility work. A Z Health Level 4 (hey, that is me—shameless I know) is a great place to start. Even many of the R Phase movements can have profound results on soft tissue due to the involvement of the nervous system.


  1. Dr. John Berardi: G-Flux Simplified. March 3, 2007. The Fitcast Insider Accessed June 5, 2007.

  2. Fallon J. B., V. G. Macefield. Vibration sensitivity of human muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs. Muscle Nerve. 36(1):21-29, 2007.

  3. Cui J., V. Mascarenhas, R. Moradkhan, C. Blaha, L. I. Sinoway. Effects of Muscle Metabolites on Responses of Muscle Sympathetic Nerve Activity to Mechanoreceptor(s) Stimulation in Healthy Humans. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol., 2007.

  4. [IASP] International Association for the Study of Pain. 2008, Jan 3. IASP home page. Accessed Jan 3 2008.

  5. Dr. Eric Cobb. Personal communication. December 19, 2007.

  6. Foam Pressing, 2007, Jim Wendler Accessed Jan 7, 2008.

Stop foam rolling your IT Band. It can not lengthen and it is NOT tight.

Audience: Patients and therapists
Purpose: A brief argument on why attempting to lengthen your IT Band with stretching or foam rolling is a waste of time and not possible.
I am in the minority when I cringe at the rampant unjustified use of the ubiquitous, seemingly harmless but actually evil foam roller for IT Bands. I’ve seen their use climb in the past 5 years and I am sure that my success rate at convincing my patients to not roll the crap out of their IT Bands is less than 10%. Those rollers are WINNING. Perhaps this post will sway the voters.
Background Reading
My belief has been bolstered by two old anatomy papers by the Fairclough group that showed and proposed that IT Band dysfunction is not a Friction syndrome as the IT band does not “slide around” at the knee. This perception of sliding is an illusion. This group also performed a detailed anatomical analysis of the structure. The papers are here and here. A more recent study has also lent support to these papers with a biomechanical study looking at the strain placed on the ITB – click here. One of the authors of that paper is Andy Franklin-Miller, whose sports medicine blog you can see here.

Some quick points about the IT Band

  • the IT Band is not really a strap that runs from the hip to the knee. It is not a discrete entity. Rather it is just the thickest part of the fascia lata. The fascia lata being the sock that wraps around the entire thigh. The IT Band is just the lateral thickening of this sock
  • the IT Band is some dense connective tissue and probably can’t be permanently deformed. While it may be stretched in the short term this is due to its viscoelastic properties (i.e. adding a bit of grease or shaking out the cobwebs) rather than any means where it is actually permanently lengthened. Actual lengthening would require you to damage your IT Band to get it into a lengthened state. 5 minutes on a foam roller or 10 minutes of daily stretching would not be able to do it.
  • you might be able to stretch the muscles that attach to the IT Band. However, muscle stretching is also very difficult. The changes in muscle stiffness we see with stretching and warm up are again due to the viscoelastic properties of tissue. Muscles don’t become looser they just have increased tolerance to stretch. This is most likely an adaptation of the nervous system rather than any change in muscle tissue properties. See my post here on muscle stretching.
  • the IT Band can’t be lengthened because it is tethered to the entire length of the femur. Got that? It is tied to the leg bone. It ain’t going no where.
  • it is supposed to be tight. Therapist will tell you it is tight because they were told to look for it to be tight. They don’t have a proper method to determine this. The test that looks at ITB tightness (OBER’s test) is really just an assessment of hip adduction range. So many other factors influence this range that to blame it on the IT Band is just bullying (IT Bullying!).
    -what if you could lengthen it? Then what? Could you over do it and have some jigglying IT Band that just wobbles when you run? No! This does not happen. It does not stretch.

Some thoughts and questions on Foam Rolling the IT Band

  • I know this is popular. I know people swear by it. But that does not make it right. I don’t doubt that after beating the crap out of your IT Band you feel something different in that IT Band. That is your nervous system adapting to some huge painful stress you just placed on it. It does not mean that your ITB got longer or you dug out some adhesions.

  • How can a foam roller stretch an IT Band? A roller compresses the band it does not tension it. Without tension there is no stretch. Don’t tell me it bowstrings it. This is negligible.

  • How can a roller dig out adhesions? This is a massive question because you can even question the existence of adhesions. But assuming that adhesions exist between the sliding to two different layers of tissue how would a roller that just compresses tissue create some form of interlayer gliding. If you think you are causing the IT Band to slide better in its interface with the biceps femoris than you are completely wrong because the IT Band does abut or interface with that hamstring. If you think that the roller is freeing up the sliding between the IT Band and the Vastus Lateralis how would compression do this? I can’t fillet a chicken breast with a rolling pin. I need some instrument to put between the two halves I want to separate. Same with the theory between interlayer sliding.

  • The foam roller improves tissue health. Maybe. You are certainly stressing the shit out of the IT Band, neural structures, skin, bone and everything. You are probably even creating an inflammatory response. This might have some merit. But I would bet you could get a similar stress with some other movement or exercise that would have other performance or therapeutic benefit. Why not take the thumper and thump away on your leg (I actually do this for kicks)

Lol. Interesting. I’ll have to finish reading later

Don’t throw them out just yet!!! its is just another tool in teh tool box that will help some athletes. The use of the foam roller can also be a substitute for a trigger ball (muscle mate). You can roll around find a spot and sit on it until you feel it release. Its another tool albeit not as intense or localised as in its impact as a trigger ball but it can work for some. Any good professional knows when and when not to implement a tool and for whom may benefit or not. One thing is certain is that the use of tools can be an effective way for getting athletes to do some self maintenance they may not have done. In my days we rolled around or lay on a deoderant bottle (ouch) but it worked or at least it felt better and that was enough to get me up and running. In the end its not about what the research shows but what the athletes feels and their perception. If it allows them to train when they couldn’t then hey thats a win. Does it identify the real issue causing maybe not. Should we be more concerned with that, not necessarily. We need to be concerned with what gets the up and going today and what long term strategies we can put in place to deal with teh apperent issues. But this is like the contrast hot cold recovery debate…what does the research say…conflicting…does it work for some athletes and not others…yes!

what alternatives does this guy propose for dealing with discomfort in the ITB area??

I never roll the ITB - if the ITB is tight, check for hip tightness on the lateral side - and most people have really tight Lateral Thigh issues which are much worse and tight than ITB, i find people get confused between the two.

As for the argument that the muscle is protecting the joint and find a way to stop attacking the joint and therefore the muscle will stop “protecting” the joint - Even if that is so, The major way the Joint is attacked is from Hard training. Doing easy training within your grasp generally don’t make many people tight. It’s pushing the envelop that causes the major stiffness - Naturally, it’s called training. So to recover from training quicker, loosen the muscle (after all, your body isn’t really under attack - you’re training, it’s a desired result) = Train - Recover - Adapt - Grow - Repeat.

There was an aspect about Adapting to the foam rolling - of course, I don’t find it any less painfull, but it sure is a hell of a lot Quicker now to release. To me, that’s a fantastic thing, not a bad thing. A quick release to straighten out Posture and I’m ready to go.

I don’t know if i do things with a foamroller Different than these guys - but it seems i get different results. If you watch any youtube video - then yes, i do it different.

I agree the best thing for somebody is a Painfree way to losen the muscle - but, most don’t know how, or are able to even do this. I do it to my clients when we have time - they love it (non foamrolling therapy) and works faster than foamrolling. It’s ideal, but not practical for the majority to do to themselfs.

As for - don’t do foamrolling before a workout - If your posture is out of wack before a workout - then that needs to be addressed, 1st. If you need therapy before a workout - then consider doing a tempo or such. Train - recover - Adapt - grow. eg, it’s silly to Train if you’re not yet Adapted or even Recovered.

There is a lot to therapy - I I’m a big believer that therapy should play a bigger part in everybodys training schedule.
Foamrolling is just a tool - And not everybody knows how to use a hammer… (I knew this one apprentice who always hit his hand with a hammer…)

I never rated the foam roller, I thought it was too soft. Instead I bought 2 small basket balls and pumped one up hard and the other less hard. I used the softer one first and once conditioned to this I exchanged it for the harder one. This was several years ago and I am now feeling much better.

I had dreadful adhesions in my hip flexors which stretching would not remove and tight lateral hip and thigh structures which seemed to aggrevate neural tension and possibly knee problems. The b ball rolling was painful and although I can only say it was possibly responible for the improvements of my tight lateral hip/thigh, I would say it was definately responsible for my new hip flexor health.

And then there is the upper body. I have an adhesion in my medial deltoid area that stretching will not fix. The b ball blasts this away. When the pain crops up I only need to go over it for 30 seconds with the b ball and it is fine for several weeks. I also used the ball to roll my thoracic spine along to stretch the anterior ligaments of the spine resulting a greatly impoved posture. This really has done wonders.

Sometimes I roll before training but usually just when I have the energy for it and often on my days off. I try to do it twice per week and then stretch after.

I certainly prefer the agressive approach. What works works.