Lessons in... Foam Rolling



Dr. Adam Freeman, DC, CCSP

You'll see them at the gym, on the playing field, and especially at our office. Foam rollers. What are they, why should you be using one, and when should you use it?

What it isn't. It is not a means to strip out tissue adhesions. It will not directly improve performance. It is not a short term application for long term gain. Should not be painful (well... mostly).

What it is. A great way to decrease muscle tension. A necessary approach to improve range of motion and improve training. Enhances the bodies ability to recover after a workout/training session/competition. Downregulates compensation and pain. Simply put, foam rolling is a way to make a change in the nervous systems' grasp on soft tissue and can improve movement with proper facilitation.


Approach foam rolling with an understanding for why you are doing it. You are rolling to improve mobility by turning down the volume (of the the nervous systems alert) on hypertonic (tight) tissues.

The way we move is largely guided by our nervous sysytem. Research tells us that before we even think about a certain movement the brain has already calculated how it's going to accomplish that, on average, 17 times. Your movement can be complicated by past injuries, your posture in every waking moment (like sitting, standing, picking objects up, etc), mood, muscle tone/tension, and pain avoidance. The culmination of these variables makes everyone's gait and movement cadence unique.

Problems occur when pain is either present or not well regulated. These problems cause on over-compensation of synergistic muscle groups, which can lead to overuse or potentially more pain and injury.

For physicians to really make an affect on your overall movement we need to remove some of the interference of hypertonic muscles and also stimulate those muscles that aren't doing their fair share.

With that in mind, here are a few strategies to improve your foam rolling:

   1. Use quick, light movements over the roller if you want to up regulate a specific area of the body or the nervous system in general.  This stimulates the Paccinian Corpuscles which are the mechanoreceptors in our fascia that respond best to vibration and light, fast movements.  This should not be painful (0-5/10 on pain scale) and will prime the nervous system for activity.  Vibration works great as part of a movement prep.

   2. Use slow, deep sustained pressure if you are looking to down regulate tissue.  This taps into the Ruffini Endings, which relax the nervous system.  This works great to jump start the recovery process after a training session or to improve mobility by turning down the volume on hypertonic tissue.

   3. If you have a very specific spot that seems to be problematic and even painful, consider using a pin and stretch technique.  Pin and stretch is when you put direct pressure over the restricted area and then take the muscle through a full range of motion.  As an example, if you have a problem in the middle of the quad during a squat, lie face down with the foam roller placing pressure directly on that spot on the quad. Take a breath in and hold, flex and extend the knee, then breathe out and relax the muscle, taking the quad through full range of motion. This will stimulate the brain to improve fluid dynamics in that area, improving the restriction.

Lastly, before starting to foam roll regularly you should be evaluated by a medical professional that understands movement and compensation patterns. This will ensure you aren't wasting time, making things worse, and have specific goals. Because it takes some time for real changes to be made, it helps to have someone coaching you through the progress. That progress should include some light stretching and strengthening (tissue loading) after the foam rolling session. The program should look like the image below.

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