Foam rollers hurt so good. That three foot foam tube is one of the most commonly used, and beloved, pieces of fitness equipment around. So much so that sometimes people will devote entire gym sessions to purely foam rolling and working out some muscles stiffness. So what’s the magic behind foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and the roller sticks that help alleviate those irksome muscle knots and keep muscles feeling pliable and ready for action? And how can you best utilize these self-myofascial release tools for greater success.
First things first, a foam roller, lacrosse ball, roller stick, a massage, etc. will not create a long term, lasting change in the quality of muscle tissue. To actually change the properties of muscle and soft tissue permanently takes external resistance far greater than anything than a roller can create. However, quality movements under external load (i.e. weight lifting and resistance training) over time can create improvements to the quality and characteristics of muscle tissue. And, as that is the goal, let us look at how a self-myofascial release tool can help this process.
When you use a foam roller and hit on a tender spot, what you have found is muscle tissue that has tightened into a “knot.” The muscle hasn’t actually tied itself into a knot, but rather has become a little more rigid, the same way a rubber band would become less stretchy if left outside on a cold December night in New England. This can happen from many causes, the most common of which are being in the same position for extended periods of time (think sitting in a desk, car, or airplane), and stress, which increases the tone, or tension, in a muscle. Where a roller or lacrosse ball can help is to create nervous system signal that alleviates that spastic area of muscle tissue, allowing the muscle to move more smoothly for a short time.
After you have used a foam roller to loosen up some muscle tissue your movement quality will hopefully feel better and it feels as though mobility has increased, which it has, but only temporarily. The best thing to do after rolling out is to begin moving through good ranges of motion, preferably with an external load (weight). As mentioned previously, this is one great way to, over time and with repeated practice, increase the tone and quality of muscle tissue positively. You can think of the roller or lacrosse ball as the key that opens up range of motion, and to solidify and own those ranges of motion you have to begin using them within the context of good training. So, an example of a way to utilize a foam roller for increased mobility for the long haul would be to perform about ten passes over the hips or glutes between sets of barbell back squats.