This is part 2 of my series on warm ups. Click here for Part 1: Purpose.
Why foam roll?
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, who certifies me to be a personal trainer, foam rolling helps relax the mechanism in your muscles that senses muscle length and the rate of change in muscle length. This mechanism stops you from pulling your quadriceps when you swing your leg back to kick a soccer ball (if it kicks in fast enough, that is). If you hold on the tender part of the muscle (the trigger point) for 30-90 seconds, you can temporarily impair that mechanism, which will then allow you to lengthen the muscle more than you were previously able and therefore you can bring your joint through a greater range of motion. Simply said, foam rolling loosens you up.
How does this help me?
Imagine that you sit at a desk all day. When you’re sitting, your hip is constantly in flexion. This means that your hip flexors, the muscles on the front of the hips, are constantly in a shortened position. If this tightness is not addressed, it can affect the length-tension relationship between the hip flexors’ and their opposing muscle group, the glutes (aka your butt). The hip flexors flex your hips and the glutes extend your hips, so when you’re going up stairs, the hip flexor flexes your hip to lift your foot up to the next stair and your glute extends your hip to push your body up above that foot. If your hip flexors are tight from constantly living in that shortened space, it can be hard for your glutes to do their job (extending your hips). Some people call this Glute Death. (It’s melodramatic ... I love it.) In short, because your hip flexors have killed your glutes, when you go upstairs, you only feel your quads (a muscle group primarily meant to extend the knee). So now your knee joint is doing all the work of propelling you up the stairs and you find that your knees hurt by the time you get to the second floor. “I have bad knees!” you cry out and instead of going to the gym, you just go home to sit on the couch and continue to shorten your hip flexors thereby perpetuating a cycle of improper length-tension relationships. Phew.
Now, take the above example and bring it into the gym. If your hip flexors are used to being short and your quads are kicking in over every little thing, what do you think you’ll feel when you try to squat? In a squat, you bring your hips and your knees into flexion and then you push your knees and hips into extension. If your glutes aren’t firing, the only thing you’ll feel is your quads, which seem big but are smaller than your glutes. Your glutes and quads should share the work in a squat; your quads shouldn’t work alone. If you foam roll your hip flexors (and maybe also stretch them out) before your workout, you’ll have a better chance of feeling (and therefore using) your glutes when driving up from your squat. This also works for lunges and step ups and deadlifts and bridges and good mornings, and, and, and...
Should I foam roll everything?
Well, no, not really. You can explore your body (like a 70s feminist group) with the foam roller (or lacrosse ball or peanut or acu-mobility ball) to find the areas that are tight and tender. Sit on those areas for 30-90 seconds. If you know your hips are always tight, foam roll your hip flexors. If you know your hamstrings are always loose, don’t bother.
Do I have to use a foam roller?
No! So glad you asked! I’m using foam roll as shorthand for self-myofascial release (SMR). You can perform SMR with a foam roller, a tennis/lacrosse/medicine/golf ball, the bar of a Smith machine, a kettlebell, a piece of PVC pipe (but ouch), a peanut/two lacrosse balls taped together, acu-mobility balls, or a number of other things depending on your purpose. For example, I use a golf ball on the bottom of my feet because it’s small so it can get into those tiny places and because it’s hard so I don’t squish it when I step on it (please hold onto something and keep your other foot on the ground). Sometimes, to open up my thoracic spine (the part of your spine attached to your rib cage), I lay on two acu-mobility balls and wave by arms around like I’m making snow angels while doing some intense contracting of my glutes and exhaling the roof off the building (you’ll thank me through tears). Sometimes I use a hard medicine ball on my glute medius (the side of the butt between your sitz bones and your thigh bone) because it’s small enough to get between the bones (don’t roll on bone—it hurts and changes nothing) but not small enough to make me cry.
Are there any safety concerns?
Yes. Don’t perform SMR on bone, breast tissue, connective tissue (I’m looking at you, IT Band), or varicose veins. If you have osteoporosis, you shouldn’t perform SMR by putting all your weight on something like a foam roller. Opt for a massage stick instead (which has also been shown to be effective in some studies).
Does this really work?
Some people say it doesn’t, actually. It seems to work for me and the folks I work with. If that’s a placebo effect, I’ll take it. The NIH did a 2015 review of 14 foam roller research studies and found that evidence supports the use of foam rolling for temporarily increasing joint range of motion (and also preventing muscle soreness after a workout, but that’s for a future post). It’s not a permanent solution, mind you. It’s a temporary fix for that workout. To permanently (but what is permanent?) change the length-tension relationships of your muscles, you have to foam roll, increase mobility, and strengthen the muscles. Foam rolling itself won’t fix the problem. Sorry, no quick fixes, my friends.
Want to try foam rolling/SMR?
Check out the video below for basic foam rolling instructions to mobilize your chest, upper back, and hips—three areas that need attention if you spend most of your time sitting.