Have you been sold on the holy grail to soft tissue care? The 3 foot tube of dense foam guaranteed to maximize movement, triple your 401k, cure Polio, and transform your life as you know it?
Well, we know that’s not true.
Let’s be clear, soft tissue work is one of the most underutilized parts of a workout routine. Recovery and preparation are two critical pieces of the equation most lifters neglect. It’s not all about the work. If you constantly beat the shit out of your body and don’t take the proper precautions to recover from all of the damage you created, it’s likely you aren’t going to get to your goals OR its going to take a lot longer than you wanted it to. I always say, as professionals, we need to make foam rolling SEXY.
When I was younger and started working out, I looked up to the bodybuilders from the Gold’s Gym Venice Beach era. I watched Pumping Iron, bought any magazine that had Arnold on the cover, aspired for Franco Columbo’s power, and dreamed of a barreling upper body such as Lou Ferrigno. I was willing to do whatever those guys were doing to get their size and physique.
I was under the impression that heavy bench pressing and curls was how to get there. Why? Every video and picture I saw of them were performing those lifts.
Now, imagine if every picture or video I saw them foam rolling prior to their routine. I would have saved my allowance that week and immediately bought a foam roller. Because if the people I look up to and aspire to be do that, you damn well know I am going to.
We lead by example as professionals. We know the long list of benefits of foam rolling. However, somewhere along the way some little white lies were seamlessly threaded into the conversation of foam rolling. This article is to identify those misconceptions to give you a better understanding of why we use a foam roller and what we don’t have to worry so much about.
FOAM ROLLING AS WE KNOW IT
Foam rolling is one of the most basic and user friendly ways to assist with self-administered soft tissue work. It’s a great entry point for a lot of people who don’t see the full spectrum value of the craft. A task you can complete at home, with a low financial investment entry point, can begin to shape the way we and our clients evaluate the importance of this craft and where it fits into the spectrum of what we are looking to accomplish.
HERE IS WHAT FOAM ROLLING LOOKS TO ACCOMPLISH:
Soft tissue work, or foam rolling in this case, is meant to bring attention and adaptation based on feedback to the tissue in that area. Notice how I didn’t specifically say muscle, but soft tissue. Feedback from the skin, a highly collagenous hydration network known as fascia, and musculoskeletal tissue all send pivotal information up the chain for our brains to process. Our brain and system has a very nuanced task of evaluating what we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t, will and won’t do.
Foam rolling assists in moving fluids through the area. This movement of blood, lymphatic fluid, and water within the system allows for the regenerative properties of the body to constantly relocate optimal fluids to every area. The reason we use the foam roller at its core is to assist with feedback in the system. Identifying “tight” spots in the muscle is going to escalate that information up the chain allowing a more relaxed system. Pressure into the body at that spot emphasizes the need for a more relaxed response on the part of the muscle.
The goal of this process isn’t to roll once and magically create long term changes. The purpose is to open up a window for optimal movement. A window we can utilize during our workouts to get more controlled, efficient movement leading to more productive workouts from the standpoints of strength, longevity, and resilience.
WHERE WE GO WRONG
It’s one thing to identify where someone or something’s strengths are, it’s another to try and assume additional “must haves” which sidetracks the original purpose. The guitarist in a band is the guitarist for a reason, they are real badass in that specific discipline. I mean, I am sure they can sing some, maybe play drums, but the guitar is their true superpower.
Implementing foam rolling techniques is no different. The foam roller is a really good feedback tool in the body, but that’s about where its “superpower” ends. We spin ourselves into a tangled web when we assume additional tasks to a tool or practice which is really well known for one simplistic quality.
Setting these high-level expectations on any piece of equipment just isn’t fair. That is why we have so many options of tools in the gym to workout. They all have their unique superpowers we highlight for and use to our advantage. We get into a really tricky and detrimental spot when we begin to erroneously assign new tasks to a one-trick pony.
#1 NO PAIN, NO GAIN
We all remember the day we first started foam rolling. I mean, probably not the exact day on the calendar, but you remember the feeling of it. For most people, the answer is, “yes, and it was excruciating”.
Soft tissue work when done for the first time can be a very peaceful or painful experience based on the expert you have involved. If you are calling on the professional assistance of a licensed massage therapist, the introduction to “self care” can be a seamless one. The pressure applied from region to region is more specific, the “feelings” in your body can be translated into muscular duties by the professional, and they can walk you through what they are doing step by step.
When you introduce yourself to soft tissue work with very little understanding of the anatomical implications, a dense tool (the equipment not the trainer), and full body pressure directed on small surface areas of the body – that will only add issues rather than resolve them.
You should feel discomfort, not pain. Focusing on this singular sentence is critical when it comes to long term buy-in for soft tissue work whether it’s from yourself or acquiring it from a client.
Wincing during foam rolling is a sure sign you have reached too high of a pain threshold to make actionable changes during your foam rolling.
FOAM ROLLER DENSITY – Foam rollers come in all different shapes and sizes so choose the one that best fits your clients and their pain thresholds. you can choose softer, more spongy rollers all the way up to rollers with PVC lined Interiors. All those features differentiate how much pressure is actually driving up into the body.
SURFACE MATTERS – The amount of pressure that translates up into the body isn’t just focused on foam roller density but also on ground density. Foam rolling on a soft stretching mat is very different from foam rolling on Direct concrete. Take surface density into consideration when it comes to where you decide to bring your client to foam roll.
#2 BREAKING THOSE ADHESIONS
When you were first told about the unbelievable qualities of foam rolling, I am certain at some point in the conversation muscle adhesions came up. Muscle adhesions regions of densely fibrous collagenous tissue. This tissue derives from either trauma to the region or hypoxia due to repeated bouts of contraction.
This scar tissue-like adaptation to the region of the muscle creates issues within the fibers from a few different angles. As you could imagine, a fibrous build up thrown into the middle of a muscle’s path can restrict some abilities. Additionally, we need to consider how it invades the activity of the nerve path.
Adhesion build up is something we deal with and has been appropriately questioned as potential fascial restriction. Does it make sense to assume this highly complex human response can be broken down and reverted back to normal muscle function courtesy of a $9.99 foam roller from Amazon Basics?
I wouldn’t bet on it.
#3 LONGER, LEANER MUSCLES
Oh, the allure of a long, lean physique. The pinnacle vision of athletic performance and aesthetic prowess the clients strive for, and the genetically blessed have.
One thing is for sure, foam rolling IS NOT going to give you longer, leaner muscles. Muscle length has two important factors: Origin and Insertion. Where your muscle begins and where it ends is what dictates your muscle length. The beauty of our lives and adaptation is human variability.
Your muscles are constructed to the limbs you have developed from the specific DNA configuration passed down along your lineage. Are there blips in the process? Absolutely. We have all heard of the family who has a 7 foot tall son and the parents stand no taller than 5’10”.
The body builds your custom suit of musculoskeletal tissue according to the bone structure you have available. Outside of having a surgery, cutting through muscle and adjusting where the muscles are connecting to the body – your muscles are your muscles.
#4 DEACTIVATING THE CNS
So often we neglect to take into account one of the most important systems in the body: The Central Nervous System (CNS).
Our computer processing system between your brain and body which accounts for sensation, feedback, adjustment, and overall connectivity to the world around us. The CNS plays such a vital role in everything we do, and frankly, it doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
The CNS consists of most notably the brain and the spinal cord. The PNS (peripheral nervous system) is where we gather our information through the parts of the body radiating away from the brain and spinal cord.
We think about the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system, which is a subset, of a subset of the peripheral nervous system.
Down regulating our systems may be the goal of foam rolling but turning off the whole thing? That just isn’t the case (nor would I want it to be).
#5 FOAM ROLL EVERYTHING, EVERYTIME
Next time you walk over to the foam rolling area you are going to see the majority of people with one purpose of rolling: a full body assault to create the most supple tissue possible.
Don’t get caught in the confusion of doing everything, all the time. Particularly pre-workout, mashing tissue together for perceived results of superior movement patterns is misguided. Working from the ground up for soft tissue work is a really good strategy. That however doesn’t mean you need to work on EVERY POSSIBLE TISSUE going all the way up the body.
Even more basic, what a waste of time where you COULD BE TRAINING. 20-30 minutes on the mat rolling around on a foam tube when you could have been doing actionable strength training for lasting adjustments.
Foam rolling should be used to reduce apprehension in the muscle, for a window of time, so you can train that cleaner movement pattern.
Here are some of the drills that actually work
#6 TECHNOLOGY IS BETTER
Have you gotten the new organic foam roller? It’s bluetooth enabled with a WiFi hotspot and GPS location tracking to sync your speed to your Spotify station. You don’t need all that shit.
Development in foam rollers has expanded the market from soft tissue tools that ranged from $10-$30, now with options in the $200+ range. Features are cool and all but absolutely not necessary. If you are trying to add input into the tissue to send specific feedback through the system for appropriate adaptation, I am all here for it. But, don’t fool yourself into thinking your warmup routine and soft tissue work is subpar because you didn’t spend exorbitant amounts of money on the latest foam roller to come out.
The best recovery and warm up techniques still tend to be the cheapest ones. It’s hard to top a good nights’ sleep, proper hydration, and basic foam rolling.
#7 FLUSHING OUT THE LACTIC ACID
First week back in the gym after the doors to your gym reopen from the pandemic and you get the first set of real weights in your hand. Oh, I forgot how good the grit of the dumbbell handle felt in my hand. That renewed commitment translated into a workout of EPIC proportions. As usual, the next day you wake up with some serious DOMS (Delayed onset muscle soreness). You can barely open your arms wide enough to yawn and walk the halls of your place like a wounded gazelle.
You think, “I better clear out this lactic acid that built up in the muscle”. Well, not so fast.
The soreness after your workout isn’t due to lactic acid, let’s throw that myth out the window. The soreness from a tough workout is more appropriately noted because of micro-tears in the muscle from all of the work you put in. Lactic acid is cleared from the muscles relatively quickly post workout. The lactate is transferred through the bloodstream to the liver where it can be converted into glycogen for later use.
Soft tissue work and compress in tender areas can help bring awareness to the region, and emphasize blood flow and recovery, but is not clearing out lactic acid from the area.
BONUS #8 MASSAGE GUNS ARE SUPERIOR TO FOAM ROLLING
The market flooded with massage guns quicker than the lower decks on the Titanic filled with water (sorry, Jack).
Massage guns have added that sleek, sexy, must-have quality to soft tissue work to instantly upgrade it from a task to a cool thing to do. Regardless of what model you may choose, you have to be careful when using these tools.
Purchasing a massage gun does not give you the license or authority to believe you have a superior knowledge of musculoskeletal anatomy far beyond the week prior when you first bought the gun. Where a foam roller can be moderately self-limiting, nothing is holding someone back from jamming a $400 jack hammer into their vastus lateralis because it “feels” good.
The amount of irreparable damage that can occur from misuse far outweighs the potential benefits. I am not saying to not own one (as I own one) but I am simply giving a cautionary tale to use it with care.
Just because you can afford to purchase a car doesn’t mean you know how to drive and operate one. Same goes for this.
BONUS #9 I DON’T NEED A LICENSED MASSAGE THERAPIST, I HAVE A FOAM ROLLER!
In the culture of DIY, it’s very easy to think, “this seems like something I can do on my own”. I totally get it, I have been known to complete more home projects than I probably should. But to be fair, Chip and Joanna are just so damn charming and when I watch their show, I feel a sense of…..
Sorry, I got off track.
The smartest thing you can do as a professional is acknowledge when you don’t know.
Trying to self diagnose and fix what could be very detailed and intricate issues within your muscular system, you should refer out to the professionals who have a deep rooted understanding of how the system connects together. Pay someone who knows what they are doing to do the right job.
When in doubt, refer out.
BONUS #10 FOAM ROLLING WILL FIX MY POSTURE
It’s potentially the most common request I hear about foam rolling.
“How can I fix my posture?”
Your posture is based off of a number of things but primarily your daily demand. If you stand, walk, sit, lay, and move in every capacity with a certain posture, your body is going to adapt to that posture. Your body thrives on efficiency. While foam rolling can make some acute changes to the tension and demand certain muscles feel, it’s off base to think 15 minutes of soft tissue work during a day is going to outweigh the remaining 23 hours and 45 minutes you work against that perfect posture you aspire for.
If you can take some of these concepts into your everyday routines for yourself and your clients – it will break down the magic and apply the hard evidence!