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Foam Rollers: Good or Evil?

I seem to get a lot of questions about foam rolling these days. It is more and more common to see people at the gym rolling out at the end of a workout and a lot of people have them at home.

Foam Rolling, or the use of tennis balls, lacrosse balls, and the like, is used to massage out the fascia (web-like connective tissue) that surrounds our muscles and organs and everything in the body. You can watch my favorite description of fascia HERE if you need or want to know more about the magical fascia.

While releasing the fascia is wonderful, people’s approach to doing so can be all wrong and can actually cause more harm in the process.

Tom Meyers, THE MAN when it comes to working with fascia in the body, published an article that supports what I try to tell my clients when asked about foam rolling. You can read the full article HERE, but I’m going to shout out the highlights.

Meyers states that you cannot foam roll the fascia exclusively. You are also moving other cells, like nerve, muscle, and epithelia. It is good to squeeze and replenish the muscle and epithelial cells, but what about the little nerve cells in there!

When rolling is too intense, the nerve cells freak out, thus causing the muscles contract and the cells to retract. Quite the opposite of relaxation.

There’s the popular phrase “No pain, no gain.” But with your body, I subscribe to the phrase, “No pain, ALL gain.”

The goal is to find that sweet spot between pleasure and pain (being closer to the pleasure end of the spectrum) for optimum results with our dear old fascia.

Another way to use rolling for good is to “awaken areas of ‘sensory-motor amnesia,'” writes Meyers. These areas are places that you don’t move in daily life, like the adductor muscles on the outside of the thigh (not your IT Band that everyone thinks is the problem!), deep muscles on the back of the hip, and muscles at the top of the neck.

So rolling isn’t just for the IT Band and the superficial back muscles. There are other, more important areas that could use some love. Try using the lacrosse balls or something of that size for those areas.

Meyers goes on some pretty great tangents about trying to “lengthen” big heavy sheets of fascia.

Here’s a notable quote:

“You can increase hydration, increase sensation, and maybe ‘melt’ some of the fascial bonding on the edges to give it more movement freedom, but the pressure required to get a significant change on overall length would send the client screaming – rightfully – for the door.”

But at the end he sums things up in three main points that I support 100%.

1) Move slowly. Rolling too quickly is less effective and can damage the muscle and surrounding cells.

2) Look for ‘unknown’ places. Doing the same rolling program continually has rapidly diminishing returns. Your muscles have many layers and many nooks and crannies. Approaching them from the same angle every time will have very little effect.

3) Hold the roller or tool still. This will allow tissues to melt gently. Hold for only 20-30 seconds in tender spots.

And I will add one more point.

4) Warm up the area before rolling. When the tissues have been warmed up through exercise, gentle movement and stretching, or heat (like after a shower or use of a heating pad), the area will be much more receptive to any fascial work. Warming up does half of the work already! Trying to do fascial work directly with a massage tool without any warm-up increases the chance of muscular freakout.

So to answer the good or evil question about foam rollers, I would say they are good AND evil. 🙂

Most of the time I see people using them in harsh ways on their body that make me want to yell from across the gym, “Easy there, tiger!”

But when incorporating these tips and taking the time to be really intentional about it (not just cramming it in real quick), it can have some really nice results.

So there you have it. Now go forth and have fun rolling out or rolling with the homies or whatever you kids call it these days.


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