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22
06
2012

Foam Rolling: You May Be Hurting Yourself.

 

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A 2011 study by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning tried to measure the effect of foam rollers on 1- sport performance and 2- post exercise recovery. The study tried to determine weather the use of myofascial rollers had an effect upon sport performance.

 

 

Here it is:

 

http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2011/03001/The_Effects_of_Foam_Rolling_on_Myofascial_Release.45.aspx

 

 

The study concluded that: “Future studies should to be done to examine the effects of chronic foam rolling on performance.” However,  because there was a slight decrease in post workout recovery time… everyone lost their shit.

They suddenly assume that in addition to creating a slight decrease in recovery times, foam rolling is effective for lengthening or stretching muscles and connective tissue.

Now you can see foam rollers in every gym and training studio across the country. Trainers and fitness enthusiasts alike flock to these tools. Some do so without the slightest training or thought to whether or not they might actually be doing damage. This is what I want to draw attention to here: You may be hurting yourself.

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Let the madness begin.

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I’ve said before that the fitness industry is full of false claims. They stand on the backs of a tiny bit of research,  blow it way out of proportion,  and sell it for $29.99.

Maybe people just don’t want to learn how to correct firing patterns in their  hips, hamstrings, quads and hip flexors etc. If your hips are mobile, of what use is a roller? None. What, after all, are you using a foam roller for? Flexibility? Pain relief? Recovery?Maybe if I told you that there is no proof it does those things you’ll stop? Maybe you’ll listen to a bit of reason.

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Why do you use a foam roller: Three possibilities:

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 1- Muscular Cohesion /Myofascial release/Trigger point therapy

 

After years of firing in close proximity to one another, muscles get stuck to one another with scar tissue. Doesn’t have to be muscle that gets ‘stuck’ it can be fascia or connective tissue(as in the case of the I.T. band). When this “sticking together” happens, presumably, less oxygen can get to working muscles. This results in reduced range of motion, reduced recovery and reduced mobility.

I am guessing here but maybe people feel that by pressing a foam roller over tight muscles until the muscle “releases” they are making the muscle healthier. A sort of self applied manual therapy.

Some people have gone as far as to question the existance of these cohesions. And the efficacy of a roller to remove things that may or may not exist is fodder for making my head explode. So let’s say for the sake of argument that muscular cohesions do in fact exist.

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2-Golgi Tendon Organ reflex

 

There is a mechano-receptor at the muscle tendon juncture(Golgi Tendon Organ ) that detects when a muscle is about to be injured. It then facilitates the relaxation of the muscle to help prevent injury. Or, to help prevent further injury. Some people think that foam rolling stimulates this mechano-receptor and this forces the muscle to relax.

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3-Palpating the area bringing new blood

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When you press on a knot in a muscle, you flush old blood out and bring new blood in. Maybe. I’m not sure this is an effective way to reduce muscle “knots”. Neither do any of the massage therapists I have spoken to. Hopefully you don’t have any knots in your hips. I.T., or hamstings. If you do, get that checked out. But let’s say you are applying foam rolling to a tight muscle and not in fact a knot. How safe is it to bring a muscle to length and then apply pressure? It is very easy to overstretch. Overstretching prolongs the inflammation. In fact sometimes overstretching causes the problem.

 

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How to reduce Muscular Cohesion the Correct Way

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Humans have been using manual therapy for thousands of years to help free up these muscles. This release of the muscle from the fascia(“Myofascial-Release”) has helped to increase athletic performance. We have learned so much about this over the years that there has become a field of study that very smart people can endure, where they are taught how to conduct this and other types of tissue manipulation in a safe way. These very smart people are called MASSAGE THERAPISTS or MANUAL THERAPISTS! These people actually earn a licence to conduct soft tissue manipulation. They are highly skilled and trained in muscle physiology so they do not damage you.   There is a reason why they have this license and you don’t.

Most people working in a health related field do not have a licence to perform soft tissue manipulation: not your strength and conditioning coach, not your team’s coach, not your personal trainer, not your nurse. We give this licence for soft tissue manipulation only to the most qualified individuals: massage therapists, physio(physical) therapists, manual therapists, athletic therapists and trainers etc.etc. etc.

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Making the Problem Worse

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So why then do we imagine that we can give a piece of foam to anybody at any gym and expect that they to be able to conduct manual therapy and remove muscular cohesion upon themselves?

I’d be surprised if 1% of the gym going public knew their tensor fasciae latae from a hole in the ground, Let alone understand the origin, insertion and action of the gluteal muscles. And wouldn’t you have to understand where these muscles were in order to apply the right amount of pressure in the right place to effect a “Myofascial release”?? Does it not seem likely that if you apply too much force with a foam roller in the wrong spot, you will actually damage the muscle and create more scar tissue?

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And what exactly is the correct time, pressure and angle to create effective change to these systems you are hoping to treat? Do you know? I don’t. What if you go too long? What if you don’t go long enough?

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Back to the study

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Remember the study in the journal of strength and conditioning only looked at two things: strength and recovery. It did not look at lengthening of muscles nor scar tissue removal. The study in question did not even compare the benefits of foam rolling to proper stretching! Which, I might add, is FREE! And in my experience, way more effective.

 

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Maybe if people learned how to stretch these system properly, there would be no perceived need for the foam roller. However, the question is raised: What are the …

 

…Alternatives?

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Okay so presumably what you are hoping to do with a foam roller is to remove the scar tissue, increase oxygen flow and therefore re-establish correct firing patterns in the muscles. As I have said, there are no studies that prove the efficacy of a foam roller for any of that. Some people roll to reduce DOMS and improve recovery. However as I’ve said, it has not been compared to stretching, so why bother when there is risk of hurting yourself?

What are the alternatives? Well there IS research about stretching techniques. There is a type of stretch that you can do that will accomplish all of your lengthening, balancing and scar tissue removal. Stretching has been proven to accomplish everything you’re hoping for with a roller.  Stretching is less painful, takes about the same amount of time, works better (has been studied), and its free!

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Disclaimer: Consult your doctor before attempting this or any other therapy upon yourself. The information we present here is for educational purposes only and in no way is meant to replace nor compliment what your doctor, physio or athletic therapist has prescribed. These stretches are not intended to  treat nor reduce pain. They are intended to lengthen a particular muscle.

 

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Please take the case of the Iliotibial band and piriformis. These seem to be a popular targets for foam rolling. Consider these stretches as alternatives to rolling:

 

        

 

 

The first image shows “the thread the needle” stretch for piriformis muscle. When piriformis gets tight people can sometimes experience shooting pain down the outside and back of the leg.  This is a simple and effective lengthening procedure for that muscle. Gently assume this position and increase the stretch to “first awareness”, hold for 15 seconds and release. Repeat this four times.

Image two is the first view of “the door frame stretch” for the I.T. band(and surrounding musculature). “I.T Band Syndrome” can be a very painful thing. It often results in a very “tight” feeling down the side of the leg. It can also result in debilitating knee pain. People who suffer from I.T. band syndrome often report an intensity of pain at the knee that makes it “feel like it is going to break”.

 

Lay on the floor in a door-way, with you hips just outside the frame, lift the leg furthest from the door frame and gently place the foot it so it rests on the door frame across your body. Gently straighten your leg. While in this position, work on pulling the affected hip back down to the floor. Do this for 15 seconds and release. Repeat this four times

The image on the far right  shows “the door frame” stretch from another angle.

This stretch, if performed daily, is highly effective for lengthening muscles that attach to the I.T. band. This is not intended to treat pain. If you have pain, see your physiotherapist. That said, these stretches may reduce the risk that I.T. band syndrome will occur.

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Remember to stretch while warm. Like the old adage states “Warm toffee bends, Cold toffee breaks.”

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DON’T GET ME WRONG

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Foam rollers have there time and place. They can be a good addition to therapies as prescribed by a medical professionals, your physiotherapist, registered massage therapist, manual therapist or soft tissue specialist.  These professionals can show you the correct way to employ a foam roller. Charles Poliquin has a good post HERE about foam rollers. He really only uses it for spinal creeping.

As for myself,  I only post all of this so that maybe the next time you see one in a gym you won’t just throw yourself at it… if you do, you may be hurting yourself. Did I say that before?

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Good luck!

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And for further tips and different ways to increase the effectiveness of your muscle lengthening procedures, see my post  The Difference Between a P.N.F and a Stretch

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Thanks for reading this! Hope I didn’t piss you off too much.

 

Yours in fitness,

Ryan

 

 

 

author: ryanbooth

Comment
3
Julia
ryanbooth

still not worth the risk even if these 10 subjects get better vascular dilation.

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