Ever notice the stacks of foam rollers, lacrosse balls, PVC pipes and vibrating spiky balls in your gym? People spend a lot of time using them in an effort to correct imbalances, decrease soreness, warm up soft tissue, loosen knots and stave off pain. Despite these good intentions, many of these devices, foam rollers in particular, are often misused and misunderstood. Foam rolling is simply a form of massage therapy using a hardened cylindrical tube or ball. This self-administered soft-tissue mobilization may be an important tool for many athletes (or not) but for the average gym-goer looking to lose weight, it’ll do very little. Self-myofascial release (SMR) goes against my general philosophy of no pain no gain. In order for it to ‘work’ and potentiate healing properties, it needs to be painful. Or does it? The science is murky at best. Your time at the gym might be better spent doing other things.
What is self-myofascial release? It is a form of stretching that purports to alleviate many soft tissue problems and improve range of motion. Typically, one would roll the myofascial tool under targeted muscular areas looking for a point of discomfort and then maintain pressure on that tender area for 30-60 seconds. This doesn’t feel terrific. Once the pain in the area diminishes, you can move on to find other ‘trigger points’. Here is a good primer on foam roller technique. It is usually described as a form of autogenic inhibition:
…the reflex muscle relaxation as the muscle/tendon tension increases to the point of a high risk of injury (e.g. tendon/muscle rupture). The Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) stimulates muscle spindles to relax the muscle in question in order to protect the muscle from injury. During SMR, the muscle contraction that precedes the passive stretch stimulates the GTO, which in turn causes relaxation that facilitates this passive stretch and allows for greater range of motion. With foam rolling, you can simulate this muscle tension, thus causing the GTO to relax the muscle (Robertson, 2008).
The research is still emerging and of course, more needs to be done. According to PubMed, there are less than 50 peer reviewed articles on ‘foam rolling’. Most have small samples sizes. The evidence for the benefits of SMR is limited especially when compared to how widely these techniques are used. In 2015 in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy did carry out a systemic review of 14 research papers published on self-myofascial release (SMR) and concluded:
SMR with a foam roll or roller massager appears to have short-term effects on increasing joint ROM without negatively affecting muscle performance and may help attenuate decrements in muscle performance and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) after intense exercise. Short bouts of SMR prior to exercise do not appear to effect muscle performance. The results of this analysis suggests that foam rolling and roller massage may be effective interventions for enhancing joint ROM and pre and post exercise muscle performance. However, due to the heterogeneity of methods among studies, there currently is no consensus on the optimal SMR program.
This and other research demonstrate that SMR may temporarily increase joint range of motion (lasting no longer than 10 minutes) and will not negatively affect subsequent muscle activation and performance. Cursory investigation of other existing research seems to show that SMR increases subcutaneous hydration/circulation and may awaken the mechanoreceptors (sensory nerves). Interestingly, a simple full body warm up can also confer these same benefits. Science is still unclear on the exact mechanistic action behind SMR. The principle of autogenic inhibition is one theory. Another postulates the acute disturbance caused to the soft tissue via mobilization (direct pressure) irritates the tissue. This irritation which is painful in the short term brings on a cascade healing processes..but not always. It is easy to overdo SMR and bruise or even exacerbate pain. If you choose to do it, be careful.
NOTE: Fascia cannot be ‘released’ (mechanical deformation). Plastic fascial changes due to SMR do not happen. The term ‘fascial release’ has no foundation in any actual biological phenomenon.
Self-myofascial release may make you feel better and temporarily increase joint range of motion, but it does not do these things:
- Lengthen fascia (fascia is like kevlar – good luck ‘stretching’ it)
- Lengthen muscle (sorry, IT band)
- Permanently break up facial adhesions (no evidence to support this)
- Remove ‘trigger points’ (there is a debate if they even exist!)
- Eliminate scar tissue
- Decrease body fat or increase lean muscle mass
- Detoxify your body in any way
- Get rid of cellulite
- Increase performance (current evidence does not support this)
In the last 15 years, fascial release techniques have become more and more elaborate and mainstream. However, the scientific evidence for its efficacy is far from conclusive. Unfortunately, many trainers, chiropractors, and therapists have been cherry picking data from unrelated or insignificant research and attributing all sorts of benefits to SMR. The therapeutic significance of this protocol is couched in incomplete science. If you like foam rolling and the other forms of SMR, continue to do it. Just be careful and don’t over-do it. It may even help you, especially to temporarily increase flexibility. On the other hand, if your time is limited, you may want to focus on the real evidence based benefits of resistance and cardio training.
PARTING NOTE: Tom Myers, the author of the widely respected fascia bible “Anatomy Trains” recently wrote in 2015:
I am so over the word ‘fascia’. I have touted it for 40 years – I was even called the ‘Father of Fascia’ the other day in New York (it was meant kindly, but…) — now that ‘fascia’ has become a buzzword and is being used for everything and anything, I am pulling back from it in top-speed reverse. Fascia is important, of course, and folks need to understand its implications for biomechanics, but it is not a panacea, the answer to all questions, and it doesn’t do half the things even some of my friends say it does.
Written by: Doug Joachim Bs, NSCA, NASM etc.- In-Home Personal Training NYC