Why Foam Rolling doesn’t work

There have been a lot of people criticising foam rolling of late for its alleged ineffectiveness in relieving tension and increasing muscular length.

If you have been foam rolling certain areas of your body for some time like I have, you probably can’t help feel the same way.

I mean I used to foam roll my calves quite frequently. The first time I did it, it felt like somebody was stabbing me in the lower leg. After a few weeks though, it was like I couldn’t feel anything at all.

Oh and noticed that it didn’t increase my range of motion in my ankle one bit – which was the goal I was going after in the first place – more ankle range of motion and deeper squats.

So I guess foam rolling just doesn’t work – it relieves some tight spots that are pressed on at the time, but it has no bearing on the flexibility of my ankle and won’t help me squat deeper – BIG waste of time!

Well, that’s what it seems like when we look at it in isolation….the keyword being there isolation.

Yes, it’s usually wise practice for people like you and me to add one variable at a time so we can deduce its effectiveness – heck, if you throw everything at something, how do you know which elements truly worked?!

This is a good approach in most instances, yet when it comes to the human body, things tend to work a bit more synergistically a lot of the time. 

When it comes to soft tissue work, we must first look at what it actually does so we can understand what it can ultimately do – yes you could call this the definition of ‘expectations’.

It might come as a shock to you, but massage, trigger pointing, and other release techniques don’t really increase flexibility by themselves.

Although these techniques can release adhesions in your muscles, they only do so for a certain window of time for which you can explain this benefit. 

This is why you often have to get perpetual massages performed constantly on the same spots each time by a masseuse.

To increase flexibility and range of motion – you need to increase range of motion – i.e. stretch your muscles further.

Soft tissue work makes your muscles relax parasympathetically for a period of time (around 20mins or so). However, once your nervous system wakes up to the fact that your muscles have not changed length in this time, they revert back to the natural length they were originally.

Hence, during the window of enhanced relaxation and lowered tension (courtesy of the soft tissue work), you need to take the opportunity to stretch and increase your range of motion, then strengthen this so it becomes more ingrained. That way when your nervous system starts to wake up again fully, it senses a new established length and range of motion around your muscles.

When I realised this fact and started to stretch my calves straight after foam rolling them, only then did I significantly increase my ankle range of motion and hence was able to squat deeper.

But it doesn’t stop there either – even this technique of foam rolling followed by stretching has its limits. 

As I said before, it felt like someone was stabbing me when doing foam rolling for the first time – and then it felt like nothing at all after a few weeks. 

Why? Well, it turns out that just like your muscles adapt and get stronger with heavier and heavier resistance training, so to your tissues also adapt to soft tissue work and require more intensity over time to improve their tension and suppleness.

Hence a normal foam roller starts to feel soft, and a harder or more penetrating version is required to further elicit increased breakdown of muscular adhesions. 

This brought me to using the rumble roller, which is a harder, denser, and more penetrating version of the original foam roller (yes, those spikes get right into your tight spots!)

Introducing the rumble roller felt like going back to the first day on the original foam roller and the stabbing sensations came right back!

This is why your foam rolling sucks and doesn’t work anymore – it too needs progressive overload to elicit increasingly better tissue quality, just like your weights do if you’re looking to get increasingly stronger.

In a nutshell, you need to concurrently increase the intensity of your massage work AND your stretching to elicit the best results with your flexibility and tissue quality. 

Here is a good formula to go by – release the area, stretch the area, strengthen the area’s range of motion.

Don’t forget the last one – strength! Strength tells your body that the new range you have stretched into is ok and it can be established as the new standard of length for your muscles. 

By strength, I don’t necessarily mean weight training either– mastering your own body weight through new ranges of motion is the starting point.

In my example, I did bodyweight calf raises with isometric holds in the end range to reinforce the new range of motion. I then performed very light full squats with no load on the bar and built load upon this over time.  

Remember that new is weak range – it’s like a new exercise to your body and you need to start at baseline and build your way up.

If you don’t, your chances of injury go right up!

Don’t let the humbling process put you off though – you will feel far better with full range of motion and you will get more of the result you actually want – I mean what’s a squat if it just looks like a slight knee bend performed by a stiff decrepit who can’t lower themselves down in any significant way?

Get the point? Good. 

Now get to it and get supple!

– Michael 

Performance Revolution

P.S. Not getting much relief out of your foam rolling, stretching, or other tension-reducing activities? 

Not seeing much progress in your body or its capability despite spending so much time working on it?

Get clarity around EXACTLY what you should be doing, get a time-efficient solution, and start moving & feeling free again.

…Or you can simply choose to remain tight, inflexible, rigid, and ultimately frustrated with your lack of progress and functionality – the choice is all yours.

To get in touch with us and fast-track your flexibility, your body, and your health, simply let us know a little more about you, your unique pains, goals, and struggles. One of our expert coaches will get in touch with you about your specific situation and do a discovery call to offer some sure-fire solutions: