You’re going to the gym with your gym partner ready to lift. You’re caffeinated and ready to get right into it, but your partner hops on the foam roller for what seems like an eternity and kills the vibe. They say they need it in order to lift better and increase range of motion, but are they right or are they just wasting their time and yours?
Ok let’s break it down piece by piece. Does it increase range of motion (ROM)? Yeah a little bit1-4 as long as it is the cylinder foam roller and not a roller stick2. 1 point to foam rolling then, right? Well not quite, when you look at the ROM increase compared to other methods, it is statistically no different than static1-3 and other types of stretching2, or eccentric exercise2,4. Whoa whoa, static stretching before exercise, doesn’t that decrease performance, so wouldn’t foam rolling be better? Yeah it can, but after about 10 minutes of waiting and/or more warm-up, the effects are attenuated1. The evidence does show that SHORT foam rolling sessions do not decrease performance1,2,4, but if you lay on it for a while, say longer than 9 minutes2 then that could potentially hinder your performance in the gym, on the field, etc. So short sessions of foam rolling at least are not detrimental. Don’t worry, if you really like foam rolling I won’t leave you in the dark about what is recommended for the time spent on it. Around 3 sets of 30-50s and about 90s total is sufficient to see the results2. Before you or your gym partner’s imaginations run too wild about what is causing the increase in ROM, it is not the breaking up of adhesions1 but more likely due to some neural changes3 like pain modulation1-4 or straight up placebo1,2.
I mentioned that the short-term effects of foam rolling were no different than eccentric exercise for ROM4. Shall we take a moment to use a bit of critical thinking? If you want to get ready to do an exercise, and doing the exercise with a slower eccentric movement for the first couple sets produces the same result as foam rolling, don’t you think that just doing the exercise would be a lot more time efficient? Not only would you get the ROM benefit, but you would also get the other benefits of warming up. Now looking at that, you could either shorten your amount of time for the workout to allow for more time outside of the gym, or be able to lift more in the same amount of time. AMAZING!
So now you two are done with your workout but they also need to foam roll after for recovery… this is getting to be just as long as the workout itself. Well we only have low quality studies looking at this1 and they show mixed results that show no significant benefit on recovery. Again, no physiological evidence has been shown (some research on this would help rest this case) and any small benefit that was seen in the research was attributed to pain modulation and placebo1,2.
All-in-all, what can we say about foam rolling? Well, there is no clear benefit to it over other methods such as stretching (whichever method you like most)1-3, or eccentric exercise2,4. The benefits of foam rolling are most likely attributable to changes in how much pain you feel, warm-up effect, and placebo, not any physiologic changes1,2. Finally, if you have a lot of extra time, are a masochist that likes the discomfort caused by foam rolling, and just really want to use that cylinder that you spent money on, it at least won’t be a detriment to your performance as long as you don’t spend more than 9 minutes on it. In my opinion, there are more efficient ways to start your workout, and you don’t have to take up some of that valuable time rolling around on the ground.
Shout out to Aaron Kubal who made a tiktok and instagram post on these studies.
- Wiewelhove T, Döweling A, Schneider C, Hottenrott L, Meyer T, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M, Ferrauti A. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Front Physiol. 2019 Apr 9;10:376. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00376. PMID: 31024339; PMCID: PMC6465761.
- Pagaduan JC, Chang SY, Chang NJ. Chronic Effects of Foam Rolling on Flexibility and Performance: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Apr 4;19(7):4315. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19074315. PMID: 35409995; PMCID: PMC8998857.
- Smith JC, Washell BR, Aini MF, Brown S, Hall MC. Effects of Static Stretching and Foam Rolling on Ankle Dorsiflexion Range of Motion. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Aug;51(8):1752-1758. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001964. PMID: 30817716.
- Aune AAG, Bishop C, Turner AN, Papadopoulos K, Budd S, Richardson M, Maloney SJ. Acute and chronic effects of foam rolling vs eccentric exercise on ROM and force output of the plantar flexors. J Sports Sci. 2019 Jan;37(2):138-145. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2018.1486000. Epub 2018 Jun 12. PMID: 29893193.