October 2015 Issue

Focus on Fitness: Foam Roller Workouts
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 17 No. 10 P. 66

These low-impact exercises are great for core conditioning and balance.

While visiting a local Target recently, shoppers may have seen cylindrical pieces of exercise equipment near the hand weights and yoga mats in the fitness section and wondered what they were. Called foam rollers, they range in length from about 12 in to 3 ft long. Some are smooth and some have bumps; and some are cut in half, with a rounded top and flat bottom. Foam rollers are relatively new to mainstream fitness, though physical therapists, athletic trainers, and professional athletes have long used them. Foam rollers primarily are used for therapeutic and/or sports-performance enhancing myofascial release, but they also can be used as a prop during workouts. Versatile and inexpensive, foam rollers are worth considering for core conditioning and balance exercises at home, competitive athletes, or those with chronic muscular pain.

The Basics
A cylindrical foam roller that's at least two feet long is ideal for core conditioning and balance training. Some Pilates-based core exercises that can be performed with the roller as a prop include the following:

• Bridges. Place the roller horizontally under the shoulder blades (upper back) and lift the hips into a bridge. Then, place the roller under the feet and repeat the bridge for more work through the hamstrings and gluteal muscles.

• Leg lifts. Lie on the roller with the spine aligned vertically on the roller. Feet are on the floor with knees bent. Slowly lift one knee toward the chest, alternating (one foot is always on the floor).

• Push-ups or planks. Place the roller under the feet and hold a plank or do push-ups. Place the roller under the hands and hold a plank or do push-ups.

The roller introduces instability that will challenge users' core muscles during these exercises. For balance, the roller can be used on its short end as a support when doing standing balance exercises. To challenge balance, stand with both feet on the roller and try to maintain balance. Stand on the roller with one foot for an added challenge.

Foam rollers are appropriate for all fitness levels. For example, beginners can modify the exercises by placing their knees on the floor in planks, or using a half roller with a flat bottom for more stability.

Two Pilates-based foam roller workout DVDs that offer a range of exercises include the Phi Pilates Foam Roller Workout and the Stott Pilates Foam Roller Challenge.

Although the foam roller is a good prop for core conditioning, other pieces of exercise equipment can be used for core strengthening. Foam rollers, however, offer something that other equipment doesn't—the ability to perform self-myofascial release.

Rolling for Release 
Myofascial release generally is a hands-on therapeutic technique that involves the application of gentle pressure along connective tissue (fascia) to reduce pain and improve range of motion. Trained massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers, and others involved in soft-tissue manipulation and pain management perform this technique.

Fascia is a band of densely woven connective tissue fibers beneath the skin that surrounds, attaches, and stabilizes muscles, bones, and internal organs. These bands aren't separate—fascia actually is one continuous system that wraps the body from head to toe. Only recently have clinicians and scientists begun collaborating on fascia research to determine the extent of its influence on the body. One textbook calls the fascia a "bodywide communication system" and a "sensory organ"1 due to its widespread effects on pain and function. Common analogies for the fascia's interconnectedness throughout the body are yarn in a sweater or a spider's web. Tugging on a yarn strand at one end of that sweater travels the length of the sweater and is visible at the other end. If you tap the end of a spider's web, the waves from that tap travel the entire web.

Myofascial trigger points are very irritated spots in the fascia that develop from trauma, stress, and certain medical conditions. Often palpable as knots, they radiate pain to other places in the body. For example, a knot in a back muscle may cause headaches or plantar fasciitis, depending on its location and fascial connection. Myofascial trigger points can adversely affect range of motion, balance, and flexibility. Myofascial release improves range of motion by relaxing the fascia and restoring normal muscular function.

A foam roller can be used for self-myofascial release, as an alternative to hands-on therapy sessions. Self-myofascial release is the scientific term for using the foam roller for self-massage of the fascia. The recently published studies below have demonstrated that foam rolling can improve sports performance and flexibility, as well as reduce muscle soreness and fatigue after exercise.

• A May-June 2015 systematic review of nine studies found that self-myofascial release with foam rolling had a positive effect on range of motion and soreness/fatigue after exercise.2

• A June 2015 randomized study of NCAA Division I football players found that foam rolling was as beneficial as dynamic stretching and significantly improved hip flexibility, although it had no effect on strength and power.3

• Another randomized study published in May 2015 found that foam rolling increased hamstring flexibility within four weeks and was comparable to proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, a commonly used and proven therapeutic stretching modality.4

• Two studies of active young men found that foam rolling significantly improved muscle tenderness and reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness, as well as increased athletic performance in vertical jump height, sprint time, dynamic strength-endurance, and dynamic range of motion.5,6

Smooth cylindrical foam rollers, as well as rollers with bumps on them, can be used for self-myofascial release. Any length, including shorter 12-inch rollers, is appropriate for release. Some resources to help you and your clients learn how to perform foam roller release include the Trigger Point Performance Smart-Core series (instructional DVDs for release of different body areas; some DVDs combine core workouts with self-massage); Epitomie Fitness Full Body Foam Rolling DVD; Foam Roller Workbook: Illustrated Step-by-Step Guide to Stretching, Strengthening, and Rehabilitative Techniques, by Karl Knopf; and Trigger Point Therapy with the Foam Roller: Exercises for Muscle Massage, Myofascial Release, Injury Prevention, and Physical Rehab, by Karl and Chris Knopf.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care researcher in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.

1. Schleip R, Findley TW, Chaitow L, Huijing P, eds. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body: The Science and Clinical Applications in Manual and Movement Therapy. 1st ed. Churchill Livingstone; 2012.

2. Schroeder A, Best TM. Is self myofascial release an effective preexercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015;14(3):200-208.

3. Behara B, Jacobson B. The acute effects of deep tissue foam rolling and dynamic stretching on muscular strength, power, and flexibility in Division I linemen [Published online June 24, 2015]. J Orthop Trauma. doi: 0.1519/JSC.0000000000001051.

4. Junker D, Stöggl T. The foam roll as a tool to improve hamstring flexibility [published online May 16, 2015]. J Strength Cond Res. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001007.

5. Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG, Button DC. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train. 2015;50(1):5-13.

6. MacDonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014;46(1):131-142.