This week’s installment of Strength in Knowledge is Part 1 of a 3-part series on foam rolling.  This week we will discuss the theory behind this practice.  Next, we will discuss how to safely foam roll.  The third article will highlight a few of the most popular foam rolling techniques.

Perhaps you have been in the gym and have seen someone on the ground, rolling around on a big foam roller, typically grimacing.  Or perhaps your physiotherapist has already introduced you to this technique.  Alternatively, if you have been living under a rock for the past several years, you may have never even heard of foam rolling before.  If that’s the case, no problem – better late to the party than to never show up at all.

Foam rolling has been around for well over a decade and, nowadays, foam rollers are a ubiquitous feature commonly found in fitness facilities, physiotherapy clinics and homes all over.  So, what’s all the hype about?  And why would you ever want to do such a thing?!

Foam rolling is one form of self myofascial release – a manual therapy technique that you perform on your own body, in the hopes of positively impacting your fascial system, neuromuscular system (your nerves and muscles) as well as the local circulatory system (the blood flow to the tissues). 

Research in the area of self myofascial release is not extensive.  Not all studies are of high quality and there are some conflicting results.  More work is needed, but a 2015 systematic review (Cheatham et al.), which pooled the results of the high-quality studies that had been performed to date, concluded that self myofascial release, using a foam roller or handheld roller, appears to be effective for enhancing range of motion (mobility) and pre and post exercise muscle performance.

Basically, foam rolling is believed to reduce muscle tension, improve range of motion, and improve local blood flow.  Additionally, some studies have demonstrated that post-exercise foam rolling can reduce the intensity and duration of delayed-onset muscle soreness following exercise (the stiffness and soreness that you may feel in your muscles after a workout).  Furthermore, it provides an opportunity for you to map out areas of restriction in your body.  Clinically, we often see that changes in our range of motion and increased muscle tension precede painful symptoms and this can allow us to address these changes before they become real problems.  For instance, if the tissues at the back of the shoulder start getting really tight, this can affect how the shoulder is moving and can eventually lead to shoulder pain.  If we are foam rolling and we identify and treat this tightness early, we may be able to avoid this leading to a painful shoulder.  In the event the shoulder has already become painful, depending on the issues present, application of appropriate techniques can aid in recovery, ideally in conjunction with suitable therapeutic exercises.

The next installment of this series on foam rolling will cover how to do so safely.  Stay tuned!

Teresa Waser is a physiotherapist and owner of RX Physiotherapy.  She has a Master of Science in Physical Therapy from the University of Alberta, in addition to several years of continuing education and experience treating patients of all ages.  Outside of the clinic, she coaches running and CrossFit and is passionate about helping others live life to the fullest.  You can find more about Teresa and how she can help you at