Foam Rolling is NOT Stretching - Dean Somerset

Please let me start out by saying that this post is coming to you due to the freedoms afforded to living in a society that allows freedom of speech, and on today specifically, we should all take a moment and think of those who fought and died to protect those rights, be they military, police, fire fighters, or any level of service.


I hear a lot of people talking about what foam rolling is and what it isn’t Some say it helps to lengthen the tissues being rolled (it doesn’t), some say it’s increasing fluid movement to the area (it doesn’t), and some say it’s like putting WD-40 into the soft tissue being worked (seriously??). These are all reasonable explanations in theory, but much like the Occupy Movement, it only works in theory. In practice it’s completely different.

As with many aspects of fitness, the most plausible thought process is the one that tends to take hold. Some other thought processes are the facts that standing on a bosu ball will make you stronger and lose weight, Tracy Anderson is not a walking bag of suck, and how  hamstring curl machines are useful for more than a place to catch your breath between sets of deadlifts.

Let’s start with the first common thought, that foam rolling stretches the tissues being compressed. This is a very unusual thought as there is typically no change in joint position or alteration in the fascial chain connective system that attaches to that structure. Take the IT band, for instance. To stretch it, you have to straighten your knee, abduct, lightly flex and internally rotate the hips. In this position, applying foam rolling doesn’t actually produce any further change in length to the thick band of fascial hatred that is the bane of the existence of many office workers and recreational runners.

The application of a foam roller will only add compression at an angle of 90 degrees to the direction of the fiber alignment, and it will only compress the tissues a few centimeters, if that much. This means the relative and absolute change in length is pretty minimal, as evident by the use of grade 9 math skillz and the application of pythagorean theorem. This compression results in about 0.1% change in length, or roughly the odds of me not wanting to throw my face on an axe if made to watch an entire episode of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

In order to have the foam roller actually change the length of the tissue, ti would have to be able to apply a force into the tissue at an angle closer to that of the fiber alignment, or similar to a form of manual therapy such as ART, Graston, myofascial release, or some other really cool ones I may not have actually heard of yet. The overall length change would be minimal, with favour given to breaking down “adhesions” through the tissue instead of changing the actual length.


Foam rolling doesn’t stretch fascia.   - CLICK TO TWEET


The first clue as to what foam rolling actually does should be in its’ technical name, “myofascial RELEASE.” The tissue is able to go through a transformational change from being actively tensed to not tensed up. This means the length isn’t affected, but the neural input to the tissues is changed up.

Fascia has some really involved proprioceptors that govern the length and tension of the fascial bands running through the body. Muscles contain what I call “fast twitch receptors,” such as the golgi tendon organ (responsible for rapid contraction during perceived stretch to the tendons), and muscle spindles (responsible for turning off muscles in the presence of forces exceeding their capacity to prevent injury). Fascia has what I call “slow twitch receptors,” such as the rufini corpuscles and pacini receptors. These receptors operate in similar manners as the golgi tendon organ and the muscle spindle, but generate and relieve tension in a much slower and deliberate manner.

The fast twitch receptors provide instantaneous alterations in length and tension, whereas the slow twitch receptors do more for prolonged postures and joint positions.

What foam rolling or any form of self myofascial release actually does is quite simple. It short-circuits that neural regulation.

Imagine if you were at home and rockin out to a little Billy Jean on full volume, with your strobe light going, surfing the net, and had a portable air conditioner/heater, or whatever you wanted to use plugged into a single wall outlet. If that circuit were overloaded, rather than start a fire the breaker would simply switch off and stop any power from going to those outlets. Once you flip the switch, anything that was plugged into those outlets will re-boot and come back to life again.

For those older than 25, remember when the power would go out and your VCR would shut off, and then once the power came back on you would have to re-program it again so it wouldn’t keep flashing “12:00?” Same thing.

Foam rolling overloads the neural sensory receptors in the fascia, overloads their circuits, and causes them to shut down. From there you can “re-program” them by simply using the tissue through a full range of motion, with balanced force production through all involved segments, and voila, you’re a whole new person.

For anyone who has had to roll out a particularly angry part of their body, you can attest to how the muscle seems to twitch, almost like it’s a nerve that’s firing over-time and sending signals of hot buttered death straight to your cerebral cortex telling you to kick it in gear and get the hell out of there so as to save yourself from further degradation. That’s the infamous “Fight or Flight” response of the autonomic nervous system, baby!! Come get some.

Now on to how to roll properly. I’ve seen people hit the roller faster than Usain Bolt coming out of the starting blocks and try to zip through their entire body with the speed of a soccer mom heading to TGI Fridays after dropping their kids off at practice and have only 2 hours to get their drunk on. This is akin to hitting the speed bumps in your local grocery store parking lot while going 60. It’s fun as hell, but doesn’t serve the intended purpose. Remember, the receptors in fascia are slow twitch, meaning they need prolonged tension to see any change. Ripping through your foam rolling quickly is as big a fail as a Gronkowski end-zone spike in week one.

 So rolling slowly is kind of a big deal. You should aim to cover roughly 1 inch per second, stopping and breathing -trying to go to your happy place- on the tighter spots. If you push to a point where you feel like you can’t breathe deeply, you’re not getting the tissue to release, which means you’re probably just tensing it up even more. Slow it down, go easy, and make sure you are thinking of breathing, releasing, and making whatever tissue you’re working on become more supple and fluid, not simply to create a world of pain.

I’ve talked about fascia and foam rolling a lot in Muscle Imbalances Revealed: Upper Edition, and also showcase methods of how to improve fascial tissue quality without making you hate life completely. Check it out by clicking HERE.


I will also be teaching a course on foam rolling, the science and application of how to get the most out of it, and where it’s most applicable to use with your clients, in Calgary Alberta on November 18th. So if you want to get your geek on and have a chance to throw down a wicked awesome Predator-style handshake in person, click this link HERE and come on out!

Dean Somerset

Andrea ThatcherComment