Using a foam roller for self release of muscle tension or aches is now a fairly wide spread practice. It’s also used with the intention of improving movement mechanics for performance purposes (think strength, muscle stiffness or elasticity). However, what do we really know about how effective it is? The following article will look at some of the recent scientific research in the area and will focus specifically on research that is looked at range of motion of a joint (or joints) as a measure, before and after using the foam roller.
Recent review articles have collated similar research studies, and where possible, pooled the data from different researchers and tried to draw collective and more conclusive findings.
Interestingly, research findings differ when the rolling technique is used on different muscle groups with the most researched muscle groups being: knee flexors (Hamstrings), knee extensors (Quadriceps), ankle plantar flexors (Triceps Surae) and the trunk (Erector spinae, latissimus, traps etc.)
Also, research has looked both acute and chronic effects of foam rolling, ie. measuring a joint range of motion less than 5min after a single bout of foam rolling and the longer term effects when using foam rolling over a period of weeks. Furthermore, they’ve been able to draw comparisons between males and females, and looked at the effectiveness of foam rolling vs. stretching for improving joint flexibility.
Wilke et al. collated work from 26 research papers in 2020 and ran statistical analysis on the pooled data of 609 study participants. The studies all looked at the short term (acute) impact of foam rolling on joint range of motion where the joint flexibility data was collected immediately before and after (within a 5min window) the foam rolling intervention. Part of their analysis was to compare the effects of foam rolling interventions with no foam rolling, but also they compared how effective foam rolling was when compared to stretching. In the short term, the positive effect of foam rolling on joint range of motion was shown to be similar to the effect of stretching.
Interestingly, when they separated out the research that was carried out on male only participants from the research that was carried out on male and female participants, the pooled data from male and female studies showed a significant effect of foam rolling improving joint range of motion whereas the data from studies with male only participants, did not. This indicates that foam rolling is more effective at improving flexibility in females than it is in males. It has been proposed that this is due to hormone differences in the blood and tissues, that in turn affect the joint mobility. Remember: data from these studies were looking at the short term impact only.
It is important to note here that the Wilke et al., 2020 study pooled the data from research on the hamstrings, calf, quadriceps, pectorals and the adductor muscles. When the data from each muscle group were separated out and compared with each other, it was found that foam rolling was most effective on the hamstring group and improved hip flexibility more than the other muscle groups did on knee flexion, hip extension or ankle flexion range of motion. Similarly, a review article by Konrad et al., (2022) looking at acute vs. chronic (longer than 4 weeks of foam rolling intervention), found that range of motion was improved in hip and knee flexion (when foam rolling hamstrings and quads) but no significant change was found in ankle range of movement (after foam rolling the triceps surae group over a 4 week period). This is slightly different to the findings of the acute (short term) effect studies, where it was found that there was a small positive effect of foam rolling on ankle flexibility. The authors (Konrad et al.,) highlighted that joint range of motion is not solely restricted by the soft tissue of the muscle and fascia. Other joint structures (such as bone, ligament, joint capsule) that are not impacted by the foam rolling intervention also play a significant role in joint range of motion, and perhaps more so at the ankle than at the hip and the knee. Furthermore, since foam rolling technique uses the body weight to apply pressure onto the muscle, when the rolling is applied more distally on a limb (as in at the calf / triceps surae), there is less pressure on the muscle. It was suggested that this also may be a reason for the different findings in the results when comparing muscle groups and highlighted it as an area for future research. When the authors examined the methodology of the (ankle) studies, the only one that showed a significant effect of foam rolling over a period of +4weeks, used an intervention of 90s of foam rolling 3x per week. The other two studies used methodologies where foam rolling was carried out for 3x60s/week or 2x40s/week and it was proposed that the amount of time spent foam rolling may not have been long enough to cause significant change. Furthermore, there were differences between the studies in the measurement techniques used to collect the ankle range of motion data, and this may also have contributed to differences in the findings.
The research of Konrad et al. in 2022 also found that for the hamstrings and quadriceps, consistent foam rolling over a longer period of time (4 weeks or more), had more of an effect on joint range of motion than a single bout of foam rolling or a short term intervention (less than 4 weeks).
So what does this all tell us & how can we apply it to our clients?
In short term studies, foam rolling has a greater effect on improving joint flexibility in females than it does in males. Foam rolling the hamstrings, quadriceps and triceps surae (calf muscles) all improve joint range of motion and mobility gains from foam rolling (the above muscle groups) were similar to those found for stretching protocols. Foam rolling the hamstrings was more effective than foam rolling the quads for improving joint flexibility, and both were more effective than rolling the triceps surae / calves (in the short term).
In the long term (4+ weeks) rolling the calves showed no significant improvement in ankle flexibility, where as rolling the quadriceps and hamstrings did. This however may have been due to differences in the way that the research was carried out, and further research is suggested to investigate this further and draw more definitive conclusions.
Clearly the research shows us that there is nuance in how foam rolling can be applied for improving joint flexibility and we should avoid using sweeping statements to declare that it does. Be mindful that some of the research shows that under certain conditions such as a shorter time spent rolling (less than 90s), less pressure on the roller (lighter people and when the rolling is applied to the calf or if a person is unable to apply much pressure due to the perception or experience of pain), the foam rolling is going to less effective or have little to no impact on joint flexibility. Furthermore, foam rolling may be less effective for males than it will be for females.
Most of the research is carried out in healthy, adult populations and tends not include participants who are injured or anyone with pre/post surgical conditions. Typically the research participants are active individuals and would not be classified as ‘sedentary’ or part of the older population, and we should be mindful of generalising accordingly. Furthermore, the research discussed here is focussed on specific muscle groups and joints, and differences have been shown in how effective foam rolling is between them. Again, we should avoid generalising as to how effective foam rolling may be, to other areas of the body. Each of our clients is a case study of one, and we should review and evaluate how effective our recommendations are for them as an individual, and look to modify them as necessary.
Further research is available and I’d encourage you to keep reading. We’ve barely scratched the surface here and I imagine that reading this will leave you with more questions than it has answers. As mentioned in the introduction, there are also review and meta-analysis articles that have looked at the effects of foam rolling on performance measures such as the maximum contraction or torque that a muscle can produce under isometric, concentric and eccentric conditions (think muscle ‘strength’) as well, the rate of torque (force) production or ‘power’ of a muscle to contract quickly. We’ll take a look at these in a future article. As always with research, there are many questions still unanswered… interesting topics of research (to me at least!) include understanding the mechanisms behind the effects such as our perception of pain, blood circulation; the movement of interstitial fluid, breaking down of cross fibres, alignment of new tissue fibres, the as well as the effects in differing populations; age, gender, athletic experience, injury specific, and so on. Stay curious, keep observing, keep reading and stay open!