Over the past two weeks I have received this question from a number of clients and while I love sharing information with others I decided it would probably would be a much more efficient use of time to put my reasoning in print so anyone with the same question can just be directed to this post. And why not kill two birds with one stone right? So I decided to turn my answer into an epic blog post. So away we go into the mysterious world of injury prevention and fascia. Foam Rolling serves two major benefits in my mind: improves soft tissue quality and improves mobility across a number of joints resulting in reduction of injury potential.
To understand why we foam roll I think it is important to understand some of the science behind it as well. Foam Rolling is really part of a much larger technique called Self-Myofascial Release (SMR). This technique is made possible by a physiological principle known as Autogenic Inhibition. Which is a fancy way of saying that when a tension is imposed upon the muscle that is so great that tendon rupturing becomes possible the body automatically relaxes the muscle in order to prevent injury. This process is made possible by the Golgi Tendon Organ which is a sensory receptor located at the insertion of skeletal muscle into it's specific tendon. The GTO acts as a tension gauge and when the tension reaches levels that are to high it stimulates muscle spindles within the muscle fiber resulting in a passive relaxation of the muscle. Through this process SMR improves range of motion by repeatedly triggering autogenic inhibition and producing incremental increases in ROM.
SMR also targets soft tissue, specifically Fascia. Fascia is a mysterious thing we know little about it and there is very little scientific literature discussing it. I recommend picking up the book Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers if you wish to learn a much more. But we do know a few crucial things about fascia: it is everywhere and it creates interconnections between muscles and other tissues, it has an involuntary contraction capacity based upon the amount of smooth muscles embedded in it's matrix, it has more sensory receptors than our skin and relays a ton of information to your brain and is especially sensitive to hydration levels.
There are an estimated 12-16 different types of receptors contained within fascia's matrix, but the two that are relevant to our discussion are the ruffini fibers and pacini corpuscles. Ruffini fibers are similar to the Golgi Tendon Organ in its function acting like a pressure gauge detecting pressure changes that might lead to injury and thus have a slight relaxation potential. Pacini corpuscles do the opposite they detect high levels of tension and stimulate small contractions. These two receptors function very much alike to the Golgi Tendon Organ and Muscle Spindles. But the benefit of focusing on these smaller receptors is that they are much more energetically efficient at producing tension around a joint producing greater stability without having to tax the much bigger surrounding muscles. By foam rolling we also target these two receptors resulting in improved soft tissue quality and greater passive stability to accompany the increase in active range of motion SMR produces.
Foam Rolling should be an essential component to everyone's training regimen. It should be performed both before and after exercise. I place more emphasis on the before session because I think it is major player in preventing injuries especially injuries that could become lingering issues such as muscle strains, pulls, and tears.
To simplify everything above into a nice summary/recap. We foam roll for the following reasons:
- To attack sensory receptors that will influence range of motion and passive stability of joints.
- To reduce the build up of scar tissue and intramyofascial adhesions
- Turning off overactive muscle groups that are creating postural imbalances.
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training