Foam Rolling: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

We asked an expert all your foam rolling questions and dove into the research supporting it.

Athletes and health gurus alike boast its benefits. Doctors and chiropractors, specifically, have known about the practice for ages. You may have done it after being hurt and side-lined at a high school sports game. I’m talking about foam rolling. Newly defined as the pre- and post- workout muscle relief aid, it involves actually rolling a foam cylinder against your area of focus. Bonus: You only need yourself and a roller.

Whether you’re an avid roller already or you’ve only overheard the woman on the next cycle over praising its effects, it’s likely you’ve caught wind of the foam rolling trend. In the last year alone foam rolling has gone from a strictly chiropractic practice to something of a craze. And why wouldn’t it? Whether you’re looking to use the tool for its physical benefits (à la rolling out bulk and stress) or its more complex benefits (boost circulation, leaner looking limbs, and stimulated toxin flushing), it’s a practice worth trying.

Looking to try foam rolling for yourself? Check out the foam rolling stretches on Aaptiv

But what exactly does foam rolling do? And how? The fitness tool is met with both keen interest and confusion, so we reached out to Dr. Emily Kiberd, Chiropractic Physician and founder of Urban Wellness Clinic in NYC, to lay it all out for us. A certified yoga instructor with experience in biomechanics and movement patterns, Kiberd specializes in providing tailored treatments with lasting results for each patient. Finding an injury’s root cause and discovering how the body is compensating is her thing.

We asked Dr. Kiberd all our nagging questions about foam rolling. Read on to find out if you should make it a regular part of your fitness routine.

Everything You Need to Know About Foam Rolling

I’ll start with asking what everyone’s wondering: Does consistently foam rolling have any real positive impact on the body or is it something we shouldn’t bother with until we’re in the chiropractor’s office?

“Foam rolling has been shown to improve long-term flexibility when performed on a regular basis. So, don’t wait until you’re side-lined and hurting or hobbling into your doctor’s office. It can easily be done at home or at the gym.”

From a chiropractic standpoint, what is so beneficial about foam rolling? What about from a fitness standpoint?

“As a New York City Chiropractor with super active patients, I see a ton of sore, tight, and jammed-up muscles. Foam rolling is one of my favorite weapons in the war on muscle tension. It works so much better than static stretching, which is often done incorrectly. Foam rolling releases muscle tension, improves recovery and performance, improves flexibility, and improves range of motion in joints.”

Foam rolling can make your fitness journey easier all around. That’s why Aaptiv trainers like to show you how to use it in their post-workout stretches.

“While foam rolling feels oh–so-good when releasing sore, tight muscles, I like to look at the science to understand the results outside just my own and my patients’ experiences. A 2014 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at the effectiveness of foaming rolling as a tool in recovery for exercise-induced muscle damage. Results showed those who foam rolled had reduced muscle soreness up to 72 hours later, improved vertical jump height, passive and dynamic range of motion, and muscle activation in comparison to the control group.”

What about just plain old stretching?

“Another study in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation found foam rolling to be ‘more effective than static and dynamic stretching’ in acutely increasing flexibility of the quadriceps and hamstrings without hampering muscle strength.’”

What are the lesser known benefits of foam rolling?

“In my practice I’ve seen a number of other benefits of foam rolling, including improved circulation, decreased swelling, increased lymphatic drainage (in laymen’s terms, elimination of bodily toxins), reduced cellulite, improved tissue elasticity, and improved posture.”

That all sounds great! How often should we be foam rolling to see these things happen?

“The research doesn’t give us an ideal timeframe for foam rolling, but the best guideline so far is 3-5 sets of 60 second repetitions, 3-5 times per week.”

How can tight and tense muscles negatively affect your workout in the first place?

“Tight muscles can have a huge impact on your workout. Decreased performance is the most obvious impact. Who hasn’t limped through a morning jog with super tight glutes and hamstrings? Secondly, favoring a tight muscle leads to compensating with other body parts which, in turn, can lead to injuries including muscle strains, headaches, and even disc herniations.”

A tight muscle is tight for a reason. It’s either anatomically short—for example, if there is scar tissue limiting the range of motion, the muscle is overworking to stabilize for an energy leak somewhere else—or the muscle is tight and weak.”

“Practitioners love to release tight muscles, but it’s better to know why it is tight before foam rolling that muscle. A weak, overly stretched muscle might be just hanging on for dear life before it tears. At Urban Wellness Clinic we ‘test, don’t guess.’ We use muscle testing to see which muscles need to be released and foam rolled and which ones need to be strengthened. We don’t want to release a weak or inhibited muscle, which can lead to further weakness and injury.” (Editor’s note: In other words— when in doubt, don’t push it with the rolling. Seek advice from a doctor before you begin any new routine including foam rolling)

Do certain types of workouts require more rolling and tension releasing than others?

“A lot of the popular workouts such as HIIT training, kettlebell workouts, and any sport with high reps like Cross Fit are perfect for foam rolling. These workouts often require creating high tension in the muscles for stability and generally result in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).”

Looking for a sweaty HIIT or kettlebell workout? Aaptiv has them both!

Which muscles or parts of the body benefit most from rolling?

“Foam rollers can be used on almost every part of the body. I’ve seen a foam roller used effectively on everything from lats to the bottoms of the feet.”

“At my clinic we always ask why a muscle is tight. Is it stabilizing another muscle that is weak or inhibited? For example, hamstrings commonly become tight when we lack or lose our deep core stability. So, go ahead, foam roll those hamstrings, but you better get that deep core kicking in afterwards to keep those hamstrings open and at a healthy length.”

Can you demystify what’s going on in your bodies to cause these benefits? How does it relieve tension?

“The research is still out on exactly how foam rolling works. One theory is that applied pressure from foam rolling reduces the myofascial (or, connective tissue) tightness by stimulating mechanoreceptors in the fascia which send a signal to the central nervous system to change the muscles activity. [Editor’s note: In short, the pressure applied while foam rolling likely sends signals to your nervous system that release muscle tightness.] In my experience, the roller provides the compression that static stretching just can’t. This helps push out residual inflammation that can lead to increased soreness.”

If foam rolling tends to hurt, am I doing it wrong?

“At first, foam rolling can be painful. You are accessing muscles and fascia (connective tissue) that may have been overworked and untouched for years. This tight tissue may have chronic scar tissue, which can feel leathery from years of disuse. However, it can also be feel amazing to finally release those tight muscles. I have had patients cry in pain and relief through foam rolling. The best advice is to start slowly and listen to your body.”

What are some things you should be careful of or avoid while rolling to avoid unnecessary pain? Any common mistakes?

“Foam rolling is one of the simplest treatments I do with my clients, but it can go wrong. Avoid it completely if you have high blood pressure, an open wound, or infection. Also avoid foam rolling a weak muscle (which can lead to injury), going too hard (which can lead to further inflammation and pain), and rolling over superficial nerves (which can cause symptoms like numbness, tingling, and drop foot).”

You mentioned that static stretching isn’t as effective as using a foam roller. Being a certified yoga instructor, do you think there are any exercises or stretches that have similar benefits to foam rolling?

“They really are two different delivery systems. In my practice, I love to combine the two therapies such as foam rolling your hamstrings with plank yoga pose. They can work extremely well together and we love designing custom solutions for our patients.”

Ready to get rolling, or already on the ball (er, roller)? Hop into the Aaptiv app and let us know which routines work best with the practice for you by sharing with #TeamAaptiv!



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