The myths behind foam rolling



Many personal trainers suggest their clients use foam rollers, but do they work, and if so how?


Many people believe foam rolling works by applying pressure to the muscles leading to a “break up” in scar tissue thus lengthening muscle tissue. The problem with this view is that it is not based on any sound scientific research. Foam rolling for as little as 1 minute has been shown to be able to increase the range of motion of a muscle. If it isn’t physically lengthening the muscle tissue, then how does it achieve this?



Tone vs tightness

To understand how foam rolling works, it is important to understand that there is a difference between a muscle feeling tight and actually being tight. A muscle feeling tight is related to muscle tone and the higher the muscle tone, the tighter the muscle will feel. A muscle actually being tight is related to the muscle tissue physically becoming shorter.


In most individuals, when they perceive themselves as being “tight”, it is just that they have an increase in muscle tone. For example, after a strenuous exercise session, individuals will often report being “tight” for a few days and then this feeling will settle down. It now makes sense to think that their muscle tone had increased for a few days rather than the physical length of their muscles becoming shorter and longer over that period.


So what causes this increase in muscle tone? 

The brain via the nervous systems sends signals to the muscle of the body to alter its’ tone, depending on the level of stress, perception of threat and various other sensory inputs, in order to stop it reaching what it thinks are possible dangerous positions. If the brain perceives that a movement is dangerous, it will respond by increasing the tone of a muscle. Conversely, if it perceives sensory input as safe, then it will decrease the tone in a muscle. In both of these situations, the physical length of the muscle won’t have changed, but the perceived level of “tightness” and available a range of motion accessible through that muscle will alter greatly.


Linking back to foam rollers

Foam rolling, stretching and massage all work in a similar way by sending “OK” safe signals to the brain, causing the nervous system to reduce the tone of muscles, and so as mentioned, will result in a greater range of motion of that muscle being achieved.


Long term, however it’s good to use this period of decreased tone to cause an increase in strength through this greater range of motion, and the muscle will have a lower resting tone, without having used a foam roller.

Outside of exercise, muscle tone is the body’s natural response to a perceived threat, and there could be an underlying problem causing the tone to be abnormal. High tone in a muscle for a long period of time, can cause the muscle to physically shortened, and this can cause mechanical difficulties.


By Kevin Tucker


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