Different Foam-Rolling Techniques: Why the Fuss?

It seems as though the best way to foam-roll is in the name: Roll, and rolling back and forth has merit and support from the scientific community. In a recently published foam-rolling review, Kalichman and David (2017) examined 42 studies that revealed that there are only a few different rolling techniques. The most common is to roll the length of a chosen muscle for a set time (1–2 minutes is the most common). Another common technique is to “knead” the muscle with small back-and-forth motions along the length of the muscle. A frequently used method—used with foam-rolling devices that aren’t actually rollers (e.g., Thera-cane)—is to hold pressure on a tender spot. All of these techniques appear to work well at either improving range of motion or decreasing pain.

No one knows the exact origins of foam rolling, but we do know it began as a way to mimic massage. As a massage therapist, I am aware that a foam roller will never replicate what can be done with the hands; however, foam rolling does serve as a suitable alternative. The big miss is that massage incorporates moving from origin and insertion of a muscle as only one of a variety of techniques. Swedish massage includes five traditional strokes: (1) effleurage (gliding); (2) petrissage (kneading); (3) friction (cross-friction); (4) tapotement (percussion); and (5) vibration (small shaking movements) (Salvo 2007). To maximize results, include different movements into your foam-rolling regimen. While not all strokes are easily replicated with a foam roller, several are possible.

When you apply pressure to muscles, fluid is displaced (like squeezing a water balloon). As the pressure is removed, fresh fluid and nutrients rush back into the area (Schleip 2012). Adding additional movements and stretching forces when pressure is applied can maximize this replacement benefit and improve overall movement.

Follow this simple 4-Step Formula to make the most of your foam rolling:

  1. Search. Use the foam roller to slowly (about 1 inch per second) roll the muscle length. This prepares the muscle, increases circulation and helps to identify tender spots (adhesions, trigger points, knots).
  2. Destroy. Hold pressure on 2–3 of the most tender spots along the muscle. A tender spot would rate as a 6–8 on a pain scale of 1–10.
  3. Mobilize. While holding pressure, perform movements different from rolling up and down. Try cross-friction by shifting the muscles across the roller. The roller surface should grip the clothing or skin, allowing the creation of a dragging force. James Cyriax, “Father of Orthopaedic Medicine,” stated that cross-friction is the best method to reduce adhesions and scar tissue and to restore movement to the muscles (Cyriax 1982). Another technique is pin-and-stretch. While holding pressure on the roller, move the joint beyond the roller. For example, when rolling calf muscles, perform ankle dorsiflexion and plantar flexion; if rolling quadriceps or hamstrings, perform knee flexion and extension.
  4. Flush. Finish by performing slow rolling motions to flush the area. As in step 1, roll the entire muscles length, about an inch per second, without stopping on tender spots.

When rolling to increase the length of a muscle identified as short, follow with function. Studies suggest static stretching after foam rolling is the best way to increase flexibility (Skarabot 2015). But just adding length to tight spots doesn’t guarantee optimal function. Vincent et al. (2013) found that for both acute and chronic pain, individuals should follow with exercises. Exercises concentrated on strengthening weak muscles and total body movements will ensure coordination of newly found mobility into daily activities!