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Is Foam Rolling at the Gym Good for You?

Posted by Stephen Thomas, M.D. on Jun 29, 2019, 9:16:00 AM

Those of us who have heard of or engage in foam rolling might not even know it’s actually been around for a while, having only recently taken the exercise world by storm. Devotees claim that this practice of rolling various parts of your body across a foam-covered tube can improve flexibility and reduce muscle soreness. So, it appears that foam rolling is catching on for good reason … but is it good for you?

That depends.

As with most exercise regimens, the benefits are yours only if you apply the proper technique. And so it goes for foam rolling. If you find that foam rolling is actually painful, then it’s likely you’re pressing your muscles too hard. While it’s unlikely you are actually damaging your muscles, it is possible. Even worse, attributing muscle pain to foam rolling could mean that you’re not addressing an actual muscle injury – and making it worse by continuing activity that causes further injury.

Now for the good part.

This caveat aside, a number of studies agree that foam rolling, when done properly, can provide benefits – reducing tension and soreness in the muscle and increasing flexibility and range of motion. And what’s now understood to be the underlying mechanism behind those benefits is different than what it once was thought to be.

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Until more recently, the theory was that foam rolling physically broke down knots in muscle tissue in order to make the muscles more pliable. However, experts contend that the type of pressure needed to achieve that effect isn’t possible through foam rolling. And yet somehow, foam rolling still works. But how?

It turns out that foam rolling actually engages the central nervous system to reduce tension. But there’s a catch – it only works for a few minutes.

That why foam rolling simply isn’t enough by itself – nor is it a substitute for good old-fashioned stretching. Instead, foam rolling should be used just prior to static stretches. That’s because foam rolling can improve the effectiveness of those stretches – and that’s where the main benefit of foam rolling lies.

How to make it work for you.

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So, the next time you face a foam roller at home or at the gym, be sure to use it the right way to gain the maximum benefit. Roll each muscle you plan to work out for 30 to 90 seconds and apply only moderate pressure to the muscles as you roll. Immediately after rolling, perform some static stretches of those same muscles before you begin exercise.  Repeat this process after exercise for even better benefits.

And if you have any sharp, sudden, or lingering pain that comes on during foam rolling or any exercise, schedule an appointment with your Kelsey-Seybold physician. We can determine the cause of the pain and develop a treatment plan to help get you back to your active lifestyle – foam rolling and all.

Thomas, Stephen

Dr. Thomas is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. His clinical interests include lipidology and cardiometabolic syndrome. Dr. Thomas enjoys cycling and other fitness activities.


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