My favourite training tools #9: Foam roll

This article is part of my blog-series: My Favourite Training Tools (For my American readers, please excuse the ‘u’ in favourite. It’s a Canadian thing). There are probably thousands of tools out there for fitness. Some are fly-by-night items, others have been mainstays for hundreds of years, and now and then there is a new kid on the block that is clearly here to stay. Through this blog-series, I’ll share with you the tools that I think are worth including in your home or commercial gym.

Does anyone not know what a foam roll is? This tool has made the transition from obscurity to mainstream in only a few years really. Maybe closer to a decade, as some people have been using them much longer. I was first introduced to them in 2007, and have been using one ever since. In fact not only do I keep them at the gym, there’s one on my living room floor. It’s probably not the best choice for living room decor, but it is effective for body restoration. In fact I wrote a previous blog post about foam rolling about 5 years ago (where has the time gone????) , and my opinion of them has not changed much.

What does foam rolling actually do? It depends who you ask. Some say it’s a great alternative to massage therepay as it allows you to do self-massage. Others say, in a similar vein, that it helps improve tissue quality. Still others suggest that it may or may not do those t things, but that it does improve proprioception of the skin.

There do appear to be a lot of studies that paint foam rolling in a positive light. I did a quick Google Scholar search on ‘foam roll smr’, and the following studies came up, all of which showed positive or neutral effects for foam rolling:

  1. Concludes that it has no effect on performance, but it did reduce postexercise fatigue
  2. Found that acute foam rolling improves arterial stiffness.
  3. Suggests foam rolling increases range of motion without reducing power output
  4. Shows increase in hamstring flexibility,
  5. Shows no immediate effect on explosive power
  6. Shows foam rolling combined with static stretching or postural alignment exercises increased joint range of motion.
  7. Concludes that foam rolling is a useful tool for sports injury prevention, although the methodology was far from what I would consider scientific.
  8. Found that foam rolling, static stretching, and dynamic stretching all had similar positive improvements in hamstring flexibility.
  9. Found that SMR had no positive effect on improving healing of an ITB injury, whereas use of Emmett technique did.

(Note I did not include one study because I found the stated conclusion confusing but couldn’t access the full study. It did imply a positive effect.)

I was actually surprised everything I found was positive, as I thought that the last time I had looked (a couple of years ago), the results were varied. And despite thinking that the research was inconclusive, I still remained a fan of the foam roll. Why?  Well for three very unscientific reasons:

  1. I think it’s a great way to start a workout, a bit of a transition time to stop thinking about life and work stresses and start thinking about their body and the movement they’re about to undertake. 
  2. Anecdotally (I can hear the tiny screams of ‘anecdotal observation is meaningless‘ fitness critics as I type that. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky), it seems to be effective in improving the movement quality and overall feeling of wellness that improves in my clients as they train with me. Could this be from other parts of the workout like the static stretching, the dynamic stretching, or the strengthening? Sure. It may even be a combination of all of these things.
  3. I enjoy watching the expressions on my clients’ faces while they foam roll. Faces of Foam Rolling would make for a great video. I wonder how hard it will b to get client permissions…

Thankfully the science does seem to support my anecdotal observation. If you haven’t tried foam rolling, consider giving it a whirl. Not sure what to roll? I included some specifics in my previous post about rolling. And if you want pictures and descriptions of how to roll various body parts, there’s a great pdf in the Wikipedia entry for foam rolling (reference #4). I hear it’s written by a fantastic trainer. ;)

Wondering what my 9 other favourite training tools are? Here’s the list (Click on any of the links to go to the article to find out why):

  1. Free weights
  2. Functional trainer (sometimes called a cable column)
  3. Bands
  4. Functional Movement Screen
  5. Suspension trainer
  6. Chin up bar
  7. Kettlebells
  8. Agility ladder
  9. Foam roll
  10. Sled

Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, owns and trains clients out of Custom Strength online and in Ottawa, Canada.

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