Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How Hard Should My Foam Roller Be?

Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) has become popular amongst many fitness enthusiasts and fitness trainers as a great tool to help improve tissue quality and increase muscle movement at a very low cost. The foam roller is becoming a footnote in every “good” exercise program and people are reaping its results everyday.

Here are just some of the benefits of Self-Myofascial Release:

  • Correct muscle imbalances
  • Improve Joint ROM
  • Alleviate muscle soreness
  • Improve neuromuscular efficiency
  • Relieve joint stress
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the Cumulative Injury Cycle is caused by tissue overload, fatigue, and faulty movement patterns born of inefficient components of the kinetic chain lead by compensation or injury. Faulty movement patterns are initiated by compensations caused by restricted joint motions, muscle tightness, tissue adhesions, or altered CNS output. These imbalances or compensations are usually caused by poor lifting habits, poor movement progressions, poor flexibility, and poor posture. SMR can help improve muscular length-tension relationships by stimulating the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) past a threshold and actually inhibits tension and overactivity of the muscle spindle that causes tightness. 
 So if daily SMR is helpful, more must be better, right? Wrong. I have heard requests for “harder” foam rollers—and even for devices not designed for SMR. PVC piping is making its way into the world of SMR and some even requested the use of a baseball bat to mimic the action of a foam roller. Some even use medicine balls, tennis balls, and softballs to target their “hot spots”. However, we are equating more pain (or the pursuit of more pain) with “more” improvement. I have always said there is a difference between wanting a “harder” foam roller and wanted a “better quality” foam roller.

Is more better? I think we know the answer to that. In the case of SMR, pain/discomfort is evidence of the myotatic stretch reflex, which reflexively shortens muscle tissue, alters length-tension relationship, and creates pain. An example of the myotatic stretch reflex occurs when you fall sleep in an upright position and when the head falls forward or to the side, the neck muscles immediately create the stretch reflex. This is a good thing--however, not good for this fellow:

We know pain when we get on a foam roller for the first few times, especially if we have dysfunctions. Conversely, too much foam rolling—excessively performing SMR on muscles that elicit no pain or discomfort—OR—performing SMR with hard objects like PVC piping can cause bruising and more advanced soft-tissue trauma may occur, leading to further restriction, initiation of the inflammatory process, decreased range of motion, pain, and decreased performance.

In an effort to improve performance, we may very well be inhibiting it through constant “abuse” of hard-surfaced SMR tools. Don’t get me wrong, some individuals may need hard SMR tools like PVC piping—oversized athletes and “big” people in general, but the majority of us should be able to get by with a “quality” foam roller. Don’t equate “quality” with “harder” in a foam roller—a higher quality foam roller has better density and lasts longer
So How Do You Know if You Need a Hard Roller?

In one word: pain. If it doesn’t hurt, then you don’t need it anymore. Once you have achieved autogenic inhibition of the agonist muscle, its own receptors reduce the soft-tissue tension, decrease pain, and improve function. Pain is your indicator that you need SMR. If you are attempting to dig harder or rolling on a broom wrapped with barbed wire, or have someone sit on you while you are on the roller-- you are asking for tissue damage (particularly receptor and CNS function).

Is More Foam Rolling Better?

Not exactly. Excessive foam rolling (on muscles that don’t need it) becomes a waste of time and starts to work against you. Excessive use of SMR on hard-surfaces begins to “desensitize” the CNS. Constant stimulation of the Golgi Tendon Organ creates adaptability to the myotatic stretch reflex and re-wires the system to “accept” dysfunction. Using hard-surfaced rollers exacerbates this by continuously causing tissue damage, autogenic inhibition, tissue damage, autogenic inhibition, and so on.

This is not to say that a decrease or absence of pain signifies optimal function. We may still exhibit joint motion restrictions or imbalances without pain or discomfort.

The point of this information is to drive home the fact that the very thing (pain) we try to extract when performing SMR, may be the very thing we need to back off of. It’s sort of like the pubescent pimple that pops up on your nose before a big date. You want to pop it and relentlessly try to squeeze the pus out. But you know damn well that zit is not ripe and ready to go. But what do you do? You keep squeezing and fiddling, until the tiny red mark is now a huge red throbbing balloon of blood, pus, and fluid that simply needed time to manifest in order to work with you.


Clark MA: Integrated Training for the New Millennium. NASM, Thousand Oaks. 2000

Russell, A, Wallace, T: Self Myofascial Release Techniques, NASM, Thousand Oaks. 2005

1 comment:

  1. John,

    Great post.

    I am a huge fan of foam rolling for muscle imbalances and you are so right, you can do too much of it.

    Rick Kaselj of



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