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Strength and Conditioning Discussion – Are Foam Rollers Crap?

Random Ramblings from Jedd

Please read this post and put in your thoughts / comments in the comment box below…


Hello Diesels.

As I have posted before, I am a huge baseball (and especially New York Yankees) fan. I watch them every chance I get. I stay up to date on the Yankees’ rumor mill, trades, signings…all of it in-season and out.

However, putting all that drama aside, I also like to study what they do for strength and conditioning, and what other industry leaders are saying about strength and conditioning for baseball. I have a handful of baseball players that come to train every so often, and I like applying the stuff I learn to the training I do with them, plus I try to apply it to my own training. Although I will probably never play baseball again, I do indeed suit up for Slow Pitch softball during the summer and enjoy playing to the best of my ability because it is fun as hell and it is a good break from the “hardcore” training I am normally doing in the gym.

This season, to my enjoyment, it seems the Yankees have actually put a lot more information out there as far as what their players are doing.

For instance, in a recent episode of Yankees Magazine, they showed a Strength and Conditioning session between first basemen, Mark Texeira and strength coach, Dana Cavalea.

For the most part, it talked about how they have incorporated the use of the foam roller into Mark’s training (I am not sure if all the players use them). Cavalea spoke about the foam roller’s ability to improve tissue quality while Texeira spoke about how he would utilize foam rollers as a part of a warm-up prior to strength training.

Improving Tissue Quality

The idea is that by rolling over the foam roller, the pressure will do a couple of things. First off, the localized pressure will “break up” adhesions and improve the quality of the muscle tissue and allow it to perform better. Going further, these adhesions, similar to scar tissue within the muscle, can reduce flexibility and mobility, so by eliminating these flaws in the tissue, you should be able to perform better in lifting and sports.

Here’s a little bit about foam rollers in my experience.

Smitty made me a ghetto foam roller in like 1999. From then until 2008, I used it solely to crack my back every once in a while. It worked great for that purpose, but I had no idea what else I was supposed to with it until like 2007 or 2008 (can’t quite remember which).

In 2007 or 2008, whenever I trained with Smitty and the other guys in the Diesel Squad, I would roll on the foam roller they had. In 2008, they eventually upgraded to a new foam roller which was black and scary looking and they let me take the white foam roller to my place to train with. That was right around when I built my home gym here in the garage. Every so often, I would roll on it prior to a workout, but mainly I only used it to adjust my back prior to workouts.

In 2009, I started to come to the conclusion that my neglect for my joints and my flexibility was holding me back in my strength training. I had gotten so tight in the hamstrings that I think I may have torn one playing softball that year. A lot of this was compounded by the fact that I have worked at a desk since 2001. My thighs and hips have been locked up for several years and this has gradually worked up my back into my thoracic region as well. Around this time is when I started to use foam rollers more frequently.

I started using foam rollers of some sort in almost every workout session in 2009. I started out still using the old beaten up white foam roller. However, that thing was well beyond its time and it literally was now shaped like a flattened U. This was a softer grade foam roller that got used heavily for years by mostly lighter dudes and then I put it through the ringer with my 260-lb ass, so by this time it was just plain wasted.

That was when I abandoned the foam roller made of foam and went with a cardboard core from my old place of work. It was a similar length as a form roller or maybe longer (I have since cut in half so I have one upstairs and one downstairs), but it is smaller in diameter and of course much much harder.

So, because the cardboard pipe is a bit smaller in diameter, it could focus into the dense adhesions more directly and let me tell you – the sensation I would get was nearly a 10 on the 1-to-10 pain scale. Some of this dramatic sensation I wasn’t even feeling on the foam roller. The white foam roller had essentially become useless in my opinion – I could barely crack my back with it because it was beaten up so badly. Jumping onto the hard pipe was a WAKE-UP CALL as to my tissue quality.

To this day, I still use the cardboard core roller every single workout. I start with my thoracic spine, then move on to the lats and then the lumbar area. From there, I move to the hips, working around the head of the femur, the glutes, piriformis, IT band, hamstrings, quads, etc.

I must say that when I go down to the gym, I sometimes feel like ABSOLUTE TRASH, especially in my hips and my back.

After I get off the cardboard core, the feeling in my hips improves DRAMATICALLY.

However, here is my issue

I see very little proof that my flexibility, mobility, range of motion has improved “chronically.” In other words, while I feel like 900,000 bucks (not quite a million bucks) after hitting the roller and prior to my workout, the next day, I feel locked up just like any other time. So I am not entirely sold on the idea that the foam roller will change your life.

Yes, my injuries have been reduced DRAMATICALLY since employing them religiously – YES SIR. But as far as how I feel throughout the day, there has been very little change.

Now onto the other side of the foam roller equation…

Foam Roller as a Warm-up

I think the foam roller has been a great addition to my workout as a part of my warm-up. Part of being strong is feeling good, and I must say that I feel much better after foam rolling and perform better in my workouts after I hit the foam/pipe roller. I even do this if I am just hitting an extra session of Grip Training – it makes me feel that damn good.

I think there are a couple reasons why the cardboard roller works for me as a warm-up device

First off, you have the tissue lengthening and circulation promotion properties of the foam roller. Seeing how I am pretty much sitting on my ass all day, getting down on the foam roller and moving around a bit is a welcome feeling. I can feel the blood moving into the areas and I start to feel less like Frankenstein or the Tin Man once I do it.

Secondly, many of the positions that I get into with the roller are similar to the Plank. The Plank is a great movement for warming up and strengthening the core. I think we all know this and have used it from time to time. I’ve noticed that as I roll on the roller, if I make sure to keep my feet off the floor and support myself ONLY with my hands or on my elbows, my core gets a light stimulation, much like in a Plank position.

Incidentally, my warm-up does not include ONLY foam rolling. I also do quite a bit more general warm-up moving patterns prior to each training session using a mixture of Scott Sonnon-influenced Flow and stuff from Smitty’s Amped Warm-up Protocols. But even if I don’t do that stuff, I feel much more mobile and better prepared for the workout once I roll for 5 to 7 minutes.

So, the point I am trying to make here is simply that I have seen lots of short-term benefit from using rollers, especially the cardboard one.

Foam rolling is somewhat of a controversial topic. Some people swear on them uphill and down. Unfortunately, some of these people also throw around fitness buzz words like “Core” left and right, and sometimes when you hear fitness professionals like that talk about something and they are buzz word-aholics, you can shut them out of your mind right away.

Foam rollers also seem to be completely abhorred by the Gym Movement community. For instance, I have read Mike T. Nelson shoot these things down on multiple occasions. He even submitted an article to our site several years ago called “Get Off the Foam Roller.” One thing he pointed to in that article was that they caused pain, and so he did not believe in their use (there were other reasons given, that is just one of them…)

So I guess I am stuck in the middle between the dude that absolutely loves these things and thinks they can cure everything from flexibility/mobility issues, to cancer, and the dude that hates them because they cause pain and anything that causes pain is bad.

As far as the longer lasting benefits of foam rolling, I can’t say I have seen that many. But maybe I am doing it wrong?

What I am asking is this. If YOU have tried foam rolling and given it an honest try, post here and tell me what you think. What benefits have you found? What limitations have you seen? How often do you use foam rollers?

Just leave a comment below. I appreciate you sharing your experience. Thanks ahead of time!

All the best in your training, Diesels!

Jedd

P.S. I just got word from Eric Cressey that he is taking $50 off his Show and Go Training System because he is celebrating his tenth anniversary of turning 21! Cressey is a strength training genius, so you should really consider this deal. This program is usually $127 and for a short time it is just $77 = > “>Cressey’s Show and Go Training

As a BONUS, I will offer up a 30-minute phone consultation to anyone who picks this up through
my link above. I believe in Cressey’s stuff so much, I really want you to benefit as well. Just forward me your receipt and we will schedule it!


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15 Responses to “Strength and Conditioning Discussion – Are Foam Rollers Crap?”

  1. Richard Manchur Says:

    Jedd,

    I am totally with you on being in the middle as to how legit foam rolling is. I have a couple of PT friends that say they are bunk, but when it comes to the study of n=1 and the 1 is me, I am a huge fan of foam rolling! I have been using foam rolling and IntuFlow as a warm-up for several years with great results.

    I take it a step further and each night before going to sleep I do some foam rolling, plus I use a couple of lacrosse balls to do target work, and combine that with some yoga poses to compensate for the days activity (or inactivity). The days I don’t use the roller I get worse DOMS, so it is definitely staying in my toolbox!

    I say keep rolling!

  2. Jerry Tennant Says:

    I feel the same way Jedd. I don’t think they are the “cure all” end of discussion training tools that some make them out to be. I have actually never seen them used when I was training 5 days a week in my early teenage years, all the way up until I was 25. My sister was a message therapist so whenever I lifted on heavy days, I would have her work on my back to relieve some of the pain.

    It wasn’t until I was 27 or 28 yr old that I discovered what trigger points were and how a simple tool like a foam roller can help. I think they do help and since using them I feel alot better esp. in my upper back where I suffer the most. I started off with hard cardboard and then made my own roller out of PVC pipe and insulation. It does take awhile to get used to it being the diameter is only 2″ but it does get some of the trigger points. People should realize too that you should lay off a bit if it causing intense pain. The goal is to relax the muscle and not aggravate it causing it to seize up. I go over my back slowly with no shirt on and when I feel the knot, I apply moderate downpressure. Tricky spots I use a tennis ball.

    Honestly, I used to HATE doing anything preworkout that would take 10-15 min. I was one of those guys that would hit the treadmill for 5 min. and then do a warmup set and then immediately go hard. My skinny 140 pound ass would lift for 2- 2 1/2 hours and I was addicted to feeling sore. But I definitely see the need now to have therapeutic modalities.

    Whether it’s all psychological or not is all up to endless debates and proven clinical research. Frankly, who gives a crap:) Anything that gives you a good feeling that only takes a few minutes and works out the kinks is good in my book. Plus, it’s cheap unlike the cost of a massage! It’s like taking an Epsom salt bath or contrast shower.
    It helps but is no cure all or immediately heals injuries type of feeling. I
    find it mostly good for trigger points.

    I agree with you 100% on this Jedd.

    Stay strong bro,
    Jerry Tennant

  3. Jedd Johnson Says:

    Richard,
    Thanks for weighing in. Real good point about doing it before night. I do roll occasionally at night time, but I’d be lying if I said I did it every night. Thanks again.
    Jedd

  4. Jedd Johnson Says:

    Jerry,

    Thanks for the detailed response, my man. Glad it is something giving you results.

    Jedd

  5. Todd Says:

    Hey Jedd, I guess I’m with you, Richard & Jerry but maybe a little more enthusiastic…maybe. I started using this when I got AMD, and within a year wore out my first roller and got a better one. My wife and I work out together, and we use the roller before every workout…no matter how big a hurry we’re in. It HURTS when you roll and have DOMS, but to me, it seems the roller helps alleviate that soreness for the upcoming workout. Plus, I do feel like the extra blood flow generated helps in the ‘warm-up’ part of the work out and makes it easier to get into any activation exercises.
    I don’t use it for recovery, but for warm-up, it’s a staple now. Worse case scenario (I hope) would be that we’re wasting 5-10 minutes before each workout.
    Thanks for the good stuff on your site,
    Todd

  6. Jerry Shreck Says:

    Jedd,

    I have a foam roller and I like using it but I don’t use it for any warm-up prior to workouts. I typically use it more for a recovery tool and when I use it-it is usually in the evenings to loosen up and get the knots out. I do like the foam roller, but I honestly don’t use one dailly.

  7. derek Says:

    i just bought a foam roller 3 months ago. i’ve heard great things about them, and bad things too. i was getting tighter with some new aches and pains as i get older, so i deciced to try one. i use it quick after my dynamic warmups, about an hour after my training, and as needed if im feeling like crap. i dont feel its helped any with actual flexability, but i do feel better after using it(which is worthwhile itself) also it seemed to help my lifts. wether its mental or whatever there is something to it that i cant quite put my finger on that makes me keep doing it.

  8. Aaron GIbes Says:

    I too have debated the value of foam rolling. I have found a few things are true.

    1. The foam roller does not produce long term results.

    – The more time I spend foam rolling, the better I feel, but that lasts a short period of time (2-3 days, maybe).

    2. Foam roller work pre-workout can be beneficial, but it depends on your definition of “pre”

    – I’ve seen the most success with strength training in persons who foam roll anywhere from 3 to 12 hours before a training session. This means if I’m training at 4, I’m foam rolling at lunch; If I’m training in the morning, I’m foam rolling the night before.

    3. Foam rolling/recovery work is more beneficial as training intensity increases and volume decreases

    – A fancy way of saying I’m usually hitting the foam roller harder before a competition, when training consists of hard, fast, and heavy event training, and less accessory work. This ia probably also a function of the fact that I have more time to fit recovery into training when training volumes are lower.

    4. Foam rolling has never seemed to help with DOMS.

    – just never noticed this to help.

    If all else fails, the foam roller is always good for a few do-it-yourself spinal mobilizations!!

  9. Gary Leahy Says:

    I use a foam roller almost every day. I made one out of 4″ PVC drain pipe, carpet padding & duct tape .. 18″ long .. it flexes a little so for a 260 lb guy, schedule 40 PVC would be the way to go.. I also find a lacrosse ball useful..

  10. Jason Steeves Says:

    I’ll generally just use it to help pop my back or work my IT bands and such if they’re feeling a bit stiff. I tried them a few times before squats and pulls and for me I get more out of actually warming up with the movement to get my flexibility back up again, especially with squatting.

  11. Niel Says:

    I agree with Coach Shreck. I’ve never foam rolled prior to a workout. Aggressively rolling muscles and taking out the tension of muscles I’ll be using doesn’t make sense.

    My opinion on them as of late is that they’re useful, but over-hyped. For whatever, fitness introduces all these quirky items that become the new craze. The trainers who have their clients squatting on a BOSU ball are similar to those who use nothing but the TRX. Everything has a place and time, but don’t utilize it more than necessary.

    For myself, I only foam roll areas which have been worked intensely and are susceptible to severe soreness and/or knotting up.

  12. Mike Says:

    Jedd,
    I am completely with you I just started foam rolling last thursday and every night since i’ve slept like a baby. A little pain here and there goes a long way with them but if you muscle through it the benefits out weigh it!

  13. Todd Says:

    I love foam rollers (if you can find a good one). After my cool-down and stretching, a few minutes on the roller feels SO good.

  14. Cody Semer Says:

    Jedd,

    I have to use a 4″ chunk of schedule 40 PVC to feel anything in my lower body and back when it comes to rolling. I weigh around 245 and the foam rollers, even the supposedly dense ones, were way too soft. Initially they worked, but I built up a tolerance quick.

    I can see immediate results when I roll my IT band or my adductors. During squats I have had my adductors tighten really bad, rolled them out, and it loosened them up.

    When it comes to long term benefits, it is tough to gauge because of the intensity of the workouts. The more intense the work, the more damage. When you repeat this schedule as often as we do, there really is never time for full prolonged recovery (maybe during a deload week).

    I will say that through late 2008 up to May 2010 my back went out 4 times. Since incorporating foam rollers, lacrosse balls, bands to stretch and other basic mobility drills, I have had an entire year without back issues. Now keep in mind it wasn’t just foam rolling, but a combination of those things.

  15. jt Says:

    I’ve used the foam roller for the past month to help get over a low back/hip injury. What I find most useful about it is hitting trigger points and being more in touch with what is going on with my body. In the past nearly every injury I’ve ever had came as a bit of a surprise. Meaning that I had no idea anything was wrong in the area and then just ‘bam’ injured. I think this was due, in part to being numb to the trigger points, tightness and other things going on in the area. Foam rolling, like getting a good massage, helps me to figure out what is going and and rebalance if needed.

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