What about foam rollers, and their effect on Myofascial tissue?

By Michael Tegerdine

What is fascia?

Fascia is a connective tissue surrounds and binds many structures in the body, including organs, nerves and muscle tissues. Myofascial; fascia surrounding muscle tissue is more commonly known because of the rise in gyms / physio clinic paraphernalia used to treat the problems associated with it. This includes problems such as overuse, poor tissue health or injury (4).

Self myofascial release tools for enhanced recovery and exercise performance such as foam rollers, massage sticks, and trigger point balls, have increased in popularity in recent years.

Given the vast array of tools and techniques used to apply them, this article will touch the reasoning behind their use, how they work, and tips outlined to improve your effectiveness of use to aid you in your road to recovery.

Interestingly, the actual applied use / effectiveness of such myofascial tools is still somewhat unclear.  Although, it is commonly seen to be less likely to be actually releasing myofascial tissue, it is still somewhat difficult to argue the apparent benefits of using such tools, in particular foam rollers.

A recent study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (6) analysed the current state of research and conclude that self myofascial release:

  • Increases mobility and joint range of motion
  • Reduces post-workout soreness and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)
  • Allows for greater workout performance in future workouts
  • May lead to improved vascular function and parasympathetic nervous system function

Over all self-myofascial release with a foam roller has been shown to help you feel and move well.

Consider this?

Each type of self myofascial release tool should be used for different needs, body parts, and at intensities.  Building your own selection of tools is probably going to be the most effective.  Trying to use just a foam roller on everything is not practical; however it is a starting place. Also it should be kept in mind that a tolerance to the specific self myofascial release tools can occur over time and you may want to upgrade to more advanced foam rollers, trigger point balls, and massage sticks as time goes on.

So how does it work:

What don’t foam rollers do?

Neither break down adhesions nor do they facilitate the glide mechanism of muscle tension.

Research demonstrates that it can take thousands of kilograms of pressure to change the properties of a facial tissue; therefore it is unlikely you’re feeling tissue length tension changes during (2)

However we quite often see a decrease in stiffness, pain, and increase range of motion when using a foam roller.

So what do foam rollers do?

It is likely that there are shifts from sympathetic nervous systems e.g. fight flight (hold on to muscle tension) to a parasympathetic relaxed / calming effect which can equal short term changes in soft tissue and increase range of motion.

Furthermore, it is often quite painful the use of a foam roller, and this can create noxious novel stimulus causing discomfort, however this alters perception and therefore increases ones perception of pain and therefore increases pain threshold to then be able to increase range of movement.

Increased tolerance to deal with the increases in range of movement in a joint and the feeling of pain with surrounding soft tissues can be accompanied with that process.

In conclusion using a foam roller for myofascial release is likely to provide standard neuro physiological responses which are temporary soft tissues changes in nature and if used in isolation e.g. by not stretching or strengthening  within those new ranges it like that the results to these soft tissue will be lost.

What about foam rollers post training to decrease soreness?

If you use a foam roller on already damaged connective tissue then with the decreased perception of soreness it is very practical to do more training.

Although stretching is commonly used prior to training or exercise there is controversy regarding its effects on performance (1; 7; 5)

For example stretching pre-training 3 x 30-45 seconds has been shown to decreases muscle power (3).

How to use a foam roller for effective long term soft tissue changes to improve joint mobility?

  • Use a foam roller which is uncomfortable not painful because if you’re very tense this will increase your sympathetic response and therefore decreased your range of motion.
  • Duration’s of 1-3 mins per group no longer
  • Perpendicular sustained vs moveable
  • Consider moderating cadence
  • Fascial release is only short term so if you go head to toe you will lose the effects
  • Do one area 5 mins
  • Then stretch looking for active range of movement
  • Use it not in isolation – strengthening muscle within new joint ranges

WC: 762


  1. Evetovich, T., et al. 2003. Effect of static stretching of the biceps brachii on torque, electromyography, and mechanomyography during concentric isokinetic muscle actions. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17 (3), 484–88.
  2. Gratz C.M. 1931. Tensile strength and elasticity tests on human fascia lata. Journal of Bone Joint Surgery in America .;13(2):334-340.Cited in. https://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/foam-rolling-self-myofascial-release/online: date 05/03/18 16:34.
  3. Nelson, et al. 1998. Acute muscle stretching inhibits maximal strength performance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 69 411–15.
  4. LeMoon, K. 2008. Terminology used in fascia research. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies  12(3), 204-212 [Citation] http://sumo.ly/k4aX via @SandCResearch
  5. Marek, S., et al. 2005. Acute effects of static and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on muscle strength and power output. Journal of Athletic Training, 40 (2), 94–103.
  6. Scott, et al. 2015. The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: A systematic review. International  Journal of Sports Physical Therapy Nov; 10(6): 827–838.
  7. Shrier, et al, 2004. Does stretching improve performance: A systematic and critical review of the literature. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 14 (5), 267–73.
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