For starters, does foam rolling actually work? What the science says.
Research on foam rolling is fairly minimal, as an intervention protocol it is difficult to regulate. How could you ensure each individual undertaking the foam rolling is actually rolling the exact same spot as everyone else, applying the same amount of pressure as everyone else, and applying that pressure for exactly the same amount of time as everyone else? Exactly, you couldn't. Despite that a couple of studies have been published looking at the effects of foam rolling on flexibility.
Foam rolling has shown to improve flexibility acutely in a number of papers (Macdonald, 2013; Button, 2014; Halperin, 2014; Jay, 2014: Grieve, 2015), in a variety of situations, suggesting that foam rolling does have the capacity to improve passive range of motion in the short term. Interestingly, one of these studies (Jay, 2014) showed increased range of motion only lasted ~10 minutes, which means you might have to use the new found ROM or you will lose it pretty quickly.
It has also shown to improve measures of ROM chronically (Ebrahim, 2013; Mohr, 2013), with as little as two weeks of consistent foam rolling required to improve chronic flexibility.
As for the practical implications of this, we could foam roll tight, restricted tissue and expect to see immediate improvements in ROM, and if which we continue to perform consistently over time, chronic improvements in ROM.
Building on this, if we incorporate foam rolling into our warmup, and then begin to move in a way that uses this ‘new found’ ROM, we create a need to maintain these seen improvements. This is more likely to create long term changes in ROM.
An example of this would be stiff adductors limiting squat depth. By rolling our adductors we would see an increase in ROM and therefore an increase in squat depth. By proceeding to train, using this new found depth, we would begin to build stability and strength at the ‘new’ end ROM, creating a demand to maintain it. By now improving our capacity to squat deeply whilst maintaining stability through training, we become more comfortable in this position, and are able to achieve it more comfortably over time, resulting in a reduction of chronic stiffness. If we continue to foam roll consistently during this period, we are likely to further contribute to improving ROM and reduce tissue stiffness, making more permanent changes.
Anecdotally, whilst the improvements in ROM are apparent and beneficial, it is the way that people tend to feel immediately after foam rolling stiff and adhesed tissue that I think has significant benefit. Releasing restricted tissue feels good, and performing movement unrestricted feels really good. This sense of improved and unrestricted movement starts the session on a positive, and makes movement in general more enjoyable. Don’t discount the way someone feels when performing exercise, if they feel like they are moving well and enjoy it, it can go a long way to improving adherence and performance in the gym.
Ebrahim, A. W., & Elghany, A. W. A. (2013). The effect of foam roller exercise and Nanoparticle in speeding of healing of sport injuries. Journal of American Science, 6, 9.
Halperin, I., Aboodarda, S. J., Button, D. C., Andersen, L. L., & Behm, D. G. (2014). Roller massager improves range of motion of plantar flexor muscles without subsequent decreases in force parameters. International journal of sports physical therapy, 9(1), 92.
Jay, K., Sundstrup, E., Søndergaard, S. D., Behm, D., Brandt, M., Særvoll, C. A., & Andersen, L. L. (2014). Specific and cross over effects of massage for muscle soreness: randomized controlled trial. International journal of sports physical therapy, 9(1), 82-91.
MacDonald, G. Z., Button, D. C., Drinkwater, E. J., & Behm, D. G. (2014). Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(1), 131-142.
Mohr, A.R., Long, B.C., & Goad, C.L. (2014) Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation
Grieve, R., Gooodwin, F., Alfaki, M., Bourton, A. J., Jeffries, C., & Scott, H. (2014). The immediate effect of bilateral self myofascial release on the plantar surface of the feet on hamstring and lumbar spine flexibility: A pilot randomised controlled trial. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.
Button, D. C., Bradbury-Squired, D., Noftall, J., Sullivan, K., Behm, D. G., & Power, K. (2014). Roller-Massager Application to the Quadriceps and Knee-Joint Range of Motion and Neuromuscular Efficiency During a Lunge. Journal of athletic training.