Foam Rolling

Several years ago foam rolling was the “in” thing and everyone used and praised it. Self “mobility” work has since evolved away from foam rolling — even to the point of poopooing it — but it can still serve a purpose.

This is from the new “Foam Rolling Porno” DVD set.

Most Tommy Tough Guys will say, “Ptsh, foam rolling is too light, I just use a a PEEH-VEH-CEE.” An actual foam roller won’t correct any real soft tissue problem, but that’s not its effective purpose. Foam rolling is best used prior to activity or training to loosen up the soft tissue (which can include fascia, muscles, or tendons) to be more pliable and allow a comprehensive range of motion (ROM). Think of it as a part of warming up instead of soft tissue treatment.

Trainees lament that a large portion of their day is spent sitting down. And if they’re standing up or doing manual labor, they’re still probably not going through a full ROM and spend time in problematic positions (bending over, crouched down, on knees, etc.). Either way, loosening up the body with a foam roller will prep those structures for activity, whether  applying force maximally or ballistically. This light soft tissue work will augment any movement prep like dynamic stretching or any “mob” that includes positional stretching. Heavy, invasive massages prior to training can have a deleterious effect on performance, yet light massages can make the structures more pliable, increase blood flow to the area, and even reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) quicker.

At worst you’re increasing your warm-up by five to ten minutes. At best you’re enhancing that warm-up, improving recovery, and prepping your structures to train better.

One reason that a PVC may not be as useful in the context of a warm-up is because it’s more invasive and painful. Tommy Tough Guy Mentality says, “I can take it. BRING ON THE PAIN.” Just because you can deal with pain doesn’t mean you’re a) cool or b) doing anything useful. In actuality it’s not easy to undergo pain and completely relax a muscle. The point is to get some light massage through the muscle belly tissue, not to tense up and contract the muscle because it’s experiencing pain and try to massage a taught muscle. By using foam, you can reach deep into the tissue without tensing up or disrupting the cellular environment too much.

When I googled “sexy foam rolling” to see what would come up, I found this picture of my jacked friend, Mark. Care to explain, Mark?

This isn’t to say that PVC is worthless, but it’s most likely inferior for warm-up purposes for most people. Note that over time your tissues will adapt to the foam roller and you’ll need a harder surface to receive the same effect. That means if you’ve been foam rolling daily for a couple of years, then no, this won’t apply to you. Foam rollers can cost 15 to $20 and PVC can cost a few dollars. I think they both serve a purpose, especially when you don’t have a servant to give you a rub down prior to training (yeah c’mon). In case you’ve haven’t gotten on the internet since 2005, here’s a video of a foam rolling protocol, specifically what I do before training. I aim to loosen tension on my back, hips, and knees. I could probably accomplish the same with a PVC, but I know it’d cause some “tensing up” in my thighs or around my knees. The PVC also crunches on the spinous processes of my vertebral segments when rolling certain positions on my back. If all you need is a light massage, and you have access to a foam roller, then it’s a better tool.

50 thoughts on “Foam Rolling

    • If you’ve been using a PVC, you are probably fine unless you find yourself wincing. I personally prefer a foam roller prior to activity for the reasons above.

      • I’ve noticed a continuem over the past few years. It really depends on how jacked up you are and how often you foam roll. If you aren’t jacked up and you do it every time you train, PVC is fine, especially if you have big muscles or a fat pad.

        On the other hand if your rolling is infrequent, you are skiny/bony, or you have a bunch of jacked up stuff a foam roller is better.

        P.S.- Justin “jacked up” is actually a technical term for soft tissue/joint dysfunction in the Osteopathic community. Medical school is hilarious sometimes.

        • I prefer rolling on foam prior to training and made a few arguments as to why this would be the case. Next time I train, I’ll use the PVC and see if there is a significant difference.

  1. So is that really the only beneficial time to foam roll, before exercise to warm up? Or does it have any use after exercise or on off days for recovery or anything else?

    • In this context, it’s best as the very start of the warm-up.

      You can do it on an off day. Sometimes I do if I’m particularly sore/crusty, and I’ll do it before mobility work.

  2. I’ve only seen foam rolling kick off big time this last year. Maybe things take a while to reach these shores though. I consider myself quite advanced in using a lacrosse ball (quite hard to get them here) lol.

    I always foam roll to warm up. It works quite well, better than rowing I’ve found because it can help increase ROM as well as act as a general warm up.

    Anyone tried using a car polisher? Seen it being used a few weeks ago, used it myself and I have mixed thoughts on it.

    • RE: car polisher
      I’ll probably get one because it provides something that self massage cannot.

      RE: warm-up
      Good point about foam rolling. I sometimes get a little sweaty from doing it since the body is in awkward positions (usually planking) and moving around. So yeah, I do get a literal warm-up when foam rolling.

  3. I found a large (internal) diameter pool tube, cut a piece off and inserted a 3ft length of 3in PVC and have been using that as my foam roller. Purty cheap compromise.

    • I’ve been to coat my PVC with light mesh yoga matting (or whatever) so that it grips the floor and my skin better. Sometimes it slips out from under me.

      • This is what I have done with my PVC pipe w/ end caps. It does a good job of getting deep and takes some of the edge off compared to the bare PVC pipe. Still have enough yoga mat to do sun salutes + most standing poses.

  4. not that i’m a fatty, but my foam roller fucking flattened. probably because i bought it at Sports Authority in the fucking Yoga section.

    so anyway i use PVC now. DEAL WITH IT.

  5. I’ve wondered about the idea of getting one of the heavier Indian clubs and using it as a massage tool, so instead of lying on the roller you could be sitting with your leg propped up using the weight of the club to provide the pressure. Do you think this might work? Might be a bit limited in the areas you could get to, but thought it could be useful for the legs.

    • Well, the foam roller will be inferior for this, but “trigger points” almost always have a very specific manipulation that a PVC won’t really be able to hit properly. That’s where theracanes, sticks, or lacrosse balls would do better. But again, this is a different scenario than the above post.

  6. I agree with the advice to use the foam roller over PVC if you’re not able to relax. You won’t get the full effect of tissue changes if you can’t stay relaxed. Start with a white foam and eventually move to black then to PVC if you need to. I’ve been rolling for a few years now, and it used to be very painful with just a black roll, but now I find I need a PVC to really get in and work the kinks out.

    As for my sexy foam rolling Justin, I prefer to be sexy at all times, particularly in my warm-ups before an intense session of biceps curls, like in the picture above. I suppose then that it’s only natural you’d see a photo of me on Google with that tagline!

  7. Good stuff Justin. Quick MOB and warmup question: My left ankle and hip have less ROM than my right due to old injuries. It’s not bad but noticeable. I do lots of MOB work on both sides of my body and all of my ROM has increased but the gap between sides still exists. Should I be doing more on the left or less on the right so that they catch up with each other? Thanks – I read the site every day and have for years but this is my first comment.

    • Thanks for reading.

      If I were you, or training you, I’d work on the bad side to improve the assymetry. Depending on what it is, you may not fully be able to, but you most likely can, so focus on it and see what happens. Note that building musculature may be necessary instead of just merely “mobbing” it.

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  9. I got a Rumble Roller, black firmer, which is great. It’s feels like a hybrid between a firm foam roller, and PVC. The PVC always feels too punishing to me. The GRID rollers, PVC with a thin foam coating, are pretty good too.

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