About 40 years ago a special running shoe was designed for bodybuilders to improve their calf development. Endorsed by pro bodybuilder Boyer Coe, the shoe’s elevated forefoot was designed to produce a greater training effect by forcing a greater stretch upon the calves. The shoes didn’t sell well until an article in Sports Illustrated suggested the shoes could increase an athlete’s vertical jump. Then the product practically jumped off the shelves – too bad future research showed that the shoes had no effect on vertical jump and in fact put the wearer at a higher risk of injury. The point is that just because a product is popular and sells well doesn’t necessarily mean it fulfills all the claims of its manufacturers and distributors. Another example: foam rollers.
Foam rollers come in various lengths, diameters and densities – the most popular version is white and measures 6 by 36 inches; the black version is denser than the white and will hold its shape much longer. For more sensitive areas, such as the IT band, a black version may prove too uncomfortable. As an alternative, a medicine ball can be used for many exercises in place of a foam roller.
One of the claims of foam roller distributors is that it creates myofasical release. Facia is an anatomical sheath that compartmentalizes tissues, such as muscles, and also links together all the bones, muscles, nerves, blood vessels and organs of the body. It follows that if the fascia is tight, or injured, then this could impair movement and the function of the muscles. Foam rollers are thought to create a reaction from the Golgi tendon organ, causing the muscle spindles to relax; by applying pressure to the fascia, the claim is that the tissue can be elongated. But what does the research say?
Among the claimed benefits of foam rolling are increased flexibility and improvement of athletic performance. Let’s break this down into two specific areas: hamstring flexibility and vertical jump – I chose these two athletic qualities because research exists on how foam roller training can affect them.
One study on the effects of foam rollers on hamstring flexibility was funded by the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and published in 2006. It involved 23 college-age men and women with less than optimal hamstring flexibility. The treatment group used the roller three times a week, rolling the hamstring from the ischial tuberosity to the posterior knee. They did 3 reps, each one minute long, with one minute of rest between reps. Here is what the researchers concluded: “This study revealed no significant difference in the interaction between the treatment and control group’s pre- and post-measurements. The results of this study suggest foam rollers are an ineffective technique for increasing hamstring flexibility over an eight-week time period.”
How about the vertical jump, a basic test of overall power? In a study for a master’s thesis presented in 2011 to Sacred Heart University, nine college-age males with at least one year of experience in performing plyometric training were recruited to see if a foam roller warm-up was superior to a dynamic warm-up in three types of jumps. The dynamic warm-up group was the clear winner, and the author concluded that foam roller warm-ups “…are not recommended prior to physical activity requiring increased neurological activation….” I should also note that research has shown that static stretching also has a negative effect on vertical jump performance.
Does this mean that foam rollers are a waste of time? Certainly not. Let’s look at one exercise using the foam roller that is extremely valuable for increasing performance in the gym and also improving posture -- especially for those who have developed a "hunchback" from spending too much time in front of a computer.
I like lying on a foam roller lengthwise prior to a workout (see accompanying video) to open up the invertebral spaces and thereby enhance nerve conduction – this effect can result in a 2-3 percent increase in the loads you can use in training for many exercises. For this reason alone, foam rollers should be a part of every gym serious about producing optimal results.
I’ve found that foam rolling can be a valuable training tool, but just as with the calf shoes, you need to look beyond the commercial hype.
There are 3 main reasons why I use the PB Elite Molded Foam Rollers instead all other foam rollers on the market:
1. The PB Elite Molded Foam Rollers last three times longer than traditional foam rollers.
2. Unlike traditional celled foam rollers that break down and flatten out, these molded rollers do not have cells, and therefore will last much longer.
3. Each PB Elite Molded Foam Roller has a 2 year warranty.