Foam Rolling: What is it? What’s the Evidence? How to apply it!

Foam Rolling

What is it?

Self-myofascial release is a name given to the use of equipment or tools to perform self-massage and stretching with the aim of increasing joint range of motion and improving muscle recovery and performance. One of the most commonly used tools is a foam roller. You will often see people in gyms attempting to manoeuvre their bodies in various positions over one of these rollers.

Most commonly rollers will be used in a way that the body is positioned with the roller in contact with a specific muscle or muscle group. The user then uses gentle motion to stretch and massage the area while controlling the pressure exerted by adjusting their position and the weight going through the area.

The theory is that using foam rollers used to massage and stretch our muscles, joints and soft tissues can make them more pliable thereby increasing range of motion. It is also theorised that pressure applied to soft tissues can stimulate change through the central nervous system by sending signals which alter the tissue activity and reduce tension levels.

What’s the evidence?

In general terms, self-myofascial release using a foam roller appears to have short-term effects of increasing joint range of motion without exhibiting any negative effects on muscle or joint performance. There is also some evidence to suggest that post exercise muscle soreness can be reduced while muscle recovery is enhanced when foam rolling is used after strenuous or intense exercise.

The overall summary of the evidence to date suggests that foam rolling is a safe tool to use prior to or after exercise to assist with warm up and/or recovery. However, the research is limited and fails to come to a consensus on what the optimal methods, techniques or frequency of foam rolling should be. There is not yet enough research or evidence to define the best way to roll specific muscles or how many sets or repetitions is appropriate.

How can I apply it?

The general consensus is that foam rolling is safe and can be a welcome addition to assist in warm up and recovery. While we do not have enough evidence to create exact protocols there is room here for individual preference and some experimentation to see what works best for you. From personal experience and from reviewing the literature we would suggest trying:

  • 3-5 sets of 30+ second repetitions on each targeted muscle or muscle group

  • Apply gradual pressure in various planes and directions.

  • For larger or longer muscle groups consider dividing the application into 2-3 areas

  • Consistent application aiming for a minimum of 3 times per week

  • Slight discomfort during application is acceptable but strong or intense pain is not

  • Position yourself carefully to avoid unnecessary strain on other muscles or joints

Below are a few examples of positions used to foam roll various muscles

Foam rolling outer thigh    

Foam rolling outer thigh    

Foam rolling upper back
Foam rolling upper back

Foam rolling upper back

Foam rolling calf muscle

Foam rolling calf muscle

A word of caution

Foam rolling can be a useful adjunct to any exercise or training routine and may also be used by more sedentary individuals to reduce muscle and joint stiffness. Foam rolling, however, is not an appropriate tool for treating damaged or injured tissues and we would warn that it should not be used as such. Always seek advice from a qualified professional if you are in any doubt.

Foam rolling does not replace or negate the need for adequate warm up and the use of correct techniques when exercising. We would suggest using foam rolling to compliment your existing training or exercising routine but not to replace any aspect.


Article written by Daniel Wray – Senior Physiotherapist and Director at Physio Effect

The dedicated team at Physio Effect provide a full package of services that will ensure you’re supported through your pain management, injury prevention, assessment, recovery and helping you achieve your ultimate performance goals. We offer a range of services including Physiotherapy, Sports Massage, Craniosacral Therapy, Clinical Pilates and Yoga.