Why Foam Rolling Doesn’t Improve Mobility

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Have you invested in tools meant to improve mobility? Have you suggested your clients and participants do the same? So many fitness professionals have included “mobility training” in their repertoire in the hopes of keeping their clients pain-free and even injury-free; that’s why this article written by my colleague Mai-Linh Dovan from Rehab-U resonated with me and I decided to share it with you. Let me know what you think! 

Foam rolling doesn’t improve mobility.  That’s her starting statement… 

Now you’re probably saying: Then why does it make people feel good and why do they feel more mobile after foam rolling?

First, let’s look at exactly what foam rolling is, and then we can determine whether it can really have an impact on mobility.

Foam rolling is a form of self-massage.  The musculature is rolled and compressed using the bodyweight, which creates direct pressure and sweeping pressure that stretches the tissue and creates friction between it and the foam roller.  It’s comparable to a self-induced massage and gained popularity because it is easy, affordable and time-efficient.  Yes, it feels good and like anything in the fitness industry, it also became a fad.

Among other effects, evidence suggests that foam rolling can enhance joint range of motion and decrease the effects of acute muscle soreness and delayed onset muscle soreness.  Many studies have been conducted on the potential effects of foam rolling.  These have been attributed to various mechanical, neurological and physiological effects such as altered viscoelastic properties of tissue, analgesic effects, alterations in muscle spindle response, altered stretch perception, increased blood flow, increased endorphin release, decreased arousal and activation of the parasympathetic response.

In the strength and conditioning world, the common alleged benefits of foam rolling are to release fascia and to improve mobility.  The question we need to ask ourselves is: Is foam rolling alone really enough to improve mobility?

Foam Rolling to Release Fascia

Fascia can be defined as collagenous tissue that is part of a whole-body tension force transmission network.  “Releasing” fascia has become a popular trend of late.  However there is contradictory evidence regarding the adaptability of fascial tissue, and you will find studies to support that it takes about 2000lbs of force to change the length of fascia by 1%.  So truth be told, we are probably not stretching or releasing fascia.

Perhaps a better word than “releasing” is “mobilizing”.  Soft-tissue mobilization refers to manual techniques for the specific treatment of soft tissues (ligaments, muscles, tendons, and fascia) to improve function and decrease pain.  These techniques can be described as the forceful passive movement of myofascial elements through a direction of the restriction.  Foam rolling falls under this category and can be used to mobilize soft tissue.

What we do know about fascia is that it links muscles with surrounding tissues and is important in distributing and transmitting force.  Fascia has thixotropic properties.  It is more viscous under static conditions and becomes more compliant and malleable when it is stressed or moved.  As such, foam rolling to mobilize fascia can help restore motion by promoting sliding and gliding of the fascia helping it to take on a more fluid-like form.   

Foam Rolling to Improve Mobility

Call it semantics, but I believe the choice of words is important when making statements about things.  Research consistently shows that foam rolling can increase range of motion.  A systematic review by Cheatham et al. (2020) suggests that foam rolling for thirty seconds to one minute may be beneficial for enhancing joint range of motion.

Of course, it takes a long time to build up the level of research that is needed to provide solid evidence on any technique or intervention and arrive at conclusions that can be generalized.  What we do know is that foam rolling likely provides acute increases in range of motion, which is part of improving mobility.

That said, spending 20 minutes foam rolling prior to your training is hardly time well spent, knowing that it only takes 30 seconds to one minute to enhance range of motion.  A more efficient use of your time would be to combine foam rolling with the other components required to actually create lasting changes in mobility.

How Do We Create Lasting Changes in Mobility?

Mobility is a very popular term in this functional training era.  And what we see touted on social media to improve mobility are tools and methods like foam rolling, using massage guns, or smashing with a ball, a barbell, a kettlebell. I often wonder what’s next that we can mash ourselves with? 

Granted, foam rolling and other soft-tissue or myofascial methods provide instant results in terms of increasing range of motion.  That may be why they’re so popular.  Everyone is impressed by immediate results and looking for a quick fix – a mind-blowing before and after picture for Instagram. 

But, increasing your range of motion doesn’t change HOW you move

We must understand that mobility is made up of several components: range of motion, motor control and strength.  Limitations in movement that come from poor soft-tissue quality are a significant barrier to mobility and need to be addressed if we hope to move more efficiently.  

The effect of foam rolling on range of motion can open up a window of opportunity, as it addresses this barrier to movement.  However, there is an active component to mobility that also needs to be addressed, because mobility and stability are intrinsically linked.  If we use foam rolling to increase range of motion, it is imperative to work within that range to gain awareness, control and strength.  It is the combination of all of these that can create lasting changes in how you move: your mobility.

The Strategy is Key

Foam rolling alone will not improve mobility, or the capacity to move freely and easily.  While it is not a bad tool, as with any tool, applied alone it will not change your life!  

Whenever we use a tool or intervention, we should always have a specific task in mind that will benefit from that intervention.  Mobility is a combination of range of motion, motor control and strength.  Soft-tissue limitations that restrict range of motion therefore impact mobility and can be addressed using foam rolling because we know that it provides acute increases in range of motion.

We also know that foam rolling can promote sliding and gliding of the fascia making it more malleable and compliant.  In turn, this will optimize the force of the contraction that is transmitted via the fascia to help use move efficiently and apply intentional force into newfound ranges.

So, there are many great reasons to use foam rolling for its effects on range of motion and fascia.  But don’t stop there!  You need to layer on the motor control and strength components of mobility.

With the Movement Optimization Strategy (Mobilization-Activation-Integration) it’s more about WHY you are choosing each tool than WHAT tool you are using.  As long as you understand what you are trying to achieve, any tool has the potential to be the right tool (except maybe putting a band around the knees during the squat LOL).   

Let’s take a simple example of someone who wants to work on their hip mobility for the squat. More often than not, they’ll be releasing the muscles in and around the hip joint that can limit movement: hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, glutes.  

Mobilization sequence: 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s leave in the soft-tissue release tool so we can strategize around it to make it more effective.  So, in the Mobilization sequence, we will leave this individual with their rolling regimen for about 60 seconds per region (not for 20 minutes while scrolling on Instagram!).

Activation sequence: 

In the Activation sequence we want to move very deliberately and specifically within the range of motion that our Mobilization sequence helped us gain.  In this example, let’s create awareness and range in hip rotation using the following exercises:

  • Active thread the needle – 2 x 8 reps per side with a pause at end range
  • Supine banded external rotation – 2 x 8 reps per side with a pause at end range
  • Standing banded hip external rotation – 2 x 8 reps per side with a pause at end range

Integration sequence:

Now let’s put this all together.  In the Mobilization and Activation sequences, we focused on creating a mobility-stability balance in the hip.  In the Integration sequence, we want to promote this behavior by applying intentional force in the specific movement we are trying to improve.  

  • Goblet squat Loaded stretch – Aim for a total of 3 minutes (modify as needed) under load and get there in as little total time as possible, that is, as few sets as possible.  I kid you not, this is hard!!!

The key to an efficient mobility strategy is to understand that there are both passive and active components to mobility. 

It Is the Strategy, Not the Tool, That Makes the Difference

Foam rolling alone only increases your range of motion, which does not change how you move, your mobility.  However, it is part of intervening on a component that has an impact on mobility and can be beneficial if used within the right strategy.  

Mai-Linh just launched a brand-new online course called Mobility Fundamentals and has kindly provided me a $50 discount to share with my fitfam 😊. Click here for more information and to access your exclusive discount using code NATHALIE50! 


REFERENCES

Hughes, G., & Ramer, L. (2019). DURATION OF MYOFASCIAL ROLLING FOR OPTIMAL RECOVERY, RANGE OF MOTION, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 14(6), 845-859. doi: 10.26603/ijspt20190845

W. Cheatham, S., J. Kolber, M., Cain, M., & Lee, M. (2020). 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. The International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6), 827-838.

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