How a foam roller can help relieve sore and stiff muscles

James Fell talks to trainer Denise Beatty about how a foam roller can help temporarily relieve pain.
Woman Using Foam Roller Photo, Istock.

A foam roller is a useful tool, but it’s important to understand just what kind of tool it is. Foam rolling can be compared to things like getting a massage or even taking pain relief medication – useful for managing certain conditions, relieving pain and improving range of motion.

When used regularly, it's a fast and efficient tool that can be used to break down scar tissue and adhesions, keeping your body functional for your athletic endeavors or just taking the stiffness out of muscles from sitting in an office chair all day. There's much to recommend the use of foam rollers, and I know many who swear by their regular use, members of my family included.

I compared it to a massage or medication, because a foam roller is less of a cure than it is a treatment. It’s a useful treatment, but sometimes, you need to consider if there's a deeper condition that's not being addressed. I’m not an expert on the topic however, so I spoke to one to get the full details.

A trainer for more 15 years, Denise Beatty is the owner of Fitness Fix in Calgary. She has a BSc in exercise physiology and she's pored over foam-rolling research for years — it's a topic she's really interested in. When it comes to the science of foam rolling, two questions come up: why and how? The why I'm going to help you with here. The how we've shown you in a gallery you can access at the end of this article.

Beatty says there are three primary reasons people use foam rollers — myofascial release (decreasing pain), increasing range of motion and increasing physical performance.

How does it work? The primary purpose of a foam roller is to force a tight muscle to relax says Beatty. This can reduce pain and allow the opposing muscle to contract and stabilize the joint. When this happens, it can also serve to increase range of motion and even improve performance by creating “a more balanced system,” she explains.


She gives an example: “If you use the roller on your quadriceps [the] and it improves your knee flexion, then you may be able to better activate your hamstrings.”

Who can use a foam roller? If you’re experiencing pain, decreased range of motion or inhibited performance, Beatty suggests you use a foam roller given the following criteria:

  • You have a health or fitness professional help with technique/positioning, especially the first time.
  • You're comfortable holding your body weight and have no trouble getting up and down from the floor.
  • You don't have severe bone or joint issues that can’t tolerate the force of foam rolling.
  • People with major illnesses, blot clots or infections should consult a physician first.

What's the right technique for foam rolling? “Research shows that the most effective way is to hold on a trigger point [sore] for 30 seconds. But even if you roll slowly from joint to joint it works. Going slowly is important. It will work better and help prevent injury,” says Beatty.

She cautions that using a roller is a temporary solution for pain but doesn’t treat underlying problems: “If you’re rolling to be able to run, then it means there is a physical imbalance somewhere.”

Rather than constantly treating the problem by rolling before your run, you’d be better off seeing a professional to find the problem and fix it at its core.


Improving range of motion A 2013 Strength and Conditioning Research review on the effectiveness of foam rolling found that it does increase range of motion. But this doesn’t mean foam rolling is the best way to go about doing it.

Beatty prefers active stretching — using the opposite muscle to make another release, rather than forcing it directly. An active way to release your hamstring is to lie flat on your back and pull your leg up while tensing the quadricep and relaxing the hamstring.

Effect on physical performance “It can improve performance by removing pain,” says Beatty, “But if you’re not in pain, you’re better to do a good functional warm up to get the muscles working, because we just don’t know enough about [foam] yet.” 

Beatty explains that foam rolling is primarily used by people as a way to relieve pain, but again, it’s temporary. While she likes it as a tool for immediate relief, she also advises seeking professional help to get to the root of your discomfort.


James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. His book Lose it Right is available from Random House Canada April 1. Visit his site for a free metabolism report. 


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