What is a Foam Roller and How does it Work?

What exactly is a foam roller and how does it work its magic when it comes to easing tight or sore muscles in various parts of your body?


Put simply, a foam roller is a cylindrical piece of high, medium or low density celled foam - usually six inches in diameter - which is used to apply deep-tissue massage to your muscles.  


They are widely used in gyms and health clubs by coaches and trainers to assist their students - but they are also commonly used at home by people who take an active interest in their physical health and fitness.


Beginners to foam rolling will usually start out with a medium density roller that has a little bit of give - a roller which is too firm can prove overwhelming and quite painful for someone who has not got used to the rolling procedure and their muscles have not yet become accustomed to extra firm pressure.

Using Foam Roller

Many people use foam rollers these days to loosen up tight muscles in areas of the body referred known as trigger points. Regular rolling will ease the tightness in these knots, also known as adhesions, helping you to feel fitter and healthier.


These rollers are sometimes solid in structure and others - such as TriggerPoint rollers - are hollow in the centre with an extra firm outer shell with a raised grid pattern for deep penetration of muscles.


Foam rollers are lightweight, easy to carry around, and very effective when it comes to getting results. You can use one to build both core and strength muscles, enable flexibility, improve athletic performance, increase body mobility, and relieve stiffness and muscle aches. They are also popular with people who practise yoga and pilates.


The creator of the foam roller in the 1920s was Moshe Feldenkrais, a practitioner, physicist and martial artist who firmly believed that the way to ease pain was to focus on how we move.


The roller was originally used as a body support and also for research into standing balance. In 1987 a physical therapist Sean Gallagher started using a roller for self massage - and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.


The many benefits gained from exercising with a foam roller means these devices are now commonly used in homes around the UK, not just by athletes and professional phycial therapists in the world of personal training.


They are available to buy in many different sizes and prices can range from under £10 for a cheap and basic roller to more than £300 for deluxe top-of-the-range roller made from high quality materials. A popular choice in the luxury price range is the vibrating foam roller, a powered device which can provide extra-deep massage.


Rollers are available in many different colours and popular choices include black, grey, white, red, blue, yellow, orange, silver, brown and pink. Some also feature intricate designs and patterns. Leading brand names for foam rollers include Reebok, TriggerPoint Grid, Nike, Gaiam Restore, EVA, RumbleRoller, ProSource, Fit Nation, PhysioRoom,  66Fit, ResultSport, PROTONE, fitnessXzone, KG Physio, Body Power, Men's Health and Adidas.


Half-round foam rollers are also a popular option - this type of roller has one flat side down its full length. These are often used by beginners to foam rolling who later graduate to a full-round foam roller. Popular sizes for this type of roller are one or three feet in length.


Muscles are worked on a roller using short strokes, of around four to six inches and when a very tender spot - often referred to as a trigger point - is found, you can rest on that tender spot and roll back and forth slowly to ease the muscle knot.


The Foam Roller - Manual Therapy for the Pro and Amateur


Today foam rollers are used by professional and elite athletes, personal trainers and physical therapists in health clubs and gyms throughout the UK.


They are a key tool for many physical activities including balance training, core conditioning and back rehabilitation. You will also see foam rollers being used regularly in pilates and yoga classes.


They are, of course, also used in thousands of UK homes by men, women and younger people as part of their regular fitness regime in order to keep themselves in good shape.


With foam rollers we can tap into our intuitive ability to identify problem areas and stimulate the body’s natural repair and maintenance mechanisms.

You can also save yourself quite a bit of money in medical rehab bills if you are recovering from an injury and also prevent future injuries by maintaining optimal bio-mechanics, and improve dynamic power. And let's not forget the more general benefit where a foam roller is wonderful for simply increasing your own body awareness.


Manual therapies in various forms have been acknowledged by athletes, medical practitioners and researchers throughout history to play a key roll in managing our bodies.


During the eighties labour-saving electronic treatment devices, combined with a growth in pharmaceuticals and medical surgery techniques, began to overshadow the manual therapies.


This all began to change, however, around 2005 when it became evident that professional sports coaches and trainers still strongly favoured manual therapies for their athletes on the basis they reduced recovery times, increased career spans and appeared to improve performance. It was amid this climate of opinion that the foam roller was born.


The Technical Lowdown on How Foam Rollers Work


A foam roller is a truly effective device for self myofascial release (SMR). When you identify a ‘trigger point‘ using SMR this means you obviously have an adhesion or knot.


The superficial fascia is the name for the soft connective tissue that is located just underneath your skin. The fascia wraps around the bones, nerves, muscles, and blood vessels of your body.


Muscles and fascia together are called the myofascia system. Sometimes, due to an injury or a lack of muscle use, an adhesion may develop between a muscle and the overlying fascia - the two layers end up stuck together. The restricted muscle motion caused by such an adhesion can result in soreness, reduced flexibility and sometimes pain.


Myofascial release is a massage technique where sustained gentle pressure is applied to soft tissues, while, at the same time, traction is applied to the fascia above the muscle.


The fascia will become softened and lengthened, and adhesions or scar tissue between the muscles and the skin will be broken down. Myofascial release can also relieve some types of joint and muscle pain which is not caused by adhesions.


Moving slowly and precisely over a trigger point with a roller will help to massage it out until the discomfort you are enduring is decreased by about half. Over time, this kind of trigger point therapy will make your muscles longer, stronger and smoother by eliminating knots.  


A muscular knot is a muscle which has become tangled-up in the fascia of your skin. Regular deep-tissue massage of trigger points with a foam roller will send signals to your brain to begin the SMR process, which will free a muscle from the surrounding fascia. It is the autogenic inhibition response of your body which will allow a muscle to relax.


Performing an exercise with a foam roller stretches tendons and muscles, and breaks down scar tissue and soft tissue adhesions. This excellent rolling device utilises your body weight to enable you to perform a rewarding self-massage, while boosting the circulation of blood to your soft tissues into the bargain.


There are many training tools, programs, and training methods on the market today but without first achieving better tissue integrity and improved mobility by exercising with a foam roller, they are all limited in their effectiveness and have the potential to acutally cause injury.


By restoring proper length tension relationships, muscle elasticity, and fluidity using self myofascial release or trigger point release with a foam roller, the true potential benefits of any training tool or class is unleashed. Read more about trigger points and myofascial release.


Foam roller massage is most effective when performed after some exercise to warm-up your muscles, and followed by static-stretching and some dynamic mobility exercises.


Now that we've given you the low-down on what these excellent fitness accessories are, it's time to explain how to use a foam roller and the types of foam roller available to buy.