In the study, twenty men with weight lifting experience were split into two groups. Both groups underwent a very fatiguing squat protocol, which consisted of ten sets of ten back squats at 60% of one-rep squat maximum. After the initial bout of squats, both groups were evaluated for their soreness level, quad and hamstring range of motion, performance on a vertical leap test, and a variety of measurements of muscle electrical activity. These measurements were repeated one, two, and three days after the squat protocol as well.
After the initial post-squat soreness and range of motion tests, half the men did a five-exercise foam rolling routine targeting the muscle groups in the thigh, while the other half did no additional exercise.
In the foam rolling routine, each muscle group was rolled twice for sixty second on each leg, for a total of about twenty minutes of foam rolling. This foam rolling routine was repeated after the one- and two-day post-exercise evaluations as well.
Designing the experiment this way ensured that the study did not merely identify a short-lived effect of foam rolling: for a difference in soreness or range of motion to be detected, it would have to be the result of the previous day’s foam rolling routine.
In the results, foam rolling had a statistically significant impact on three important measurements when compared to the control group.
- First, it reduced muscle soreness one, two, and three days after the squat routine.
- Foam rolling also resulted in a small but statistically significant increase in quadriceps range of motion.
- Finally, it led to better performance in a vertical leap test.
And improvements in range of motion could open up new possibilities for treating and preventing injuries, which often are associated with poor range of motion in a particular muscle group.
Foam rolling and range of motion
The range of motion issue was investigated more directly in a study published last year by Graham MacDonald and other researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.
This study looked at the “acute” effects of foam rolling—the immediate benefits you get within a few minutes of finishing a foam rolling routine. To do so, they evaluated the range of motion and maximum strength of the quadriceps muscle in eleven men before and after two sets of one minute of a foam rolling exercise which targeted the quads.
Like the previous study, foam rolling had a small but noticeable impact on range of motion.
- After only two minutes of foam rolling, quadriceps range of motion increased by ten degrees, but less than one degree after a control trial of two minutes’ rest.
- Moreover, the increase in range of motion persisted for at least ten minutes after the foam rolling; the study participants still had nearly nine degrees more motion at their knee joint after foam rolling, versus only one and a half degrees after rest.
Why foam rolling works
The underlying biology of foam rolling is not yet clear—what’s the mechanism by which foam rolling decreases soreness, boosts recovery, and increases range of motion. Manipulating connective tissue may be the key to foam rolling’s success.
Knowledge on foam rolling is still in its infancy, but there are still some useful tips to be gained from the research done so far.
- Foam rolling is a fairly effective way to increase a muscle’s range of motion in the short term and decrease soreness when done daily. Current research supports rolling for two one-minute segments per muscle group every day following a tough workout or a hard race.
- There also appear to be some benefit to using a dense foam roller: MacDonald research which proposes that a hard foam roller, made by wrapping a thin layer of foam over a solid PVC pipe, is more effective at manipulating connective tissue than a softer all-foam roller, but it’s unclear what firmness is ideal, and whether a roller can be too hard.
Frederic rehab/recovery Trainer on the French Riviera in Monte-Carlo.