Foam rolling is increasingly being incorporated into athletes’ maintenance and stretching routines. It’s a particularly effective form of self myofascial release for tightness in muscles and other soft tissues following heavy bouts of exercise. Foam rolling is often encouraged by chartered physiotherapists to improve or maintain muscle length and can be utilised as an adjunct to an appropriate stretching programme. As chartered physiotherapists we often get asked our opinion on the effectiveness of foam rolling, and this is what I explain to my athletes.
While excellent for certain muscle groups the usefulness of foam rolling in others, particular upper limb and thorax muscles, is questionable.
The difficulty with foam rolling for the upper limb muscles is that it’s often more difficult to generate sufficient pressure to give the desired effect. Foam rolling requires that the athlete generates enough of a force themselves, usually using their body weight against the foam roller, to sustain a pressure on the muscle tendon unit being worked. With lower limb muscles such as the gluteus muscle group, the quads and the proximal portion of the hamstrings it’s quite easy to generate sufficient forces by lying or sitting on the foam roller. It gets more difficult to sustain sufficient force in the distal portion of the hamstrings, the calf and the achilles as the centre of gravity remains over the trunk and power generation is reduced.
Similarly, in upper limb and thorax muscles, issues with power generation are the main barrier to successful foam rolling. Side lying on the foam roller may facilitate a reasonable session on the quadratus lumborum (QL) or latissimus dorsi (lats) muscles but the trapezius, rhomboids, and levator scapulae muscles (all extremely prone to the development of myofascial trigger points) are almost impossible to effectively foam roll.
So my advice, get rolling for those gluts but it’s gonna take more than foam rolling to iron out those sticky scapulae and traps!!