What Happens When You Foam Roll

Did you know that you are essentially rolling out your brain when you foam roll your glutes? Get-Fit Guy interviews Michael Cummings, Director of Education for TriggerPoint therapy, about the benefits of foam rolling. 

Brock Armstrong
5-minute read
Episode #539
The Quick And Dirty
  • Choose a softer foam roller when you are just starting out. 
  • Use a different foam roller for different locations on the body.
  • Use your roller on the bigger muscles groups and they will in turn take care of the smaller ones.

A few years ago, I wrote the episode called The Many Benefits of Foam Rolling where I taught you how to foam roll your body into a happier, healthier, and higher-performing version of itself. Well, the research and science around foam rolling have progressed since then, and companies like TriggerPoint are creating more and more interesting ways to foam roll, so I thought it was time to revisit this topic, with the guidance of a true foam rolling expert named Michael Cummings. 

Michael Cummings has been a professional in the sports and fitness industry for more than 20 years. He has owned and operated gyms, yoga studios, and wellness centers. He has designed and built the infrastructure for several successful health club. He has consulted for many of the industry's top brands on product development, education, and programming. He created the sport and fitness training line of products for SKLZ and he has over 50 patents in his name. Michael also consults with governments, Olympic committees, and the military.

In this article, Michael (or “MC”) is going to give us a master class in one of my favourite things to do pre, post, or even during a workout -- foam rolling! 

How foam rolling affects our bodies

When we foam roll, two things happen to our bodies: shearing and compression.

The difference is with compression. Imagine pushing your thumb into your forearm. So you're pressing through your skin, the superficial deep fascia, and through your muscle. With shearing, it's basically like gripping your wrist and turning. What that's doing is taking the top layer of tissue and moving it in one direction, while the lower level or the deep layer goes in the opposite direction. In other words, two different components moving parallel with one another but in different directions. If you put your hands together and move one back in one forward, that's shearing.

One of the things that explains the effects of shearing is this pretty simple study done by Helene Langevin. In the study, she asked participants to bend over and touch their toes. She then did an ultrasound of the backs of all the participants. In the people who had back pain while bending forward, she saw what she called the "Velcro effect" on the ultrasound. That's when their soft tissues basically adhered or gripped together and didn't move, whereas in the people who were able to touch their toes without pain, these layers slid and glided over one and there was no stickiness.

After adhesion is built up, you can use a foam roller to create a sliding-glide, loosening and freeing all those tissues.

Foam rolling can directly affect that level of stickiness. After adhesion is built up, you can use a foam roller to create a sliding-glide, loosening and freeing all those tissues.

How foam rolling makes our muscles glide

To understand how that sliding glide happens, we have to understand fluid dynamics, and what happens within the tissues themselves. There's a lot of water and a lot of viscous material solution that lives within our tissues. And so a potential reason why tissues don't glide is the quantity and quality of water located within those tissues. Without hydration, those tissues are going to have more of that Velcro effect.

The water I'm referring to is actually called hyaluronan and it's the liquid that sits between the superficial and deep fascial layers. And it's one of the reasons why tissues can move back and forth against one another. If you were to look at the anatomy of hyaluronic acid or hyaluronan, you'd see that it's a fluid system found throughout all the extracellular space, the loose connective tissue, and the fascia, and it acts as a lubricant. 

Foam rolling can aid in pushing this fluid through the various tissues and also cause what we call a "sponge effect," in which we squeeze or wring out the tissue in order for more fluid to travel back into the area. That word for that is "reperfused," or the ability for that tissue to rehydrate after it's been sponged or wrung out.

A lot of the tissue lubrication that we already have is very viscous (think about the consistency of honey). Now, when you apply pressure or compression to the tissue, you are actually releasing these bodies of hyaluronan that are stuck within the cells themselves. And they release what's called bound water. Now, if you add water to honey, what happens to that honey? It becomes much less viscous and more slippery.

Now, if I had honey between my hands and I tried to rub them back and forth, it's would not go very well. But if I take that same amount of honey, add water to itt, and all of a sudden I've changed the constitution of that liquid and it becomes far less viscous. Now I have this really slippery area where my hands can rub back and forth. That's the idea of releasing this bound water to hydrate the tissues to create that sliding-glide mobility. 

Essentially, the compression created by foam rolling influences the amount of liquid released, which in turn increases mobility.

The brain-muscle connection

The other aspect of foam rolling is a bit more complex. Our tissues are loaded with mechanoreceptors which allow us to have conversations with our brain. A lot of these mechanoreceptors are touch receptors that live in the skin and in the fascia. Anytime we touch or press on them, they send signals to the brain. The brain responds by sending signals back to do different things.

When you foam roll your calf, you stimulate local receptors to send signals to the brain. The brain interprets those signals and produces an output.

Let's say I'm a runner and I've been having some ankle or knee issues. One of the things I can do is use a foam roller at a quick pace to stimulate the mechanoreceptors to upregulate the nervous system. That's an awesome pre-activity warm-up. But that's not awesome if we're looking for recovery. Luckily, there are different ways that we can hit different mechanoreceptors in the skin or the tissue. One of the deep mechanoreceptors that help with muscle recovery are going to be hit through a slow and deep touch. I can foam roll with deep pressure nice and slow for 60 seconds or more to down-regulate my nervous system.

Foam roller pressure, speed, and duration

These are just two examples of how you can use a foam roller to create different responses in the body. All you do is change the pressure, the speed, and the duration:

  • When you go fast, you can improve your body awareness and activate the muscles, preparing them for movement.
  • When you go slow with deeper pressure, you get a parasympathetic response which increases your mobility.
  • When you go light, that will aid in pain mitigation.

So a foam roller is not really rolling your skin, it's rolling your brain!

Foam rolling tips

Use a softer roller when you start out. Once you get more accustomed to the process, you can advance to a firmer one. 

If you start playing sports, running, or doing any other kind of physical activity more regularly, you can try a specialty roller that focuses on various body parts. For example, the Channel Roller has a big cutout, so when you're rolling the muscles along your spine, the foam roller is not touching any part of your spine, there's a big channel that's cut out in the middle. A lot of people like rolling their IT band with the Channel Roller because they can place the really sore IT band in that channel and have more pressure on the outside, rolling and massaging surrounding tissues rather than the painful area itself. 

Lastly, always focus on the larger muscle groups first, such as hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes.

To sum up, foam rolling will create great body awareness and help you recover, relax, reinvigorate, or activate your muscles for any activity you want to do.

Keep rolling!

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.