Foam rolling – what does it do?

The spikey ball, the foam roller, an elbow massage into the butt – why do we poke the sore bit?!

The main positive outcomes of pressure therapy that we see are:

  • Temporary increase in flexibility of the muscle allowing better movement patterns e.g. good squat form
  • Reduced pain at both the site of massage, and further away – causing relaxation, and comfort
  • Improved muscle activation – when it’s not “knotted”, you can access the full strength/power of a muscle
  • Increased awareness – pressure on an area brings the body’s attention here, improving our ability to control those muscles (especially if we can’t normally see or touch them) and therefore effectively move/exercise


How is this achieved?

You’re not alone if the sight of a massage ball makes you tense up and squirm. So, how is this relaxing??

If you’ve given it a go, you’ll know that as you maintain pressure, the pain tends to ease. This is your body moving from “fight or flight” mode (WHY WOULD YOU PUT ME THROUGH THIS) to “rest and digest” mode (never mind, I’m fine) as it realises that the massage ball isn’t quite the threat that was initially perceived. This is called desensitisation, and allows the muscle to relax, providing the benefits outlined above.


So, the harder the better?

Certainly not. That touched-a-hot-pan reflex to get away from the pain causes muscle guarding – the muscles tense up as a protective mechanism – producing the opposite effect of the desired relaxation.

Find a painful spot, but the key is to ease into it and gradually (over 2 minutes) allow deeper pressure – like we do with a deep tissue massage in the clinic. Couple this with controlled breathing and you’ll be on the way.

If it doesn’t feel like that “good pain”, or if the pain doesn’t reduce after the initial pressure, then this might not be the right treatment (consult your Physio!)


How come it’s just as sore next time? Will it ever get easier?

Like anything, if it’s not improving, we’re probably not targeting the right thing. We need to be addressing the cause of the sore/tight muscle. Is it weak? Is it compensating for another muscle that’s not working optimally? Does it spend 8 hours a day in more or less the same position?

Most of the time, muscle release / pressure therapy needs to be coupled with appropriate movement re-education and/or strengthening exercises immediately afterwards. The body will eventually adapt for the better and you’ll require less foam rolling and less Physio, but have better tolerance to daily activities and higher performance levels.


Where does Physio come in?

Our specific assessments, alongside our knowledge and experience, allow us to guide you with:

  1. Whether pressure therapy is right for you
  2. How, when and where to do it
  3. What movements and exercises to follow it with
  4. Adaptations if it’s not working
  5. Other treatment modalities and education/advice to assist management of your pain/injury

NOTE – tightness doesn’t always need to be fixed, it can be functional and sports specific – more on this in another blog