Before we start, I want to get one thing clear, when I talk about foam rolling, I’m really talking about the method of self-myofascial release, and whatever tool you choose to do it with. Foam rollers, hockey balls, golf balls, and even combinations of multiples of these. And for the record, I don’t hate foam rolling. It’s better than doing nothing, but other than that, I’m struggling to find anything good to say about it, and here’s why.
1. You need to dedicate time
Foam rollers are impractical to carry around, and although you might be able to use them before or after training, you can’t just incorporate it into your day when you get a couple of minutes spare, you have to dedicate time to it. This means there’s lots of reasons why you wouldn’t do it. You might not have time, you might not have enough space, you didn’t train so you didn’t think about it etc. If you have 100% opportunity, it’s realistic to say that most people will actually do it around 20% of the time (if you don’t agree, think back on the last 5 times you had the opportunity and how many of those times you actually did it – if you’re above the 20%, maybe you’re just above average!).
2. It’s Painful
Bodies don’t like pain. It goes against every instinct you have to put yourself in a situation where you would choose to inflict pain on yourself. Your natural instinct is to move away from pain. Let’s say for example that you’d stubbed your toe – there’s no way you’d let me stand on it. You’d have moved your foot even if there was the slightest threat of me standing on it. It’s also your instinct to tense your muscles in protection when there’s the threat or sensation of pain. Because using a foam roller is painful, you’re fighting against your instincts to wait for the release of the muscles. It could easily be said that of your 100% effort, 80% of it is wasted on fighting your natural instincts, leaving you only 20% progress (and that’s being generous).
3. Positions are awkward
For most positions on a foam roller, you need to be able to hold your body weight with a different joint. If you’re rolling your calf, you need to be able to support your weight on your hands, if you’re rolling your IT Band, you need to be able to support yourself on your elbow etc. If your effort totals 100%, then it stands to reason that 80% of that effort is being used to support your body weight, with only 20% focusing on the job in hand (foam rolling).
4. It’s time consuming
Whether you use a foam roller, a hockey ball or a golf ball, this type of release is focused on one muscle, in one direction at a time, which means that 100% of your time is focused on whichever muscle you happen to be working on in that moment. The trouble is, muscles work in conjunction with each other, not individually, and they’re used in lots of different directions simultaneously, so if your muscles are 100% capable, you’re only working on a maximum of 20% of it at once (and again, that’s being generous)
5. Foam rolling chases symptoms
If your muscles are sore when you roll them, it’s usually because you have muscle tightness somewhere else in your body that’s causing a joint to shift its position slightly. In most cases, the muscles on the front of the body and the inside (medial) of the limbs go short and tight, which pulls the muscles on the back of the body and the outside of the limbs long and tight. The majority of foam rolling is focused on the back of the body and the outside of the limbs. If 100% of the pain is 80% cause and 20% symptom, then foam rolling is only focusing on the symptom. Even if you managed to get rid of the symptom completely, you’d only ever be making 20% progress.
6. Progress is temporary
This progress would be, at best, temporary because you wouldn’t be dealing with the cause of the problem. Over the course of your lifetime of sporting endeavours, focusing on the symptom would give you relief for some of the time – I’d say 20% of it, but you’d always be aware of the issue you had, hoping that it wouldn’t come back.
7. It’s superficial
Since the implement you’re using to release the fascia is an external force, you have to release the tension in the most superficial muscles before you can have any hope of releasing the deeper ones, and some of those you’ll never be able to reach using this method, and sometimes, it’s the tendons and ligaments that are causing the problems, not the soft belly of the muscles, so of the 100% of soft-tissue you have in your body, foam rolling is only ever likely to reach about 20% of it.
8. It doesn’t teach your brain anything
Bodies don’t work using individual muscles – ever, so releasing one at a time is a foreign concept to your brain. That’s why your body sometimes feels a bit weird for a little while after foam rolling. Your brain needs time to connect what just happened with the rest of the body. It’s also why the tension (and pain) in the muscles returns after a while. The brain isn’t just concerned with one muscle, or group of muscles. It has to coordinate the entire being simultaneously. If the release of the muscle you were working on doesn’t suit the rest of the being, then the body will return to how it was functioning before, leaving you having to repeat the same foam rolling each time and therefore increasing the amount of time you need to spend rolling in the first place, leaving you having to focus 100% of your time to only 20% of your body.
9. It needs knowledge
If you want to make real progress with your efforts, rather than just counter-acting the effects of your training, you need to know which areas of the body to focus on. Without this knowledge, you could easily compromise your joint stability. Since most people don’t have this knowledge, they stick to just rolling the same areas of the body, or counteracting the effects of their training, leaving 80% of the potential of this method unused.
10. We think we know best
Human thinking limits our body. We only understand a fraction of its capabilities yet when we dictate how it’s supposed to be moving, we believe we know best. Foam rolling is a great example of this. I liken it to counting. If I asked you to count to ten, you would and then you’d stop. I’m sure you’re more than capable of counting way past ten, but the instruction was to stop at ten, so you do. The same thing is happening when we try to tell the body how it should be moving. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that our understanding of the body is only 20% of its capabilities, especially since the majority of the workings are taking place in the brain, which we are a long way from fully understanding.
Far more can be accomplished when we stop forcing the body to do our bidding and start using methods that facilitate, not dictate better movement.
Since movement itself is an instinct, using it to create better movement not only means that we can move multiple joints at once, and move muscles in as many different ways as we can think of, but most importantly, we can work WITH our instincts to make 100% of our efforts lead to 100% progress.
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