Unconventional Foam Rolling Techniques - How to get Better, Longer Lasting Results

Dec 21, 2021
foam rolling exercises

Opinions on the internet are very devise on the topic of foam rolling. Some say it’s useless, some say they couldn’t live without it and swear by it as a tool of success for feeling great.

As always with any topic that has highly variable and extremist opinions on both sides, the answer is usually somewhere in the middle.

In this article, I am going to discuss:

  • The pros and cons of foam rolling
  • What foam rolling is useful for and what it is not
  • How to effectively use a foam roller for results that last

If you would rather watch than read, see below:

The Research Behind Foam Rolling

Because foam rolling is so popular, we have a good bit of research on the method. The idea behind foam rolling is self-myofascial release – meaning that we are trying to release “trigger points” or soft tissue that is restricting range of motion. Movement quality, and/or bloodflow to those tissues for optimal recovery.

A meta-analysis of the effects of foam rolling found that there was limited evidence to suggest this is actually happening. They found that there was inconclusive evidence that we are actually able to break down these “muscle knots” with the use of a foam roller, yet in some cases:

However, it is suggested that any range of motion improvements tend not to last more than 10 minutes. We also don’t know why foam rolling works for some and not others.

So what gives? Is it useful or not?

To be honest with you, as a means for recovery or performance enhancement, I don’t know. There isn’t enough evidence.

But what if myofascial release isn’t the most helpful use of a foam roller? What if the use of these rollers could be more effective?

Alternative Uses With Foam Rollers

In my opinion, we can use foam rollers with “rolling” patterns to not necessarily “break down muscle knots”, but actually use it is as an external constraint to alter that shape of joints and improve range of motion objectively.

Bear with me a for a minute.

The foam roller is a very useful tool in the right context because it is a cylinder-shaped object which we can use to “push” joints and bones into an intended orientation.

Bones and joints can change shape, but it just takes longer. I am not claiming we can change the entire structure of a bone or a joint position with a little foam rolling, but I do think we can create a window of opportunity to create space for more range of motion and follow it up with exercises that will help us “own” that range of motion.

I’m not going to cite some research and then follow that up with some “woo-woo” ideas on foam rolling – rather I am going to show you how effective this alternative use of them can be with objective assessments and before/after examples with my clients.

How to use a Foam Roller to Improve Range of Motion

Using a Foam Roller to Improve Internal Rotation

If the goal is to restore internal rotation, we can use the foam roller as a constraint to push the on the back (posterior) portion of the femur. This will help push the femur back into the hip socket and push the pelvis (innominate bone) into internal rotation as well. Just a note - Because bones take longer to alter shape than muscles and soft tissue, I recommend you take your time on these and go slower than you probably think you need to.

If we want to target pelvic internal rotation (most notably assessed in the straight leg raise), we can use the following exercises to “compress” or push the pelvic innominate bone into an internally rotated position.

Exercise credit: Bill Hartman. https://billhartmanpt.com/ 

And here is a before & after of with a client:

If we wanted to target strictly internal rotation of the femur (most notably assessed in supine femoral rotation), we can roll the proximal (upper) part of the femur where it inserts into the hip socket:

Exercise credit: Bill Hartman. https://billhartmanpt.com/ 

Here is another before & after:

Make sure to follow those exercises up immediately with a drill that will help your muscles responsible for helping create that internal rotation so you can "own" that new range of motion. This is a big topic I address with many more details in my Biomechanics Program. For femoral rotation, this is a go-to for me:

Exercise credit: Bill Hartman. https://billhartmanpt.com/ 

For recruiting muscles associated with pelvic internal rotation, we can also use the foam roller as a constraint to create internal rotation in a dynamic movement. Using it to create an inward pressure of the roller against a wall (keeping the knee in line with the toes), we can help push the femur further back in the hip:

Using a Foam Roller to Improve External Rotation

To improve external rotation, we need to use the roller a bit differently. We can place ourselves in the following position to create and bias external rotation of the pelvic innominate bone via reaching our leg away from our body to create space for the femur to rotate out of the hip socket as well:

And here is an example test/re-test:

If the goal is to improve the ability for the femur to rotate externally, we can roll the distal (far end) of the femur where distal fibers of the inner hamstrings (semitendonsus and semimembranosus) are located. This will help create a pressure on the bone to help push it outward to help orient it into that external rotation:

Exercise credit: Bill Hartman. https://billhartmanpt.com/ 

This can help with joint actions where the far end of the femur needs to externally rotate, such as knee flexion.

Summary

Foam rollers and rolling exercises are not useless, but I think the intention with this tool has been a little misguided in the mainstream fitness world.

Does traditional foam rolling help? Maybe. If you can’t live without it, by all means, you do you.

Can we achieve better results by using it a slightly different way? I have seen it time and time again.

Just know that it isn’t a magic bullet in isolation. I would recommend creating this space to that “window” of joint space to open up, but follow it up shortly with dynamic positions that incorporate muscles that help us move through that range of motion. Basic examples could be goblet squat variations, split squats, or single leg deadlift variations.

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