Do Foam Rollers Really Work?

Do Foam Rollers Really Work FinalI own a foam roller. Every fitness facility I’ve visited in the last three years has hosted a large arsenal of foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and other instruments of fascial torture. The CrossFitter community has 2.3 per capita. I hear K-Starr sleeps on a bed made of lacrosse balls with foam rollers for pillows. Everyone and their grandma has one. I’m not even joking; I saw a group of track-suited seniors doing some kind of a synchronized foam rolling routine in the park recently. The things are everywhere. And you can certainly spend an inordinate amount of time rolling around on the things, causing all sorts of painful sensations that should, in theory, help you. But does it really help?

As I mentioned earlier, I have one. I’ve used it and, I think, benefited from it. But it hurts. It’s pretty much the most unpleasant thing you can do. Not just because of the pain, but also the tedium. It had better be worth the trouble.

What does the science say?

What foam rolling seems to do really well is increase range of motion without harming performance.

Foam rolling the calves works better than stretching the calves before a workout, increasing ankle range of motion (very important for squats and other athletic movements) without impeding performance. Stretching increased ankle range of motion slightly more, but it also lowered performance; foam rolling increased performance.

Several other studies have found foam rolling to improve range of motion at the hip and knee without hurting performance.

Performed post workout, foam rolling may reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and the associated hit to performance (hard to move when you’re sore all over!), making it an effective if moderate recovery tool.

After a heavy squat workout, subjects did 20 minutes of foam rolling immediately, 24 hours, and 48 hours post-workout. Four weeks later, they did the same workout without any foam rolling afterwards. Foam rolling decreased DOMS and mitigated the performance decrements.

Another study had similar results, finding that foam rolling after a squat workout reduced soreness and improved vertical jump and muscle activation.

Should you foam roll everything? Is it worth getting into those ridiculously contrived positions in order to hit some small ribbon of fascia hidden between limbs? Should you foam roll your face?

Hamstrings see mixed results. Several studies find a lack of effect. In a recent one, foam rolling had no additional effect on hamstring range of motion or tightness in people with tight hamstrings when added to regular static stretching. Another found that 2 minutes of foam rolling was insufficient to improve hamstring tightness or increase knee extension range. Yet another study found that foam rolling was effective at increasing hamstring flexibility, comparable to contract-relax stretching.

In my experience, the hamstring isn’t a great candidate. I rarely feel any tender spots on my hamstrings with the roller. Using a lacrosse ball produces some tender spots, but the foam roller might just offer too diffuse a stimulus to work. One study had decent results using a roller-massager on the hamstrings, which is kind of “rolling pin” for your tissues that lets you really bear down.

Lately, folks that I respect (like Angelo Delacruz of Vitamoves) have been saying not to foam roll the IT band. That the real cause of IT band issues is in the surrounding musculature, particularly the glutes. This makes sense. The IT band is a tough and fibrous swathe of connective tissue that connects to and supports the most powerful muscle group on the body—the hip-glute-hamstring-quad complex. Rolling around on some foam isn’t going to do much to such an impressive piece of physiological real estate.

Yet I’ve experienced direct benefits to knee pain after foam rolling my IT band for a few minutes. I’ll do a set of squats, feel a sharp pain in my knee, suspect the IT band is inhibiting something, foam roll the band and focus on the tenderest spots, and squat again pain free. Am I fooling myself? Maybe. But I’ll take it.

It’s pretty clear that foam rolling doesn’t do what a lot of proponents say it does:

Foam rolling doesn’t “stretch” or lengthen the tissue. You can’t squeeze out any extra length like you’re rolling out some dough.

Foam rolling doesn’t remove mechanic adhesions. To do that, to “peel apart” gummed up tissues, you’d need shear stress, not compression.

Some people think foam rolling opens a window of opportunity for better movement. You roll a tender spot. For whatever reason, your nervous system has determined that this is the proper, safe range of motion for you. Foam rolling clears that out, giving you a short opportunity to establish a new safe pattern. More than physical adhesions, it’s removing neuromuscular blocks and harmful patterns. You reset the system and reprogram it.

Others think foam rolling relies upon diffuse noxious inhibitory control (DNIC). DNIC is how the brain dampens pain. Usually, pain increases survivability; it occurs to warn you against danger. If something hurts, your body’s trying to stop you from hurting yourself more seriously. But sometimes the brain “decides” that maintaining the pain is more trouble than it’s worth or more dangerous. If a solider loses a limb in battle, he might not feel much pain until he’s able to get to safety. If he felt the full pain of the lost limb, he’d be unable to save himself. That’s DNIC—the brain determining that reduced pain is beneficial to survival and less dangerous than prolonging it. In causing momentary pain that we regard as beneficial and necessary, foam rolling may “tell” the brain to turn the pain off.

Whatever the mechanism(s), it can work.

Foam rolling before your workout is better for range of motion and performance, especially if you take advantage of the open “movement window” and move. Foam roll, do some mobility drills, then get to training.

Foam rolling after your workout can reduce post-workout soreness and performance declinations. Studies show that this can reduce post workout soreness, increase range of motion (without reducing power or strength output, like pre-workout static stretching does).

The majority of the research deals with standard foam rollers, but any self-myofascial release tool (lacrosse balls either individual or taped-together, roller-massagers, Rumble Rollers, your own knobby elbow) should produce similar effects.

Don’t foam roll the site of the pain. If your knee hurts, don’t foam roll the knee. Foam roll the tissues above and below it.

Foam rolling is not enough. You have to foam roll and move and mobilize. Foam roll and train. Foam rolling is an excellent tool on the belt, not the only one.

In some respects, foam rolling only treats the symptoms. If your incorrect movement patterns, your life stressors, and your lack of regular movement are causing the tissue issues, foam rolling will help you feel and perform better but won’t “fix” the underlying problem. Unless you fix the problems causing the pain and mobility issues, you’ll have to keep rolling.

The research is equivocal. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and despite some promising hypotheses, no one is quite sure why. That doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from foam rolling. Based on the research, thousands of anecdotes, and my own experience, I’d say it’s worth a shot.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What’s your experience been with foam rolling? Useful, placebo, pointless, harmful? Let’s hear all about it down below!

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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68 thoughts on “Do Foam Rollers Really Work?”

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  1. I am a believer in foam rollers. I’ve suffered from IT band issues for years and if I run–either for play or training–I have to roll out before and after to prevent pain. I also roll my back out twice daily at least. I am a family nurse practitioner and encourage my patients to purchase foam rollers to try out for their back issues (anything to avoid chronic medication use) and have had positive feedback from those who actually try one out.

    1. I’ve actually been suffering from some lower back pain the last few days, so I think I’ll give this a shot. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Nice! It’s good to know that I’m not torturing myself for no good reason. Hahaha.

  3. It’s such an interesting idea: smash your body on an object to relieve pain. But somehow, when I’ve used it, it’s worked (probably for some of the theoretical reasons you’ve outlined above).

  4. DNIC, eh? I wonder if other pain reducing mechanisms work in similar ways (think meditation, biofeedback, etc.)

  5. “You can’t squeeze out any extra length like you’re rolling out some dough.”

    Ha! But honestly, that’s basically what I thought was happening. I conceptualized foam rolling as a way to lengthen muscles after they were bunched up from inflammation.

  6. I go back and forth. I’m working through the MELT method right now. For me, the problem is it seems to stir up some patterns, make them worse, and make me lose mobility. I’m determined to press through that this time, although I intend for that (and all foam roiling pressing) to be gentle. Very slow. Relaxing. Like a meditation.

    Anyone else have this experience?

  7. I’m going to grab one of these babies, if only for post-workout soreness. I always offhandedly assumed they were a gimmick. But if there’s some legitimate evidence that they can work for some forms of soreness, why not give it a shot? It’ll mean less rebound time to get back into my workout routine.

    1. I’ve had a small foam roller for maybe around two years now and I love it. It cost about $10, which I would say is definitely worth the investment. I don’t use it constantly but it’s perfect for recovery days and I have super tight hips so it’s always a great help for that as well.

  8. I’ve never heard of foam rollers until just now. But this caught my interest: “foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and other instruments of fascial torture.” If you’re into that you should try Rolfing too. It’s probably just as effective, just as tortuous, but more expensive.

    1. Prior to this, the only “foam rollers” I could picture were the ones Mom rolled my hair up in. Yes, I’m old.

      1. I’d seen them now and then in shops and thought – until just now – they were for play-fighting with, like foamy light sabres, maybe on a trampoline or something. I mean I actually genuinely thought that, I’m not joking, I’ve seen TV “Gladiators” using padded baton things to fight with.

        So, I bought one in a discount store, cut it up, and I’ve been using it as a pincushion and for sewing leather – you can really stab into it and it doesn’t fall apart, it’s super.

        Oh well.

        I might try some foot exercises with what’s left of it, thanks! 🙂

        1. well maybe what you saw were…I think they are called noodles or something like that, and kids play with them in the pool. So you might have been right.

  9. I find that a foam roller works wonders for my recurring mid and upper back pain. I think more than anything, it “pops” my back while allowing me to stretch and target various spots with a lot of precision. I find that just a few minutes on the roller can bring considerable relief.

    1. I love the foam roller for my back. My muscles get tight and sore, a few minutes with a foam roller fixes it like magic.

  10. I am a big fan of the foam roller. Part of the morning ritual is a full pass with my blue 31″ rumble roller (the sequence has evolved with time and it is perfect now). The WildGrok that stands up the floor coming from the process is a new pain free and happy WildGrok, ready to take on any challenge

  11. As Mark mentioned rolling (roller or lacrosse ball) creates an opportunity which you then have to “train” differently. Typically if the same area needs to be stretched on a regular basis to feel better then the implication is that something (that muscle or an opposite muscle) needs to be strengthened to reach a balanced state. Stretching shouldn’t be needed if one moves well mechanically.

  12. I’ve never tried one. I have to admit I’m not really pushing myself that hard at anything, so soreness and pain is extremely rare. But after reading this I would certainly try foam rolling if I feel a need for it.

    1. Elizabeth if you’re not pushing yourself that hard I’d like to know what workout you are doing, in one of your photos on your blog you looked pretty ripped.

  13. K-Starr would say that foam rollers can be used to create shear, but are a pretty weak stimulus for breaking up stuck fascia and improving mobility. My understanding is that he sleeps on a bed of battlesaws held together by mobility bands with a wolverine for a pillow.

    1. LOL! And he sleeps just outside the pain cave because obviously he doesn’t go in there. 🙂

  14. I use it quickly (not a long routine) for my back, my hamstrings (guess that is a waste of time, but it feels good lol) and the bottom of my feet (as one part part of a routine to try to help with a recent onset of gosh darn plantar fasciitis).

  15. Foam rollers work, provided you roll the right area, and not the area that hurts so to speak. For instance, one of the most popular areas to roll is the IT Band, yet it is completely futile to roll it because the problem is caused either below or above the area.

    Think of it as a kinetic chain, instead of rolling the IT Band, you roll things like your TFL, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. Then on the other end, gently foam rolling just above your knee. The thing is, if these are tight, then it’s more than likely it’s either your hips our out of whack causing the issue, and/or your exercising in bad form causing the kinetic chain to misfire. This basically makes foam rolling useless unless your addressing the actual problem.

    Where it does help is resting it on trigger points, but at that point it’s better to just use a tennis or lacrosse ball.

  16. I’d love to hear a few recommendations for techniques for foam rolling or using a lacrosse ball for total beginners and someone with shoulder pain. I tried rolling out my calves once, but couldn’t sustain the lift of my bodyweight on the bad shoulder in order to “roll.”

    1. Commenting because I’d love to hear the answers people give you. Thanks for requesting answers.

    2. I recommend Kelly Starrett’s book Becoming a Supple Leopard.

    3. I use the yoga tune up balls and recommend Jill Miller’s book. “The Roll Model.” The book goes through everything that you would need to target any area of the body. Lots of pictures to demonstrate. The tune up balls come in different sizes so you can target different areas including the shoulders. The balls are not as hard as a lacrosse ball and the rubber is grippy to hold to the skin. The book has methods for using cross friction and shear to break up adhesions. I feel like using them has helped with my mobility and reduce my pain.

    4. Calves are the hardest major muscle group to roll due the problem you alluded to and the surface area of the roller being too large. Lacrosse balls work better. But best for calves is “the Stick,” which is essentially a piece of PVC pipe with handles that lets you grind the hell out of your calf (and other muscles). This can be replicated fairly well with a plain PVC pipe of about 1 inch diameter.

      Foam rollers work best on the your quads, glutes, upper back, and lats.

  17. Gosh, I have had truly amazing results with the foam roller. I was having persistent knee problems which I developed through yoga. Too much back stretching and not enough front stretching. I developed a Baker’s cyst and my range of motion was utterly stalled. After a ton of chiropractor visits with litte results, I rolled my IT band – 3 times a day. I went straight for the torture instrument – the Rumble Roller being totally ignorant and thinking, how bad can this be? I nearly puked every time. My thighs went black and blue. I stuck with it because of my experience with massage therapy. The body shouldn’t feel so much pain from touch, albeit insistent touch. Not so much you sweat and feel nauseous. The pain of rolling eventually went away and with it, my knee pain vanished in about 2 weeks. To keep it at bay though, I did have to do other things too. I changed my yoga practice and cut out all forward bends, beloved by yogis (think downward dog) and emphasized back bends and strengthening all muscles at the back from shoulders on down. I paid attention when Mark highlighted Esther Gokhale’s work on primal posture and I added glute strengthening to my regimen (gluteus medius especially). I still use it as maintenance two to three times a week and am pain free and fully mobile. I walk a lot and have found that anything that strengthens the quads benefits from the opposite activity -quad stretches and rolling that IT band. It also really helps my sleep to roll just before tucking in. Thought I got that tip from Mark too?

  18. This is a great tool that works if you want to find imbalances and loosen up the machine before a workout (like taking the parking break off your car)….but only if done correctly. Most people move way too fast over the roller to make any difference. The gains are only made if you move s.l.o.w.l.y…..and if you over do it, that can lead to other problems. All things in moderation. Totally agree with Mark’s comment that you need to figure out the underlying cause of the pain and fix that.

  19. I use one to reduce a rib that slips out of place often. Works about 90% of the time, saving a lot of pain and many trips to the chiropractor.

    1. Ditto.

      My TriggerPoint roller cracks my back as reliably as my chiropractor and has paid for itself many times over, not to mention that it’s available w/o an appointment 24/7 …and I don’t even have to change out of my PJs! (I recommend the wide one for backs).

      (Mr. Paleo Lady just made a crack about “jumbo butts”. But he’s right, the wide one is good for that too lol)

  20. I use a 4″ PVC pipe that I bought at the hardware store. It is really hard so I pretty much just use it on my calves and back but it is effective and WAY cheaper (about $7).

  21. is a great clinic for myofascial release. That therapy, as well as lacrosse balls and foam rollers certainly work. They do manual therapy, and then send you in for 30 minutes with an airrosti trainer to show you how to strengthen the areas of pain appropriately to help resolve the issue. I don’t think there’s any controversy, doing this fixed an injured back I got from doing crossfit in Prague, as well as the whole body effects that injury incurred (still be treated for that part). Also for people who are twisted up like I am, foam rollers and lacrosse balls are the #1 way to lower personal stress due to pain. I feel far more clearheaded after I’ve sorted out the tie ups in my shoulders and neck.

  22. Seems like I recently read a credible article that mentioned an alternative to RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation). But, for the life of me, I can’t find it! Can somebody help? I seem to have elbow tendonitis. I tried joining the forum, but, the copy/paste challenge doesn’t seem to work with my non-standard software. TIA!

  23. I’ve used a foam roller only a handful of times, having recently added into my routines. I believe I get some benefit from rolling my parts after a workout to reduce the DOMS.

    I can appreciate the tips about rolling around the painful areas, not on them, as well as the tip to roll before a workout. I’ll add them as I see fit and see what I think!

  24. “Should you foam roll your face?”
    Lol!!! Love that mental image!

  25. Grok using a foam roller? I’m thinking not. Self massage, stretching, warm sun, relaxing in water, not killing yourself working out and propper recovery should be fine. Too many gadgets out there. Keep it natural.

  26. Super informative!

    I was one of the absolute nay-sayers about foam-rolling until this post, now I might be convinced to give it a try.

  27. Or…you could practice yoga and get strength training, balance, flexibility all in one. Little need for foam rollers with a vigorous daily practice that stretches and lengthens everthing.

    1. Yoga doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve worked with experienced teachers in various formats, and I’ve been hurt more than helped with yoga. I’ll use the foam roller and other myofascial release toys before I’ll ever go to yoga again.

  28. I agree with Amy. Yoga is the way to go. No need for a roller. I can’t imagine any part of me needing rolled out due to yoga practices doing it for me.

  29. I love rolling my back on a hard foam roller after an intense backbend practice (or an intense day of plane travel)–not to heal injuries, just to help with tight, sore or contracted spots.

    For getting into knots along my erectors or shoulder blades, I use a golf ball– exquisitely painful…very effective.

  30. Really don’t mean this in an accusatory way, but it just occurred to me that in light of the accept-your-body-when-you’re-at-a-healthy-body-composition advice from yesterday’s post and may times in the past, it would be helpful to see pictures of women (and men) who reflect this advice in the stock footage for the Marksdailyapple posts in general. I could be wrong, but all post pics that come to mind are of very lean, standard-model types, and this female torso with a foam roller is no exception.

  31. “Is it worth getting into those ridiculously contrived positions in order to hit some small ribbon of fascia hidden between limbs? Should you foam roll your face?”

    Ok, I almost peed my pants I laughed so hard…good job, Mark!

  32. I do my sprints and cardio workouts on the C2 indoor rowing machine. I find when I slowly roll my upper back on the foam roller, my performance improves and my recovery is faster. I think it helps with circulation and helps release metabolic waste like lactic acid. I also think the act of arching the spine over the device helps improve mobility as well.

  33. My Physical Therapist suggested I get a foam roller specifically for my weak back muscles…all of my muscles have have always been very loose, hyper-extensive, etc. They are hard to build. They’re long and lanky.
    She had me lie on it lengthwise, head at one end, tailbone at the other. Relax. Breathe slowly in, out…do the deep breathing thing. Allow the muscles to truly relax and the spine to gently align itself. I will lie there for about 20 minutes (TV remote at hand as I bore easily).
    I can feel my vertebrae subtly coming into better alignment. I can move very slightly side to side, slowly and it’s like a deep massage to the lower back – which always seems to be longing for it.
    Between my shoulder blades – again, slight movement is like getting a massage there. I slide off of it to the floor and lie there a few more minutes, and then get up slowly, usually doing a bit of leg stretching and “unwinding” sorts of stretching. It all feels wonderful.
    I feel greatly energized afterward and it seems to help my spine and hips stay in place. I’m 70. This is really helpful to my overall well being and it makes me feel like walking, afterwards. Not much else makes me fee like walking. It’s a long story, but I am walking!

    1. Thank you for your great description of your foam roller work for your back!! I’m 64, I’ll give this a try! By the way what size is your roller? Mimi

  34. I find my foam roller to be the best thing for rolling away legs cramps. In fact I’m looking into buying a small one for travel because I don’t want to be without it.

  35. I look at foam roller work, and the like, as palliative care. It is meant to be used to increase our ability to perform the activities which truly advance our health. By using foam rollers, we are able to engage in strength training, conditioning, ROM and stretching exercises with more effect, or with less pain, etc. Sometimes we need palliative type care just to be able to exercise at all. This, of course, makes it extremely useful. But do not over project its abilities beyond this. If you can exercise without pain or limitations, then your time may be better spent doing something else besides foam rolling. Or, at least, limit the foam rolling. It will not advance your health in and of itself. Often we get caught up in the “if some is good, more is better” or “I need to do every possible exercise to succeed” dogma. Sometimes you are okay not using the foam roller. And in some cases, your time may be better spent on other activities. Another tool to use is nerve flossing exercises.

  36. I like to use my softer, longer one on my upper back. Back and forth about 10X

  37. I feel better after foam rolling, before going to bed.
    I guess it works then….

  38. For those spots on your body that can take it (for me, quads and hamstrings), an empty wine bottle works fairly well as a “foam roller”. Bonus: you get to finish a bottle of wine in order to have one!

    I actually picked this idea up from a book about Olga Kochelko, a 95-year-old woman who was setting track world records for her age group. She said she did her “wine rolling” many nights at around 3AM when she happened to wake up. Seemed to be working for her, so…

  39. I absolutely love foam rolling! Started when i was 27 yrs old now I’m 32. It has helped my workouts , back pain , ability to stretch all in a major positive way. Thanks for the post. It was informative. I currently use a foam roller called the Atlas Foam Roller. I used to use the regular black high density roller but eventually it wore down because of my size. Thus roller I use currently is amazing. I roll out at least 3x a day. It’s definitely a relief that this type of therapy exists.

  40. I damaged a nerve in my right calf from roller massaging (not with foam roller). Now I can’t lie with any weight on the leg or my whole right side goes numb, all the way to my hand. It’s awful. If I could turn back time I would never touch foam rollers or especially a rolling pin again. This only happened a week ago, but cant’t sleep due to waking up numb. I’ll repost if it goes away. Just please BE CAREFUL!

  41. In my own personal experience foam rolling only temporarily relieves it issue.

    It wasn’t till it tried egoscue exercises that I really found the issue which for me is a constantly tight hip flexor and psoas.

    Youtube the supine groin stretch. It take a half hour but it really makes a difference.

  42. I recently finished a round of physical therapy that I needed because of chronic shoulder and hip dislocation. Something that I have been doing wrong for YEARS because no one ever told me I was an expression to the rule, was stretching until I felt the stretch before and after exercising. I have hypermobility syndrome and I was hurting myself. She told me to warm up by starting slowly to exercise and to never stretch, but instead use a foam roller if my muscles got tight. She also taught me joint stabilizing exercises with a little extra core work added by lying on the foam roller and balancing while doing the exercises. So people with hypermobility/EDS, get a foam roller and stop stretching!

    1. Excuse the typos/autocorrect errors. I wrote that from my phone. 😉

  43. Haha, I seriously started reading this article because I thought it was going to talk about some kind of hair curler. I must have a lot to learn about the fitness world.

  44. Whether or not it’s doing much for my muscles, it feels absolutely amazing!!

  45. I only use foam rollers when I sit too long because I have a crouched back and using this will ease the pain of sitting too long.