Self-myofascial release, or foam rolling, has been touted as the method of priming and recovering muscles. But what is it actually doing? How does it work? When should I “roll out”? Let’s get into all of that and clear up all confusion about foam rolling and how it can benefit you. 

Anatomy Brief: What is Fascia?

Before we start talking about foam rolling, it’s important to have an understanding of fascia. Fascia is a commonly overlooked part of the body. Scientists are even debating whether or not it should be its own body system, so it must be important, right?

Fascia is connective tissue that covers every body structure within us—including muscle. Fascia connects one area of the body to another. For example, our body has what’s known as the “posterior sling.” 

Posterior Sling

This sling consists of the latissimus dorsi and the opposite side gluteus maximus muscle that are interconnected by the thoracolumbar fascia.  This fascia crosses the middle of the body around the level of the spine meets the tailbone. This is amazing, because when one of the muscles in this sling is activated, the other muscle is too.

However, this can also be a problem when one of the muscles and surrounding fascia are tight in the sling. This concept does not just apply to the posterior sling; there are connections between all of the muscles in the body.

Problems in this fascial system typically become evident when we experience taut bands of muscle tissue or restricted range of motion around a joint. Some people also experience muscle soreness. How can this soreness be prevented? How can this muscle tightness be relieved? Enter, foam rolling. 

Foam Rolling: How Does it Work?

Foam rolling is a form of self-massage, in which targeted muscles are rolled and compressed using an external device.  This device may be the well-known foam rollers that are seen around fitness clubs, or a massaging stick, ball, or wedge. There are several theories behind how these devices work with implications on the quality of the muscle, the nutrients provided to the muscle, how nerves communicate with the muscle, and how our thoughts affect the process. 

The Theories

Mechanically, there are theories that suggest that rolling can reduce tissue adhesions that would otherwise prohibit the muscle from gliding during contraction. In addition, there are theories that propose rolling causes changes in muscle tissue stiffness.

Physiologically, it’s possible that localized compression causes a minor inflammatory response. As a result, this could both increase blood flow and nutrients to the area. It may also bring substances that break down trigger points. 

On a neurological level, it is possible that rolling can impact nerves in a way that reduces pain perception. While foam rolling may decrease pain, it may increase and improve nerve signaling to the muscle, causing muscle performance to be more efficient.

Psychophysiology looks at the relationship between the body and the mind. It is possible that the act of foam rolling combined with a belief in its effectiveness, could be enough for it to work.  In other words, the body is triggered to produce the required responses to exercise for good recovery. 

There is no definitive answer as to how foam rolling works to produce the effects seen. In reality, it is likely a combination of the theories above. The great news is that regardless of how it works, there is evidence to support that it does have effects on muscle performance and recovery. Let’s get into it!

Foam Rolling: The Evidence

Based on current research, foam rolling is beneficial for muscular function, reducing muscle soreness, and improving range of motion. Studies regarding foam rolling are divided into two major categories: the effects of pre-performance rolling, and the effects of post-performance rolling. Likewise, we will discuss the effects of foam rolling in this fashion.

The Effects of Pre-Performance Foam Rolling

Many studies have observed the effects of pre-rolling with regard to sprint performance, jumping, flexibility, and muscular strength. These studies stem from the neurological theories regarding foam rolling. The idea is that rolling prior to performance primes the neuromuscular system to work more efficiently. Studies observing how foam rolling affects flexibility on the other hand, lean toward the mechanical theories of altering tissue quality. 

The Findings: 

  1. Foam rolling prior to exercise/performance had short-term positive effects on range of motion. In studies assessing the flexibility of multiple joints, subjects in the foam rolling groups saw statistically significant gains in flexibility compared to control groups. Flexibility returned to baseline after about one-week post-intervention. Subjects who both foam-rolled and stretched saw even greater effects. 
  2. Pre-rolling resulted in improved sprint performance. This may be related to the neuromuscular theories behind foam rolling regarding efficiency, as well as regarding muscle fatigue. If scientists are correct in hypothesizing that foam rolling can help prevent muscle fatigue and soreness, then it is possible that foam rolling prior to sprinting could reduce fatigue in those muscle groups. This would allow a sprinter to possibly run a bit quicker or further than usual. 
  3. Foam rolling had negligible effects on jumping and muscular strength. While there may be implications of positive impacts on the neuromuscular components of performance, there is no evidence that foam rolling  increases muscle mass or muscular strength.

The Bottom Line: foam rolling prior to exercise can increase flexibility, improve sprint performance, and does not have an impact on jump height and muscle strength.

The Effects of Post-Performance Foam Rolling

When we look at post-performance foam rolling, the evidence focuses more on muscle recovery, reduction of muscle soreness, and pain perception. Eliminating knots and reducing stiffness decreases the feeling of muscle soreness. A small inflammatory process may allow the muscle to recover more quickly due to having nutrients more readily available. Furthermore, a person who believes that foam rolling will reduce muscle soreness post-exercise will likely perceive reduced soreness/pain. Let’s see how well these thought processes hold up.

The Findings:

  1. Foam rolling after fatigue-inducing and intense exercise reduced muscle soreness over around 3 days post-exercise session. Several studies have been performed involving subjects fatiguing a muscle group, foam rolling it, and rating their muscle pain and soreness at various time points. Compared to subjects who do not foam roll after intense exercise, foam rolling subjects saw a significant reduction in muscle soreness at all time points. 
  2. Post-exercise foam rolling also increased pressure-pain threshold. Pressure-pain threshold is a measure that assesses how much pressure a structure can withstand before a person experiences pain. The higher the threshold, the more pressure someone can withstand. Similar to the muscle soreness research, pressure-pain threshold was measured at various time points, with increased thresholds seen for up to 30 minutes post-intervention.   
  3. Interesting finding to note; Despite research that pre-performance foam rolling has little to no effect on jumping, there are quite a few studies that report improved performance in vertical jumps after foam rolling following fatiguing exercise. The same subjects in some of the studies looking at soreness also performed vertical jump tests after foam rolling (or not). The groups in the studies that foam rolled performed better than the control groups on a vertical jump test. So while foam rolling cannot make you stronger, it can help you recover more quickly for multiple bouts of high performance.                                                                                                                                                 

The Bottom Line: foam rolling after exercise can reduce muscle soreness and muscle pain, and can reduce recovery time between explosive bouts of activity.

Vibrating Foam Rollers? 

One detail-aspect of foam rolling that I will touch on briefly is the use of vibrating vs. non-vibrating foam rollers. The use of vibration has been used in several ways in the health and wellness industry; from massage tools to vibration plates at the gym. Recently, a study sought to determine whether vibration foam rolling provided greater muscle recovery benefits than non-vibration foam rolling. 

This study showed that participants in the vibration foam rolling group had significantly less muscle soreness and increased localized flexibility compared to the non-vibration foam rolling group. This study also looked at several other factors, including pressure-pain threshold, oxygen saturation, jump performance, and hip and knee range of motion. None of these factors differed significantly between groups. 

Gaps in the Literature

The research behind foam rolling is few and far between. However, there are quality articles and studies out there that inform when and why it is used. One of the major gaps in the literature is a protocol for using the roller. 


Is it continuous, or should you rest on the sore spots? What pace/tempo should you be rolling at? How long should you foam roll for? What density of foam, or self-myofascial release product is ideal? 

Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to those questions at this point. Different schools of thought train different methods. There is yet to be any evidence claiming one method as superior. One way to begin sifting through the techniques is talking to a trained professional. Physical therapists or other movement specialists can point you in the right direction based on your purpose for foam rolling and your body’s needs. 

Tips, Tricks, and the Basics

As stated previously, there is no definitively correct way to foam roll. However, there are definitive incorrect ways to foam roll. Here are a few guidelines:

  1. Always position the roller perpendicular to the direction of the muscle fibers. We always want to roll with the fibers, not across them (see examples below).
  2. Do not roll over the abdominals; it’s wildly uncomfortable, unnecessary, and could be dangerous.
  3. Avoid rolling over superficial bony areas (i.e. the knee cap).
  4. Foam roll on a flat sturdy surface, preferably a floor. 
  5. If you experience pain at any point, STOP. Discomfort is very common with self-myofascial release; pain is unacceptable. Don’t be a hero and try to push through it.

Finally, we have a lovely image library of major muscle groups that you can roll out! These come from “Self-Myofascial Release Techniques” by Michael Clark, MS, PT, PES, CSCS and Alan Russell, ATC, NASM-PES, CSCS. Enjoy!

Specific Self-Myofascial Release Techniques

Iliotibial Tract (IT Band)

Foam rolling IT Band                                                                                                                                           

Position yourself side lying on foam roll with your bottom leg raised slightly off floor. Maintain head in “neutral” with ears aligned with shoulders. Roll just below hip joint down the outer thigh to the knee.

Glutes and Piriformis

hip pain

Begin positioned as shown with foot crossed to opposite knee. Roll on the back of the hip (gluteal) area. Increase the stretch by pulling the knee toward the opposite shoulder.


tight hamstrings
Place hamstrings (back of the thighs) on the roll with hips unsupported. Cross your feet to increase leverage. Roll from knee up towards buttocks while keeping legs straight.


core strengthening

Position your body as seen above on forearms with the front of the thighs on the foam roll. It is very important to maintain proper core control (abdominal drawn-In position & tight gluteals) to prevent low back compensations. Roll from your pelvic bone to knee, emphasizing the outer thigh area.

Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL)

physical therapy in Lincoln Park
Position your body as shown above with the roller placed just to the outside of the front pelvic bone (ASIS).


adductor strain
Extend the thigh and place foam roll along the inner thigh region and roll up to the groin area with body as positioned above. Be cautious when rolling near the groin area into the pelvis.

Latissimus Dorsi

low back pain
Position yourself side lying with arm outstretched and roller placed under the arm area and slightly back towards outer shoulder blade. Make sure your thumb is pointed up to pre-stretch the muscle. Movement during this technique is minimal.

Rhomboids, Traps, and Erectors

foam rolling upper back

Cross arms to the opposite shoulder to clear the shoulder blades out of the way. While maintaining abdominal activation, raise hips until unsupported. Also stabilize the head in “neutral.” Roll mid-back area on the foam.

Written by Lauren Schnidman, DPT


  1. Romero-Moraleda B, González-García J, Cuéllar-Rayo Á, Balsalobre-Fernández C, Muñoz-García D, Morencos E. Effects of Vibration and Non-Vibration Foam Roller on Recovery after Exercise with Induced Muscle Damage. J Sports Sci Med. 2019;18(1):172–180. Published 2019 Feb 11.
  2. Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. The Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager on Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: A Systematic Review.  Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827–838.
  3. Healey, C., Kellie, Hatfield, L., Disa, Blanpied, R., Peter, Dorfman, R., Leah, Riebe, R., Deborah. The Effects of Myofascial Release With Foam Rolling on Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014;28(1):61-68. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182956569
  4. Fleckenstein J, Wilke J, Vogt L, Banzer W. Preventive and Regenerative Foam Rolling are Equally Effective in Reducing Fatigue-Related Impairments of Muscle Function following Exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 2017;16(4):474–479. Published 2017 Dec 1.
  5. Macdonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool after an Intense Bout of Physical Activity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2014;46(1):131-142. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3182a123db
  6. (“Self-Myofascial Release Techniques” by Michael Clark, MS, PT, PES, CSCS and Alan Russell, ATC, NASM-PES, CSCS)