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It took me 25 years to finally figure out that too much of anything is probably a bad thing:
And a German fitness coach, who knew a whole lot more about the human body than I did.
Can you foam roll too much? In short: Yes. Your body is a master of reacting to external stressors: a toughened foam roller is one of them. As you build up a resistance to pain, your body may also be building a physical layer–similar to how our hands respond to repetitive friction with a callous.
When I had it explained to me, it made a lot of sense. But I thought I should do a little more research to be sure.
In this post, we’ll talk about:
- How foam rolling can help you;
- How it actually works;
- What the science has to say about foam rolling;
- And finally, why it’s possible that you’re already overdoing it.
Stick around till the end, too, where we’ll give our Bonus Tips for volleyball players (if you have knee or quadriceps pain, you’ll want to read Tip #2).
First thing’s first.
What is foam rolling?
For those who are completely new to foam rolling, the idea is simple:
Take a relatively hard object and use it as a means of self-massage and release of tight, pent-up muscle tension. The most common foam rollers are just a piece of tough plastic, wrapped up in a nice (often colorful) piece of soft foam to reduce irritation and help you ease into the process.
That’s not the scientific definition, but it’s a very beginner summary.
In peak performance gyms and social rec halls across the globe, these colorful foam rollers are making larger and more frequent appearances.
And if you’re here to find out whether or not you’re already doing too much of it, then I probably don’t need to remind you of what the foam rolling phenomenon already is. Then again…
One of the most common mistakes that beginners make is not understanding why they are foam rolling in the first place.
So let’s cover all bases here, and give a quick rundown of how foam rolling can actually help in the recovery and pain relief processes.
How does foam rolling actually work?
It all has to do with something called self-myofascial release.
Don’t worry, that’s the only long, complicated-sounding word you need to know to understand this article.
And all it really means is this:
When you roll out, you release built-up tension in the thin layer of connective tissue which separates your muscles and internal organs.
These layers of tissue are called fascia, and with repeated stress (such as exercise, lifting weights or playing a sport) they can tighten–decreasing your range of movement, creating stiffness and general discomfort.
What does the science say about foam rolling?
One metastudy found that, while the extent of foam rolling is still up for debate in research fields, there’s no doubt that it can help with improving Range Of Motion (ROM).
A metastudy is something you’ll hear us mention at Volley-Pedia (we’re nerds). All it means is a study that takes a whole bunch of other studies, then draws a conclusion from this bigger sample size.
In this study, 1) Hip mobility; and 2) Sit & Reach were improved significantly by foam rolling. And here, ‘significantly’ isn’t just my word. It’s an important word for researchers when they find that something is actually working according to the statistics.
And while it’s nice to know that ROM can be improved, flexibility isn’t the most exciting thing for most athletes–especially volleyballers.
Most of us tend to place a little more focus on the exciting things like jumping higher, hitting harder, and moving faster around the court.
Along with improvements to range of motion though, some studies within the metastudy reported significant increases to broad jump, vertical jump and even bench press.
Now I’m listening.
Anything that might improve your vertical is music to a volleyball players ears, and it could be why we see every other team packing three or four bright orange TriggerPoint foam rollers with them.
Are Trigger Point Rollers actually better though?
A quick aside: As far as quality goes, these really are the ones to be trusted–and if you’re wanting to follow the 3 Tips I’m about to share, then you’ll need one of these close at hand.
I’ve tried about ten different brands and styles of foam rollers throughout my career, and it’s more than disappointing to hear that solid cracking sound after just a few months or a year. Disappointing mostly because I’m too lazy to go and get a new one, and I just end up using the broken roller for much longer than is reasonable.
All of that simply to say I’d recommend getting something that you can use for at least a few years. The new Grid TriggerPoint foam rollers are an awesome new item worth looking into. You can check it out on Amazon where I highlighted the text.
But enough of that.
Foam rolling has already been shown to have some significant benefits:
When done properly.
That’s what this next section will get into a little deeper–to make sure you’re not doing more harm than good with that foam roller-turned-bazooka (it’s okay, I know you also wear it on your forearm, maybe quoting lines from Arnie in The Terminator).
Can you use a foam roller too much?
To help me answer this question in detail, I’ve recruited some help from German fitness guru, David.
*It’s worth noting that this David is pronounced, ‘Dah-VID’… in case you wanted it to sound right in your head.
David was an incredible help to me and my team while playing in Germany’s highest professional volleyball league, and he knows his stuff.
So when I asked him if he remembered what he told me about foam rolling, I wasn’t really surprised when he picked up the conversation right where we’d left off.
David made himself available within just a day of reaching out to him–this is why we love him, and why he’s such an incredibly valuable resource. As soon we got the usual ‘how are things?’ out of the way, it was straight into the value-packed monologue.
Here are the main points he covered:
1. Research from Wuppertal University is exploring the phenomenon of ‘unfolding the valves’; which is the process by which intense foam rolling can put so much pressure on your blood valves that blood is pushed in the wrong direction;
2. With repeated use, this could lead to spidery veins.
3. When the pressure is ever-increasing, this can also lead to a numbing of the nerves, losing feeling in your ITBs especially.
4. Too much irritation (foam rolling) can lead to increased cellulite synthesis: similar to a callous growing on your palm when you lift weights often, the body may produce a resistant layer to protect the soft tissue.
5. Rolling over the tendon is generally a bad idea, since it can cause real damage without doing much good.
6. There isn’t really much of a morphological basis for the benefits of foam rolling.
7. There is almost no good evidence that foam rolling actually helps with myofascial release.
In fact, on this last point, he mentioned a study which quoted that you would need 1 tonne of force in order to move your fascia just one inch…
He’d done it again; the German mastermind had me wanting to toss my foam roller in the can and walk away from the hoax.
However, this time, I convinced myself to push back for all of those who truly believe they get some benefit out of foam rolling–and for all those studies saying that it can help.
David isn’t a one-track record. In fact, he was the first to admit that foam rolling is great, when done in moderation.
Here are some of the positives he had to say for it. Foam rolling:
- Increases blood flow and circulation;
- Has a positive psychological effect on athletes (an important association when it comes to recovery);
- Can increase range of motion; and
- Relaxes the muscles prior to or post-activity.
So, should we avoid foam rolling at all costs? Of course not. And while David’s point about the ‘psychological benefits’ of foam rolling may sound a little wishy-washy: it’s important. When gameday comes around, if tying your left shoelace first can make a difference, or wearing your lucky pair of socks: then a psychologically feeling of being physically prepared for the match can go a long way.
So can an increase in Range of Motion. And so can better circulation.
Like with most things though, overdoing it is almost never a good idea.
BONUS TIPS (For Volleyball Players)
1. Stop rolling with both feet in the air!
One of the more common lower body rolling exercises is used for releasing tension in the IT Band:
That especially tough band of tissue which runs along the outer side of your thigh.
It’s also a relatively easy movement: just hop up on the foam roller and roll back forth with your feet hanging off the edge, right?
While this is a great way to get some additional pressure, it’s also a good way to mash your muscles up against your femur (that big bone in your upper leg).
Instead, try doing it like this, with one leg on the ground for support:
2. Spend some time on your VMO
This is a less common foam rolling exercise, but it’s key for relieving volleyball knee pain.
Keeping the muscles and tendons which support the knee flexible (and strong) is one of the most beneficial things you can do to relieve knee pain.
In fact, I probably spend most of my foam rolling time on my VMOs, just changing the angle slightly and holding for 6-8 seconds in each position.
Along with hitting the glutes, this is where I feel the most immediate effect, and for volleyballers it’s a must.
3. Release your neck
If you’ve never had shoulder pain while playing volleyball:
Keep it that way.
Volleyball takes a serious toll on the tendons and muscles of your shoulder, and things can get pretty tight and messed up in there.
One great trick for taking some stress off the shoulder is to release the tendon in your neck.
You’ll be better off with a tennis or lacrosse ball for this one.
Foam rollers are the companion you want to keep with you in moderation. For me personally, releasing tight or tense muscles just feels good and like I’m doing my body a favor. It also genuinely seems to help with my hip mobility and to ease some of the pain in my VMO and knee.
Ever since my first conversation with David though, I’ve limited my rolling habits to just twice per week. But it may be different for different bodies.
The best thing you can do is experiment: try two weeks without foam rolling at all, then introduce it back at twice per week. Did you notice a difference?
No, great–you can move on with your life. If you did, even better–it’s actually working.
Did you find this useful? Have any more foam roller questions that need answering?
Leave a comment below, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.