How to Use a Foam Roller

How to Use a Foam Roller – Applied Movement Neurology

Foam Rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, is apparently designed to release muscle tightness or ‘trigger points’ and is the go-to thing to do when you’re feeling a bit tight or restricted.

Myofascial release (or self myofascial release, as it’s referred to when you’re going at it solo) aims to

  • relax contracted muscles,
  • improve blood and lymphatic circulation and
  • stimulate the stretch reflex in muscles

according to An Osteopathic Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment (3rd Edition) Chapter 12.  

bashing away at your muscles with a foam roller might not be the best idea if relaxing contracted muscles and stimulating the stretch reflex are what you have in mind….

Now some of you are probably thinking yeah but it’s supposed to be for the good of the fascia. Well that’s awesome, if you could take the fascia out, roll it, then put it back in without affecting the underlying muscle tissue. But you can’t so it’s pointless talking about one and not the other.

Hardware vs Software

  • Every system in the body is governed by the brain.

Even though the brain is an organ and the nerves are made of tissue like everything else, a good way to envision the relationship between the neural network and the rest of the body is to use a computer analogy. In this analogy, the nervous system will be the software whilst the muscles, fascia, joints, viscera etc are the hardware.

It is the interaction of the specialised receptors that live in the muscles, joints, skin, fascia, ligaments and tendons with the spinal cord and the brain that brings the tissue to life. When we look at a client’s movement we are really looking at how well the software is controlling the hardware.

Muscle Spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs

Two primary sensory receptors that live in our muscles are neuromuscular spindles and Golgi tendon organs.


In basic terms muscle spindles monitor the length, and the rate of change in length of our muscles constantly.

They are under reflexive control and will fire to varying degrees whenever a muscle lengthens to control the motion.

They live in the belly of the muscle tissue and can be manipulated in many ways through sensory stimulus, brain based drills and manual manipulation.

Golgi tendon organs (GTO’s) monitor the level of tension/contraction within a muscle and respond accordingly.

GTO’s live in the musculotendinous junction and their stimulation, which further increases the tension within the muscle would result in a reflex inhibition of the spindles and ‘relax’ the pec ultimately improving joint centration.

Muscles are either over facilitated or inhibited

There is no contraction without the nervous system.

When we describe a muscle as being tight we are really saying that there is too much input going to that muscle. It is never an accident and always an intelligent adaptation of the nervous system in response to the sensory stimulus being provided to the brain.

If a muscle is inhibited we would commonly refer to it as weak, this too is an intelligent adaptation of the system.

often times the brain is modulating muscle lengths and tensions in response to faulty information from the receptors within the muscles, joints and connective tissue.

Essentially the brain is making decisions and generating responses based on bad information. Injury and poor movement/lifestyle choices are often to blame.

Emotions, our organs, eyes and vestibular system (inner ear balance system) can also drive faulty muscle recruitment patterns.

Foam rolling to strengthen a muscle

To facilitate a ‘weak’ muscle we can use the roller to apply pressure through the belly of the muscle while shortening or contracting the same muscle.

To strengthen a muscle I recommend rolling for a maximum of 6-8 seconds followed by a short rest 1-3 times. Rolling for longer periods of time will most likely result in inhibition.

Foam rolling to lengthen a muscle

To inhibit a ‘tight’ muscle we can use the roller to apply pressure towards the origin while lengthening the muscle or contracting its antagonist (reciprocal inhibition).

The GTO’s live in and near the musculocutaneous junction where the muscle becomes tendon. Follow the same protocol as above and retest range of motion after a few applications of the technique.

You may have to get a little inventive with body position and which torture tool to utilise but once you understand the concept your corrective exercise and rehabilitation approaches will be improved.

Classic static stretching

Muscle spindles are sensitive to stretch and therefore fire when a muscle is lengthened.

Performing a static stretch on a muscle for a short period of time will actually make it stronger, not inhibited or ‘longer’ as is often the intension.

ONE LAST TIP > Please STOP rolling your IT Band. It’s absolutely pointless and just causes unnecessary pain.

Endlessly foam rolling the ITB can not only irritate the fat pad but compresses Vastus lateralis.

Focussed soft tissue release should be directed at TFL and Gluteus Medius which act as a direct tensioning to the fascia but no role in the ‘release’ of the fascial band itself, which is adherent via a fascial investment to the femur along its length.  

Other thoughts?

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