If you think foam rollers are for Soccer Moms, think again. The best athletes in the world rely on them to stay in optimal condition.
You see them everywhere: At the gym, in sporting goods stores, and on TV shows like the “The Ultimate Fighter” on FX. They are cylinders of extruded high-density Styrofoam, commonly called foam rollers, and you can’t escape them. Nor should you.
Foam rollers may look about as tough as a pink yoga mat, but nearly every high-level athlete now uses one. The foam roller is the tool of choice for administering Self-Myofascial Release, commonly called SMR, a type of massage therapy that works painful adhesions out of muscle fibers.
Imagine a rope with a knot in the middle. Stretching the rope will only make that knot tighter and more ingrained into the fiber of the rope. SMR applies pressure to those knots, slowly loosening them up and providing a greater range of motion and ultimately less chance of injury.
Welterweight contender Aaron Simpson has been using a foam roller for years, ever since he was introduced to one by the sports medicine department at Arizona State University where he was an assistant wrestling coach. At 38 years old, and having recently moved down into a new weight class, Simpson is meticulous about keeping his body in optimal shape.
“We have a bunch of foam rollers at our gym and before practice the whole team will get on them,” says Simpson, who meets Mike Pierce in a welterweight showdown at UFC on FX 5 at the Target Center in Minneapolis on October 5. “I have one at home that I will get on at night when I am watching TV.”
The technique is surprisingly simple. Just place a foam roller on the floor and then lie down on it, allowing the weight of your various body parts to apply the pressure. Start with the calves just above the heels and slowly roll toward your knees. When you find what’s called a “trigger point” (you’ll know it when you do,) stop and let your weight bear down on that spot for 30 to 60 seconds. Just like a deep tissue massage this can be unpleasant, bordering on painful, but the long-term benefits are more than worth it.
“Every UFC Gym has several different SMR devices whether it is a foam roller or a grid roller, which is made out of PVC pipe and is a bit stiffer,” says Scott Ramsdell, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, MMACS, head DUT Instructor at the UFC Gyms. “The trainers at the UFC Gym are very familiar with foam roller techniques and use them with their clients on a daily basis.”
Simpson likes to use a foam roller before and after doing any lower-body weightlifting. A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research* showed that using a foam roller prior to a workout increased the range of motion in a joint without reducing the performance of the surrounding muscles.
Pregnant women and those suffering from osteoporosis or fibromyalgia should consult with their doctors before using a foam roller or any other SMR device. Ramsdell points out that SMR can benefit everyone, not just guys who fight in the Octagon for a living.
“Foam rolling might be even more important for desk-jockeys who sit down for 60 hours a week,” he says. “They have such unique muscle imbalances due to being at a computer all day.”