Mainstream fitness media would have you believe that foam rolling is an essential part of warming up. Have you ever wondered what's the reasoning behind this?
Foam rolling is a method of 'myofascial release'. What does this mean? Fascia is a thin connective tissue that surrounds our muscles. The basic premise is that you have 'knots', 'scar tissue', or other bad things in your fascia that need to be 'released'.
The problem is that there's pretty poor evidence of these 'knots' being real. Furthermore, even if they were real, the pressure that would be needed to make structural changes to fascia is gargantuan. One study found that 852kg of load was needed to alter the fascia of the foot by just 1%. Safe to say that your body weight pressed against a foam roller is way off that mark.
Give your foam roller to someone who will truly appreciate it.
Additionally, not every muscle in your body is meant to be soft! Muscles like your lower back and IT band are supposed to be tight! They provide stability to the joints around them. If they feel overly tight, it's usually due to some other muscle not doing its job. Rolling them constantly is only aggravating them further.
Does it work?
Even if the scientific reasoning is incorrect, foam rolling could still be useful. And there is some research showing that it can be useful for enhancing mobility and reducing muscle soreness.
The problem with this? This can also be achieved by simply just moving. Especially practicing the movement you're stiff in.
Struggling with squat mobility? Why not just practice the squat?
Legs feeling sore after leg day? Go for a damn walk.
"But It Works For Me!"
Every time I have 'the foam rolling' conversation with someone, I tend to get a lot of pushback. I get it, you feel better after you roll around on the thing for a few minutes. Not surprising, as research has shown that even badly performed massage can have calming effects. And, as I've covered, foam rolling can work for giving you a temporary increase in mobility.
But it's nothing that can't also be achieved by just moving the joint that you want to mobilise. And if movement and foam rolling achieve the same effects, that tells us that foam rolling isn't even necessary. Movement on the other hand, is. So just do a solid movement based warm-up before training and you'll likely feel just as good.
Foam rolling works, but no better than easier and cost-free approaches. I haven't properly used a foam roller or any other form of 'myofascial release' for over 5 years now. Instead, I just practice movements I want to get better at, and stretch areas that are tight.
If you'd rather use a foam roller, than so be it. Just remember you can buy a piece of PVC pipe from a DIY shop for much less money to get the exact same effect!