Foam Rolling Is The Solution – For Both Active And Inactive Bodies!

Do you recognise any of these symptoms?

Muscle soreness?
Reduced physical function?
Poor posture?
Reduce range of motion (ROM)?
Weakness or stiffness?
Joint stress?

Then I suggest you read on!

The traditional approach to stretching pre & post workout has changed.

We all know that we should train, and we can get excited about the activities that “get us to our goal” and which make us feel as though we’ve put in the hard yards. The surge of endorphins as we kick-start a bout of exercise can be a motivation in it’s self. But are we forgetting an important part? What about the side of working out which doesn’t provide an instant boost, but which is equally, if not more, important in achieving our health and fitness goals?

I am certainly guilty as charged as a serial skipper of pre- & post-workout at times. On more than a few occasions I have lumbered up the stairs to the crossfit box, aching all over because I skipped my stretches, knowing that I will get my body into trouble all over again.Why foam rolling works for both active and inactive people

I find “ordinary” stretching boring. Also, I find the traditional approach to stretching somewhat flawed. It is based on the premise that more is better; engage in stretching activities hard and frequently, and your muscles will ‘stretch’.

To a certain degree yes; our muscles do adapt with static holds, but the main player at this party is our CNS (central nervous system). My patience for tedious activities is not the best (as my wife will attest). I find it very difficult to focus on a single static stretch for the required amount of time, especially knowing that there is a long line of aching muscles and joints waiting patiently to have their turn.

This was however only true until I was introduced to the foam roller! Using concepts extracted from dynamic stretching and professional sporting teams, we, the general public, now have access to relatively cheap and portable ‘stretching’ devices that not only give a far better pre- and post workout effect, but which also provide a dynamic and rewarding exercise which allows you to feel instant rewards!

But first let’s get back to basics; what causes muscle pain?

Muscle pain is typically the result of frequent overuse, tension or muscle injury occurring from exercise, strenuous and repetitive work tasks and/or inactivity.

This means that both active and inactive individuals will experience different levels of muscle pain, for better or worse, which needs to be treated regularly not to cause long-term problems.

Let’s for a minute focus on repetitive tasks and inactivity: Muscles, which are held in a shortened position, will increase in tone, but at the same time this practice will cause a chronic imbalance if applied in the wrong situations. A key concept we need to explore is Davis’ Law. Davis’ Law explains that the main reason muscles remain short, is due to the collagen fibers of the fascia structurally holding the muscle in a shortened position.

Following the shocking statistics we explored in last weeks’ post about sedentary lifestyle issues, an Australian Health Survey in 2011/2012 found that Aussies spend over one month a year sitting, watching TV! That’s 13 hour a week -and that is just our leisure time. Add the average time seated at work for managers, professionals and clerical staff of approximately 22-23 hours a week, and we start to paint quite a distressing picture (1). These facts tie in perfectly with Davis’ Law. For example while in a seated position the muscles involved in hip flexion are in a shortened position for an awful long time day in day out, causing chronic shortening of the muscle tissue.

Muscles work in partnership

Our muscles work in balance with one another. A good example of this is the bicep and triceps. As you extend (straighten) your arm, the tricep contracts and the bicep relaxes. Now if you were to flex your arm the muscle/muscle groups switch roles.

Poor posture and exercise related soreness can breed imbalance issues; we disrupt the synergy.

A typical example of this is observed in sedentary patients; prolonged periods of sitting or laying down, weakens muscle groups in the buttocks and outer hip muscles. Take for instance the study by Magalhaes (2). They compared the hip strength of sedentary females with and without patellofemoral pain syndrome (chronic pain or discomfort in the front of the knee [patella], also called “runners knee“). The results showed that hip strength in patients with patellofemoral pain syndrome was reduced by 15-20% compared to the control group of patients without patellofemoral syndrome. The patella needs to be held in place by muscles on both sides of the leg, pulling in either direction to create stability. If one of the muscles are weaker than the other, you will get a malalignment, and this imbalance of muscular strength and flexibilty can lead to chronic injury,

Let me introduce you to Self Myofascial Release (SMR) aka Self Massage!

Myofascial release, or trigger point massage, utilises foam rollers, lacrosse balls and other tools. This type of massage focuses on the neural and mechanical systems in the body. A concentrated pressure to specific parts of your body assists in regaining, maintaining and growing your functional range of muscle stability and movement.

SMR works when the mechanical pressure (foam roller) is placed against the muscle. Muscles contain 2 neural receptors: muscle spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO). When stimulated, these receptors trigger a reflex via afferent action potentials leading to muscle contraction. When a sustained force (in this case the foam roller) is applied, the impulses cease firing resulting in relaxation of the muscle fibres. The neural receptors essentially “switch off”.

You can compare this action to that which happens when you first get a new piece of jewellery. For the first little while it’s annoying and feels uncomfortable. Soon, you get “used to it” (via mechanoreceptor adaptation) and no longer feel the discomfort; it becomes part of you. This actually happens as a neurological response, not because of “habit”. Your neural receptors stop firing, and you no longer “feel” the discomfort. 

When the neural receptors stop firing, your muscle tissue is allowed to relax and heal.

The term fascia comes from the Latin word meaning ‘band’. It is a connective structure that surrounds, in this case, a muscle or groups of muscles. This lining is composed of connective tissue which covers and supports the muscles. In healthy conditions, the fascia is a 3D spider-web like structure. Through injury, overuse and/or underuse (sedentary lifestyle) this fascia hardens and scarring can occur. The fascia loses its’ cushioning ability, creating tension on internal structures. This is an imbalance in our bodies tensegrity architecture, which leads can cause pain in completely different areas than where the muscle shortening is actually located.

For example; a muscle shortening in your back, can cause neck pain and headaches.

I really recommend taking a look at this short video, as it explains in a simple and really cool way how synergy and muscle balance actually works in our bodies!

Now you can probably understand why it is so important to relax and heal you muscle tissue, and why this is the absolute best way to create genuine and lasting results!


  • Maintain flexibility, power and strength (3)
  • Correct the muscle imbalances (3)
  • Improved sleep (4)
  • Reduction in anxiety levels (4)
  • Improved neuromuscular efficiency (3)
  • Increase joint range of motion (3)
  • Reduce soreness and improve tissue recovery (3)
  • Improved pain perception (4)
  • Decrease stress on the system (3)



These are so-called Triggerpoint Rollers, and they are my personal favourites. A triggerpoint roller has certain characteristics, and brand doesn’t matter.

These come in 3 different lengths; 66cm, 33cm and the mini 10.5cm. The 33cm one is a favourite of mine, and it easily fits into  carry-on luggage when traveling. It has a hard core, wrapped in EVA foam. I find this means it doesn’t sink like other rollers when you apply more pressure.

High density foam


This is a High Density foam roller. (multiple brands available).

This one would be recognisable to a lot of you, who have visited a physio and/or a pilates studio. It comes in a number of sizes, and also, depending on the brand, is one of the cheapest on the market. My wife is a big pilates enthusiast, and this is her favourite as it can be used for a multitude of pilates core and balance exercises in addition to rolling. She has a full body length one, which she uses regularly throughout the day to stretch and perform exercises in her work breaks.

Knuckles roller


It looks a bit scary, I know, but the design of this roller is meant to replicate that of a physical therapist/masseuses’ thumbs during a massage. The 3D bumps are designed to improve blood flow at the site of contact with the tissue.


You might have seen them laying about the gym, wondering what they’re for, or perhaps even given them a go, trying to figure out how to make them work for you. To get targeted benefits from foam rollers, there are a few guidelines to abide by, and I will outline some of them for you in this article, followed by concrete exercises that you can do at home or at the gym.

Here are some guidelines and muscles to target:

  • The key element here is slow movement. You must roll slowly on the targeted areas until you find a tender spot; hold on that spot and relax. Pausing at a painful area stimulates the GTO, and inhibits the muscle spindles which decreases muscular tension and pain perception. Will it hurt – yes, probably. This really is short-term pain for long-term gain!
  • Breathe! Focus on your breath, breathe into your belly and ribcage, allowing your chest to expand. Force the air out through your mouth, as slowly as you can.

  • Maintain your core stability throughout the duration of the exercise. A slack core will not only take away from the exercise, but can also hurt your back. The key here is aiming to draw your navel towards your spine!
  • The point of the exercise is to use your body weight as a means of applying pressure to the target point. If it is too painful in the beginning to leverage your whole body on the roller, you can ease into it by resting an arm or a leg on the floor for support.
  • Take your time, and make sure you address all areas! Remember that the muscles are in balance; they work together like the instruments in an orchestra, and you are the conductor. No symphony was ever played well with only a violin and a cymbal! If your roll the front muscle groups (e.g. the quadriceps), ensure that you follow on by rolling the back muscle group (e.g. hamstrings).
  • Be consistent; add foam rolling into your everyday routines. You can keep a roller by your desk in the office, and use it during your breaks. This will create fantastic relief from your sedentary workday!

Note:  Never roll a bone or joint, and avoid rolling the lower back


Includes the gastrocnemius and soleus.

This bipennate muscle consists of two rows of oblique muscle fibers converging on the Achilles Tendon. These generate incredible amounts of power, enabling us to walk, run and jump!

Antagonist: tibialis anterior

N.B To increase the focus on your calves, place one leg over the other. Then repeat on the other calf.


Formed of three muscles; the biceps femoris, the semitendinousis and the semimembranousis. These muscles act upon both the knee and hip. Their roles are varied but their function can be largely grouped together responsible for knee flexion and hip extension during walking, running and jumping.


This is thick band of fascia that plays a crucial role in hip abduction, flexion and lateral rotation. It also contributes to lateral knee stabilisation. It originates on the anterolateral lip of the iliac crest and inserts laterally on the tibia. Iliotibial Band Syndrome is a common injury, particularly in people who increase their exercise regime and/or runners who increase their milage. 


These are you ‘powerhouse’ muscles. The gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, semitendinous, and semimembranousus.

The extensor group does what it says on the label, they allow the body to regain an erect position.


Formed of 4 major portions; rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. This powerful muscle group is responsible for extension of knee in activities such as walking, running and squatting. They assist in hip flexion due to the insertion of the rectus femoris to the ilium, and also patella stabilisation.


Throughout this series, we’ll continue to explore dynamic stretching, and how to take effective breaks from your desk. If you have any particular request, some exercises that you have not yet mastered, or particularly tricky muscles to target; please write below and we can work together in our THGF community to…

Note: A point of caution, patients with bleeding disorders, heart failure, kidney failure and skin conditions: If in doubt check with your GP!

Nick Pfeffer - The Gluten Free Lifesaver

(3) Clark MA, Lucett SL. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training, Baltimore, MD:Lippincott Williams & Wilkins;2011
- See more at:
(4) Hou CR, Tsai LC, Cheng KF, Chung KC, Hong CZ. Immediate effects of various
therapeutic modalities on cervical myofascial pain and trigger-point sensitivity. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2002;83: 1406-14. 

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