What Is Foam-Rolling? Do You Need It?

Think of it as a deep tissue massage you can do for yourself.

Foam-rolling improves mobility and flexibility, and can aid muscle recovery. By Lester Wong

Firmer foam rollers provide a deeper, more intense, massage than the gentler and softer ones. Photo: Mihai Blanaru /

Many people are familiar with the virtues of deep tissue massage to relieve knots and tightness in the muscles.

This massage is usually done by a sports therapist or masseuse, especially for hard-to-reach places like the shoulders and the back.

You can also release these tight muscles yourself, using devices known as foam rollers.

Ms Rue She, a senior group exercise coordinator at fitness chain Virgin Active, which has a weekly foam-rolling class, said: "Foam-rolling aids muscle recovery by preventing the build-up of lactic acid and also improves mobility and flexibility."

(Also read: 6 Most Common Sports Injuries)


Foam-rolling can be done before and after workouts.

The process of applying pressure to the muscles to relieve tension is called myofascial release. Fascia is a fibre-like sheet of connective tissue beneath the skin that holds together the muscles, ligaments, bones and organs of the body.

The various fasciae in the body need to be fluid enough to stretch and slide between themselves. "When this fluidity is compromised, our muscles become strained and the chance of feeling pain increases," said Mr Ray Loh, an exercise physiologist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Sports and Medicine Clinic.

"By applying pressure and tension to the connective tissue, regular foam-rolling can help break up adhesions that form between fascia and restore this fluidity."

(Also read: Foam-Rolling Exercises For Runners)


Foam rollers are cylinder-shaped and differ in firmness or density.

Firmer foam rollers provide a deeper, more intense, massage than the gentler and softer ones.

"Harder foams are preferred for tendons such as the Achilles tendon. Softer ones are more suitable for the glutes," said Mr Loh. "We don't want to irritate the nerves during foam-rolling."

Working on a particular spot excessively, especially if the area is already injured or inflamed, can cause nerve irritation.

There are specialised kinds of foam rollers that vary in length and diameter, as well as having textures such as ridges.

Another option - a massage ball - is best used for small surface areas to release muscle tension. These balls are portable and easy to use.

Other options include tennis balls, which can be used for more sensitive areas like the lower back. Softballs or baseballs, which are firmer, can be used to massage the glutes or calves more deeply.

PVC pipes or wooden rods can also be used to relieve tension in the hamstrings, calves, quadriceps and lower back.

Ms She said: "The rigid pipe can apply a much greater force to these areas than the foam roller and is very portable as well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2016, with the headline 'Roll away tight muscles'.

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