By Keith Barber
In any CrossFit box you walk in there is usually a section that is filled with what is commonly referred to as “mobility” equipment. This may consist of bands, foam rollers, lacrosse balls, percussion massagers, and other various instruments. Is all of this equipment really assisting you in achieving better mobility? To effectively answer that question there are a few other questions we have to answer first.
What kind of training are you doing? Are you a competitive CrossFit athlete that does multiple sessions a day? Or are you a member athlete who attends classes? The answer here might be a little different than you would expect. If you are a member athlete who attends classes you're actually less likely to improve your mobility by foam rolling alone. Most of us spend our days in very static positions.The body's amazing ability to adapt changes its muscular structure to fit those positions. When you foam roll an area you're not strengthening that area to be able to hold a different static position. At the very most all you're doing is slightly lengthening your muscle fibers. On the other hand as a competitive CrossFit athlete if you are foam rolling you're probably not increasing your mobility much more than a member athlete. Typically you create more fatigue during your workout sessions so your muscles become more “stiff”. Foam rolling can increase the blood flow to a certain area and allow you to access a larger range of motion a little bit better. I wouldn't make a bold claim and say that you improved your mobility though.
What areas are you foam rolling? If your foam rolling in your upper body it gets particularly tricky because, well, it’s awkward. There are a lot of bony protrusions in your upper body that make it difficult to move around on the foam roller. This makes it harder to roll the full length of a particular muscle group. Not being able to access the full length of the muscle makes it extremely difficult to make changes in your mobility. Foam rolling your lower body is a lot easier because you can reach all the nooks and crannies. Because you have this access you can actually effect some change to your mobility, but there are better alternatives that make the same changes faster and with a large range of motion.
So if you are not getting better mobility why do people flop around on a foam log after a workout? The main job of the foam roller is to recover your muscles. Foam rolling does this three different ways. One, by adding more blood flow to the desired area. Two, by lengthening out knotty fascia. And three, by removing waste by products that sit on your muscles after generating fatigue. Blood flow helps with the healthing process of muscle and connective tissues. So, by agitating the muscle with self massage, i.e. foam rolling, your body recognizes the damaged area as urgent and sends more blood flow to fix it. That healing process would occur naturally, but this speeds things up a bit. When your fascia gets knotted it pulls your muscles in different directions and causes “stiffness”. When stiffness happens your muscle can’t lengthen out to their full range of motion, and your connective tissue and your joints start taking on more load than they can handle. That leads straight to injury city. Finally, the waste products have to go. There are a series of chemical reactions that happen when you workout to produce energy. All the little by-products of those chemical reactions sit on your muscles if you don’t remove them. This is the worst for a few reasons, but the main reason is that it slows down the body's ability to build and repair muscle. In other words you lose GAINZ, and no one wants that.
Why do we foam roll? To speed up recovery, and keep our muscles healthy. There may be very minimal mobility changes that happen in extreme cases, but all in all, it’s better to do stretching and activation work to increase your range of motion and get stability in that range of motion. So next time you finish a workout and you want to do mobility work grab the bands instead of the foam roller.