What’s the point of the cylindrical tube on the gym floor? And why do the people using such an innocent looking piece of equipment grimace so much?

The foam roller is a cylindrical piece of foam that has become internationally familiar over the last few years. This article summarily caps the history of the foam roller, starting from its roots in traditional massage all the way to why it works and also introduces different descriptions as to why it does.

The history of foam rolling

Foam rolling is a great form of manual therapy, that means using your hands, almost like a massage without the masseuse, so to appreciate where foam rolling comes from, it is important to delve into the origins of manual therapy.

Manual therapy can be traced to ancient civilizations in both India and China where it was used as a conventional medicine to treat a variety of medical problems.
Research advises that the introduction of massage to Europe is associated to Per Hendrik Ling, who in the early 19th century formed a systematic method of powerful massage methods to improve your blood and lymph circulation. That said, Ling, is not considered to have been liable for the modern use of medical massage therapies. Instead, Dr. Johann Mezger, a physician from Amsterdam is connected with one of the first clinical use of massage therapy and was also the first person to watch at massage from a scientific viewpoint; looking at the anatomy and physiology of massage. Mezger and his organization also conducted many scientific experiments from the 1860s to the late 19th century to assess the effectiveness of massage.

The practice of massage therapy as a cure (as opposed to for relaxation) reduced after the Second World War due to the increase of revisions including the snappily titled ‘proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.’ A form of stretching that physios and sports therapists still use today, ultrasound and microwave techniques that insisted on producing equivalent results without the concrete work, time and cost connected with deep tissue massage.

Sports massage didn’t suffer the same drop off in popularity as therapeutic massage. Nowadays therapeutic massage is seldom used in Western medicine except in sports medicine and palliative care, although it is beginning a comeback in alternative and complementary medicine.

So, back to foam rolling, the new kid on the block. The newest academically proclaimed use of foam rolling could be traced back to the year 2000 when it was mentioned in academic literature as a form of manual therapy, used to alleviate tension and aid recovery from exercise.

From this point on, the use of foam rollers slowly began to appear in both educational and more so modern literature, and their cult status continues to increase. In the past five years the use of the foam roller has exploded (not literally, unlike the also famous Swiss ball) and they can now be seen on virtually every gym floor in the country.
There are, nonetheless, very few research studies that have looked at the effects of using a foam roller on the body.

How does it work? The Anatomy and Physiology of Massage and Self Massage

The point of foam rolling is to manipulate fascia.
Fascia scientifically known as the dense unique connective tissue is a fibrous tissue that encompasses and combines every muscle, joint, and organ of the body. There are three main types of fascia, based on their location in your body;

  • Superficial fascia found just underneath the skin
  • Deep (or muscle) fascia, the dense fibrous connective tissue that penetrates and surrounds the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body
  • Visceral fascia, this keeps your organs where they are intended to be and wraps them in connective tissue
  • The fascia predominantly affected by self-massage and traditional massage (and therefore foam-rolling) is deep fascia.

What could be any easier? Just jump on a piece of foam and roll up and down. Could anyone do that right? Yes, anyone can, but very few do. Why? Mainly because it hurts but it is still beneficial, but my god is it sore.

Yes, today we are talking about the foam roller, the cost-effective means of kneading your aching muscles and pushing you to embrace pain during your rest days. Who created the foam roller? What was its purpose and how did it end up in gyms across the world?

By the end of the article you’ll have the answers to these questions and perhaps have a newfound appreciation for the $20 torture device.

Who created the foam roller?

Moshe Feldenkrais

Foam rollers were initially used by Feldenkrais practitioners through the 1980s. Never knew of it? Me neither.

Created by Moshé Feldenkrais in the latter half of the 20th century, the Feldenkrais technique aims to decrease injury and mobility issues alongside improving physical functioning through increasing clients’ knowledge of their own body. It originated in the early 1920s when Moshe Feldenkrais, a physicist, and martial artist, learned to minimize pain in his knee and improve his athletic accomplishments after paying keen attention to how his body moved. While its effectiveness has been challenged in recent years, there are those who swear by the Feldenkrais method in helping their ailments.

In any case, Feldenkrais practitioners first used foam rollers as body supports and to do standing stability work with their clients.

Knowledge of foam rollers didn’t remain a secret for long though. In 1987 physical therapist and then Feldenkrais student, Sean Gallagher began to use foam rollers as a self-massage tool. Gallagher soon got in contact with Jerome Robbins, a well-known Broadway star, and told Robbins about the advantages of foam rolling for hurting muscles. Overseeing a troupe of dancers who needed to be in show position every night, Robbins asked his cast members to experiment with foam rollers. To his great delight, the feedback from his dancers was overwhelmingly concrete, leading to the opening of foam rollers en masse for Broadway actresses.

So how did foam rollers end up on your Gym floor?

While it’s a little more challenging to pinpoint who started foam rollers to the weight lifting community, many are in understanding that the works of Physical Therapist Mike Clark during the 1990s helped spread the message of foam rolling under the guise of what Clark termed “self-myofascial relief.” In his pre-millennia writings, Clarke produced many manuals detailing foam rolling for self-massage practices. This eventually culminated in Clarke’s opus Integrated Training for the New Millennium published in 2001.

Slowly but steadily the fashionableness of foam rolling began to grow, especially amongst weight lifters, as a means of reducing aching muscles and improving gym performance. A 2004 T-Nation article by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson demonstrates the enthusiasm early pioneers had for the roller. 2004 also saw the first foam roller patent registered in the United States, kicking the foam roller business into overdrive.

Nowadays a quick foam roller hunt on Amazon results in over 1,000 results, declaring it safe to say that the foam roller has become a fully acquired member of the weightlifting family. So just like the Swiss Ball, we have the physical therapy community to thank for yet a different gym toy.

So next time you’re crying your eyes out while rolling your quads, you know specifically who to blame!