As in, the foam roller you see at the gym or in physical therapy practices. It can come in varying levels of firmness, from squishy like the white foam that might surround a boxed-up stereo, to (seemingly) as hard as PVC pipe!
The practice is technically called Self Myofascial Release and the bottom line is that by manually kneading the body’s fascia —the connective tissue that supports and protects the body—you can actually release the bonds that keep it too tightly bound to muscles, bones, and ligaments. (Check out this piece for a great explanation of the importance of fascia and keeping it in mind as you work out.)
The result: healthier, more elastic fascia, increased flexibility, and a more smoothed-out look overall.
This last claim caught me by surprise and took some convincing. I first heard about this benefit when I recently interviewed Hollywood trainer Ashely Borden, who counts Reese Witherspoon, Nastasha Bedingfield and Mandy Moore among her famous clients, and she couldn’t rave enough about the power of some simple work with a roller. Countless clients have come to her with bulked up legs from a lifetime of over-training (i.e. too much cycling or running) or what she has termed “Mirror Body Syndrome” (from only focusing on what you can see in the mirror!) and she swears that with regular use of a roller, she’s able to bring their bodies to a more balanced, leaner look.
It actually makes perfect sense, when you think about it. While one’s body is not the same as, oh say, clay, it is malleable to some degree—and with diligent work you can actually loosen up overly-taut fascia to allow muscles to lengthen, even if only tiny amounts. A little bit goes a long way.
And the benefits go beyond aesthetics and vanity. Tight hamstrings, sore iliotibial bands, and aching calves or glutes can all be targeted, near-immediate relief in just a few minutes of rolling-out per day. (You can do it anywhere, anytime; I like to plop down while watching TV.)