Over the last five years, there’s been a huge increase in the awareness of the importance of fascia. The awareness has spread beyond just research institutions and small parts of the health and fitness world (like, say the Rolfing® Structural Integration community) and has spread into personal training regimens, running magazines, crossfit forums, etc. etc.
Suffice it to say that if you’re an active amateur or professional athlete, it’s extremely unlikely that you haven’t heard of rolling your body on something like this:
If you’ve never seen a foam roller, now you have. Foam rollers are dense, stiff pieces of foam that allow you to apply pressure to your fascia, stimulating nerve receptors in your fascia that affect the length and tension of muscles in your body. By foam rolling regularly, you can lengthen and relax hyperactive, overly tight tissues and restore proper flexibility and range of motion to your body.
Rolfing works in a similar way. By applying pressure to your fascia, a Rolfer can help you lengthen and relax overly tight tissues to help you restore proper flexibility and range of motion to your body. But does that mean a foam roller can replace a Rolfer? If a foam roller can replace a Rolfer, you can stand to save a lot of money on sessions!
I am biased (as I am a Rolfer), but I will admit that a foam roller can replace a Rolfer in some ways! There are areas of your body that can be regularly foam rolled to maintain proper muscle balance. Particularly for those who do endurance training (like triathletes and marathon runners) or do high volume training at the gym, foam rolling can help keep your body from tightening up and solidifying inefficient movement patterns. Calves often get gummed up from overtraining, as do hamstrings and your lats (the wing muscle on swimmers). For parts of the body like that, you will often be able to foam roll and get yourself some relief and relaxation.
But there are times when foam rolling is just not the same. Take, for example, your chest muscles. The pectoral muscles are often extremely difficult to foam roll effectively because of the thin layer of skin and muscle between the foam roller (or tennis ball) and the rib cage or the coracoid process. Foam rolling this area gets dicey very quickly, as the pain of pressing on bones is neither pleasurable nor particularly therapeutic. Getting the right amount of pressure focused on the right areas is simply impossible with a foam roller.
Even on areas that can be foam rolled regularly like the calves, a Rolfer can do things that an inanimate piece of foam can’t (hard to believe, I know!). Taking your ankle into different degrees of flexion, paying special attention to the various muscles, ligaments, and tendons of your lower leg and foot, and loosening particular parts that need to be loosened (rather than hitting EVERYTHING) can be extremely useful and beneficial to your body. Unless you can figure out how to gently work with the fascia and other soft tissues right around your ankle bone with a hard piece of foam, there simply isn’t an alternative to a Rolfer.
That means that if you DON’T need detailed work and find yourself getting by without a Rolfer, you’re probably doing fine. But if you find yourself having trouble maintaining functional symmetry in your activities or that your range of motion is impaired by various muscle imbalances, then a foam roller may not be all you need.
I’ve worked with countless people who have come to me even after foam rolling on a regular basis for months or years. Usually these are people who feel the pain of foam rolling, have seen some benefits in their flexibility or range of motion, but still feel like the same stubborn areas are staying tight no matter how much foam rolling they do.
In these cases, a foam roller’s lack of knowledge of anatomy and physiology is a real detriment. Foam rollers just don’t have the training they need to be as helpful as a human being. Knowledge of the relevant anatomy and the physiological processes at play can help you parse out the imbalances, and are a necessary part of developing a plan to restabilize your body. If that means other parts need to be loosened and other parts need to be strengthened, most people don’t have the free time (years) it takes to acquire the knowledge to know how to make those decisions, and foam rollers just seem stubbornly and willfully ignorant!
So can a foam roller replace a Rolfer? In my opinion: yes for some things, but not entirely. They can be a great supplement to working with a Rolfer, but they cannot be complete substitutes, as nice as that would be!
If you need to buy a foam roller, I recommend these handy 18″ foam rollers from Amazon.com. They’re nice and firm and they are very reasonably priced.