Ever seen one of those ugly styrofoam things at the gym and thought, What the heck is that? Well, you’re not alone.
This contraption that looks better suited for the craft section or a childcare playroom is actually your muscles’ new best friend.
In this article, you’ll learn how to use a foam roller, get familiar with some specific techniques, and find answers to frequently asked questions.
What is a Foam Roller?
A foam roller is a high density, column-shaped piece of styrofoam. The main function is to relieve muscle soreness, knots, and increase flexibility. This technique is called myofascial release, and I’m going to teach you how to use it!
In addition to finding out how to use a foam roller, you’ll discover that this gym accessory is more than a fad—it’s something that should become as routine as brushing your teeth!
What is fascia?
Fascia is a connective tissue in your body. I’m talking head to toe. It surrounds your muscles, nerves, and organs and can become unhealthy over time.
Foam rolling helps to circulate fresh, oxygenated blood throughout your muscles fibers leaving healthier, more pliable fascia behind.
Rolling can diminish your aches & pains, removing knots that often appear in strained or overworked muscles.
Benefits of foam rolling
Because of the increased oxygen flow, rolling can relieve muscle soreness and joint stress. Some people resort to laser or ultrasound therapy for healing purposes without first trying the holistic approach of foam rolling.
These expensive techniques promise similar results: quicker healing times, reduced inflammation, and pain relief. But why not skip the doctor’s office and expensive massages and try foam rolling?
Because of its restorative qualities, the roller can be just as beneficial (maybe more so) to those with more sedentary lifestyles.
Desk jobs and injuries can sideline your muscles, so it’s important to massage them in order to stay mobile. Both weightlifters and paper-pushers can see positive effects from the use of this handy tool.
How Hard Should Your Roller Be?
If you’re new to rolling, I suggest starting with a lower density roller and once your muscles have graduated, you can try another texture.
Some folks who really need the extra umph will use rollers with flexible grooves and ridges. These added textures will give your muscles a deeper massage, but they’re for the seasoned pro.
Your muscles have to adapt to this harsher form of myofascial release, so make sure you take baby steps!
What are some alternatives?
Grab a tennis or lacrosse ball! The smaller surface area will allow you to pinpoint pain with much more accuracy.
The simplest way to implement the ball technique is by placing the ball on your back and leaning against a sturdy wall.
Using your torso to guide both the direction and the pressure, move the ball toward those knots that build up in your trapezius muscle (see photo).
Have a really sore muscle that a ball can’t fix? Try a rolling pin! The rolling pin will be most effective when rolling your quads because it offers more precision.
Since rolling directly over the kneecap isn’t recommended, the hand-held quality of the rolling pin allows the roller to massage those tendons close to your knee without bothering the joint itself.
How To Foam Roll Different Parts of Your Body
To use a foam roller safely and properly, it’s important to understand the techniques themselves require a certain amount of practice. Each muscle group calls for something different.
To get the most out of your foam rolling experience, follow these simple steps, and let’s get your fascia loose!
Rolling your calves is not only great for your calves, it’s great for your neighboring muscles. Keeping your calves loose and nimble helps prevent injury.
The tighter your calves, the easier it is to tear surrounding tendons (including your Achilles).
First, put the roller under your calf. Then, with your hands by your sides, lift your hips off the floor and walk your hands forward and back, allowing your calves to glide along the roller.
Next, try rotating your hips and toes side-to-side to get the belly of the muscle. I like to describe this process as a “hurts so good” process. The discomfort you might feel at first is a good thing, so don’t be alarmed! As the discomfort eases, you know it’s time to increase the pressure!
To do this, simply cross your ankles and concentrate all your weight onto one leg.
Quads & Hamstrings
Myofascial release in the quadriceps helps loosen tightness around both the knee joint and the hip flexor, while rolling the hamstrings helps release lower back tension.
Hamstrings are notorious for being the most inflexible of muscles—especially in men, and especially when those men work at a desk all day.
Tight hamstrings can eventually lead to lower back pain, so if you’re feeling an ache in your back, the silent culprit might be your hamstrings!
For quads, you’ll be face down with your upper legs resting on the roller. The position is similar to a dolphin plank—forearms resting on the ground (see photo).
Using your arms, walk yourself over the roller, rotating hips to hit all 4 strands of your quadriceps. Be mindful not to let the roller hit your kneecap.
For the hamstrings, assume the same position as with the calf rolling. Lift hips off the ground, support yourself with your hands, and allow the roller to move slowly along the length of your hamstring.
Slow is key here. With any of these movements, it’s important to rest in the discomfort.
Now that you’ve experimented with the easiest muscle groups to foam roll, let’s focus on the IT band. I’m not going to lie— I neglect this roll the most because of how uncomfortable it can be. Stiffness in this ligament is most commonly felt among runners, but you can benefit from rolling the IT band even if you’re not a runner. This roll loosens your hips and helps guard your knees against injury.
Assume a side-plank position, propping your hip on the roller and bracing on the floor with your forearm. Plant the foot out in front—this allows you to shift body weight to and from the roller as necessary depending on pressure tolerance. Using your shoulder for support, pull your body along the roller from the top of your hip to the lateral portion of your knee.
Stretching your upper back can be challenging. After intensive back/shoulder workouts or even prolonged sitting, it’s crucial to flush out the lactic acid and work to maintain mobility in the shoulders.
I saved this roll for last because it’s the most relaxing and gratifying. After all, the work your upper body has done to lift you up and glide you over the roller, it deserves a massage—am I right?
Horizontal roller position: With your feet planted flat on the floor, lay your upper back on the roller. This is a great chance to get some glute work in, too, so put weight on your heels, lift your hips, and squeeze those glutes.
Once you’ve gotten into position, let your feet walk your back up and down the roller from the base of the neck to mid-back. Your arms should be outstretched and palms facing the ceiling.
Vertical roller position: This method doesn’t require rolling per se, but it does challenge your balance. Lay on the roller in a vertical position (the roller should be tracing the length of your spine). Shoulder blades will be cradling the roller.
Stretch your hands by your sides and move them slowly above your head. This jumping jacks motion is a good indicator of your shoulders’ flexibility.
Foam Roller FAQs
Q: When should you use a foam roller?
A: Myofascial release is such a vital thing to add to your routine, I would recommend foam rolling as often as you can. That being said, there are some times of the day when it is most beneficial.
Since foam rolling has a tendency to relax your body, it’s recommended to be performed immediately post-workout and before bedtime rather than as a warmup.
Q: Can foam rolling reduce cellulite?
A: Yes and no. The appearance of cellulite is actually a predisposed genetic condition in which fat cells are connected by a more fibrous tissue. This creates the dimpled look that many find frustrating.
Rolling can temporarily create the illusion that your cellulite has decreased because it causes the outer level of your skin to swell just slightly (dermal edema).
So while it’s not a permanent solution, rolling can smooth out your skin for a day or two.
Q: What are some common mistakes of foam rolling?
A: One common mistake is poor posture. Rolling is supposed to be helpful, but using improper form can lead to injury.
Just as you would practice proper form in workouts (i.e. keeping a neutral spine, tight core) you must make efforts to protect your body during rolling.
Equally distribute weight in your arms because many of the techniques require a substantial amount of shoulder strength.
Q: Can rolling fix an injury?
A: This is a solid no. Although rolling creates healthy muscle tissue and prevents injury, it will not heal your existing injury! This tool is amazing, but it’s not a magic wand.
If you think you may have muscle or soft tissue damage, see a doctor immediately.
Q: Can I roll for too long?
A: In fact, yes! As a rule of thumb, plan on spending roughly 15 minutes rolling. Anything beyond that could cause injury or bruising.
Yes, there will be some discomfort, but there is no need in causing yourself undue pain.
Q: What else do I need to know?
A: After rolling, drinking water is necessary. Myofascial release not only releases fascia—it releases toxins. Be sure to flush out your system with some fluid after each rolling routine.
Another beneficial beverage is ginger tea. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory and also has properties that encourage healthy circulation.
Now that we’ve covered the basics and you’ve graduated from Foam Rolling 101, give it a try!
These instructions cover basic techniques for rolling out your biggest muscles—ones that are often under the most stress.
And remember, you don’t have to be an elite athlete to roll. The posture-killing effects of sitting all day should make foam rolling an essential part of almost everyone’s day.
Ready? Set. Roll!
Runner’s World: Foam Rolling for Runners