Getting in shape requires some discomfort if you want real results, and using a foam roller is no exception. Described as a type of self-massage, foam rolling works by releasing myofascial adhesions or “trigger points” — tiny knots that develop in overworked muscles.
These knots can create miniature “speed bumps” that shorten and affect the ability of the muscle to function normally, says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat: The Complete Guide to Fueling Your Triathlon.
Benefits of Foam Rolling
A 2014 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows foam rolling is an effective way to relieve painful muscle spasms and allow for better circulation. In addition, foam rolling before exercise was found to ease post-exercise fatigue, according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
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Foam rolling performs many roles, says Justin Price, creator of The Biomechanics Method and author of The Amazing Tennis Ball Back Pain Cure.
“It increases circulation and joint flexibility, reduces scar tissue and adhesions, releases endorphins, reduces inflammation and stimulates muscle repair,” Price says. Plus, it’s easy to do.
“You place it under the target muscle, roll out to get the blood flowing to the area, then stop at a trigger point and breathe into it,” Holland says. You’ll know you’ve hit a trigger point when you reach a suddenly painful spot.
“Foam rolling is not a substitute for traditional stretching but is more of an adjunct to stretching,” Holland says. You can reap the benefits of foam rolling whether you use a roller before or after your workout.
Tips to Remember
General guidelines for using a foam roller:
- Remember to breathe slowly; avoid holding your breath. Focus on relaxing. Sensitive muscles tend to tighten up when you apply pressure to them, so start slowly to prevent this reaction.
- Start out gradually with 20-second bouts per muscle and work your way up to 60 seconds.
- Work within your own comfort level. Use pressure that’s on par with the pain of a good massage, not to the point where you can hardly stand it.
- Never use the roller directly on a joint, only the muscles.
- Use the roller before and/or after a workout or whenever you feel muscle tightness and need a break.
See What Works for You
Try these simple foam roller stretches (check with a doctor first if you have any compromised or limited physical conditions):
Snow Angel: a total body and spine stretch that’s particularly good after a long day hunched over a computer
- Lie on your back on top of the roller, making sure the roller completely supports the entire length of your spine.
- Keep knees bent, feet flat on the floor and arms out to the sides, palms up.
- Swing your arms out to the side and bring them together overhead as you focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together (think of squeezing an orange between them) while bending your elbows until you find a comfortable position.
- Hold for the desired length of time.
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Mid-back Release: helps release the difficult-to-reach muscles of the mid-back
- Position yourself perpendicular to the roller and position the roller underneath your shoulder blades.
- Keep knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Bring your hands behind your head, lightly lacing together fingers with elbows out to the sides OR cross arms in front of you with hands on opposite shoulders.
- Look up towards the ceiling as you slowly arch backward over the roller. Go only as far back as you can and then slowly return to starting position.
- Instead of rolling backward, keep the roller under your shoulder blades and raise your hips up until your knees, hips and shoulders form a straight line (see this photo under “rolling bridge”).
- Push into the floor with your feet until legs are straight, as you allow the roller to slowly move down your spine; roll back up.
Outer thigh roll: This positioning and technique can be similarly applied to any muscle group.
- Lie face down in a push-up position with one outer thigh on roller. From this position with the outer thigh on the roller just above the knee, lower your chest to the floor as you allow the roller to travel up the thigh and finish just below the hip as you get to the bottom of the push-up.
In each of these moves be sure to hold them on tender spots for the desired amount of time, gradually increasing within your comfort level.
See the author demonstrate use of the foam roller in this video: