Foam Rollers: How To Use Them for Maximum Benefits

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A foam roller can be an invaluable tool for recovery. Learning to use them is key to a good experience.

When done correctly, you can expect faster recovery, less stiffness, and a wider range of motion. But get it wrong, and it could have the opposite effect.

Here’s how to find a good foam roller, how to use it right for different muscle groups, and some tips and tricks to maximize your foam rolling.

What Is Foam Rolling?

Foam rolling is the act of massaging your muscles using a roller made of foam. You can foam roller pretty much any part of your body. You also use your body weight for pressure, allowing you to dig deep into your muscles.

It has a big advantage over regular massage – it’s easy to do on your own as long as you have a roller! And compared to other types of self-massage, it’s much easier to hit those hard to reach areas.

We should point out that foam rolling differs from traditional massage, percussive, and trigger point massage. It’s more convenient than conventional massage, which requires a licensed therapist to do it right.

Foam rolling is also significantly cheaper than investing in a percussive massage gun. And unlike trigger point massage, foam rolling eases the stiffness of big muscles evenly, which is excellent for reducing overall DOMS and increasing circulation throughout your body.

How Does Foam Rolling Work?

Foam rolling helps with myofascial release, which releases tension in the fascia—the connective tissue covering your muscles.

The fascia can become tight and stiff or develop knots or adhesions that can cause pain in the muscle itself. Because it’s separate from the muscle and can contract and expand independently, sometimes the pain or stiffness you feel can come from the fascia and not the muscle itself.

Foam rolling loosens up that connective tissue and removes knots, allowing it to be flexible and move with your muscles easily. As you roll the roller over your muscles, it kneads out those tight spots and introduces flexibility back to the fascia.

As a result of the pressure, foam rolling also stimulates blood flow in the fascia and the muscle, which removes toxins and brings healthy nutrients and oxygen to the area. This makes a big difference in pain and stiffness and helps your muscles to recover faster.

Benefits of Using a Foam Roller

If you aren’t already using a foam roller, here are a few reasons to try it!

Improved Muscle Flexibility and Range of Motion

Foam rolling releases tension that tightens the fascia and the muscles. Without tension on either of these, your muscles can move more easily through their full range of motion without being held back by tightness or pain.

This makes you more flexible and helps your joints move with a fuller range of motion. Runners and athletes will find that this enhances their performance and reduces the chance of injury during exercise.

Reduced Muscle Soreness

Relieving the muscle tension makes a big difference to your pain levels. But foam rolling also promotes blood flow in the area, which brings much-needed nutrients and oxygen to the muscles and removes metabolic waste, alleviating soreness much faster.

Alleviates Muscle Knots and Trigger Points

Foam rolling can release general tightness but can also be used to release knots, or “trigger points”. Applying gentle pressure by foam rolling can help them to break up and ease that pain.

Helps Prevents Injury

Tight muscles and fascia may cause you to alter your form to accommodate a lack of flexibility or to avoid pain. This is one of the easiest ways to injure yourself! Foam rolling keeps your muscles loose and feeling great, so you’re much less likely to change your form and injure yourself.

Improves Post-Workout Recovery

The increased blood flow and reduced tightness in the muscle and its fascia provide healthy nutrients and oxygen to the muscle to help it heal faster. Plus, flushing out that metabolic waste faster speeds up the whole process.

How to Use a Foam Roller the Right Way

If you’re new to foam rolling or have been doing it for a while but aren’t feeling the benefits, you might be using yours incorrectly. Here’s a quick overview of the right way to use a foam roller:

  1. Find the sore or stiff spot on your muscle.
  2. Lower yourself onto the foam roller or place the foam roller on the sore spot.
  3. Apply pressure until you feel discomfort—not pain.
  4. Hold it in this position for 20 to 30 seconds.
  5. Ease the pressure slightly and roll back and forth across the spot.
  6. Continue to do so across each muscle.

You can also roll more generally across big muscles to relieve overall stiffness rather than targeting specific points.

Keep in mind that your usage may change slightly depending on where you’re using the foam roller. Let’s look at some more specific uses and how to do it correctly.

Foam Rolling Your Back

Sit on the ground, preferably on a yoga mat, for comfort. Place the foam roller behind you and bend your knees so your feet are on the ground in front of you. Lie back gently and adjust your position until the roller is at your mid-back.

Keeping your core tight, lift your glutes off the ground so you’re leaning entirely on the foam roller with just your feet on the ground. Cross your arms over your front for more stability.

Roll back and forth from your mid-back to your upper back and then back down.

Important note: Avoid rolling your lower back, as it’s extremely susceptible to injury. As a guide, don’t move the roller past your ribs.

Shoulders

Lie on your side with the affected shoulder on the foam roller. Extend your arm and keep it straight as you roll so it doesn’t get in the way.

Shift your weight forwards and backward on the roller to massage your shoulder well. Switch sides and do the other shoulder.

Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)

Lie on your side with the foam roller underneath your lat. Extend your arm upwards so it doesn’t get in the way. You can bend your elbow and place it on the floor if that would help you to keep your balance, but make sure it’s just for support and you aren’t placing pressure on it—the pressure should be on the roller.

Using your legs and free hand, move upwards and downwards to roll over the lat muscle. It doesn’t need a wide range of motion—just enough to roll over the sore spot and loosen those muscle fibers.

Quads

Get into a plank position, either on your hands or on your forearms. Place the foam roller underneath your quads and put your weight on it, but make sure you’re keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain the right form.

Push with your arms and toes to roll your quads over the roller. You can do one at a time if it’s easier, but either way works well.

Hip Flexors

Prepare yourself like you would for foam rolling your quads, except you’ll place the foam roller higher up where your hip flexors are. Roll them the same way, but be aware that this range of movement is very small.

You can do both simultaneously, or you can focus on one side and then switch over to the other. Whichever feels more comfortable to you.

Hamstrings

Sit on a yoga mat with your legs out in front of you. Bend one knee and lift your glutes off the mat with your arms behind you. Place the foam roller underneath the extended leg’s hamstring.

Lower your weight onto it, continue supporting yourself with your arms, and stabilize yourself with your bent leg. Roll yourself back and forth along the roller the full length of your hamstring. Switch legs and repeat the process.

Glutes

Sit on the foam roller with your knees bent. You will need to stabilize yourself with your hands on the floor behind you. Cross your left leg over your right leg to place the pressure on the right glute muscle.

Roll back and forth and side to side, until you feel some relief. Switch sides and repeat the process with the left glute.

IT Band

Get into a side plank position with the foam roller under your outer thigh. Lean your weight on it and, supporting yourself with your hands and crossing your other leg in front of you, roll the length of your thigh from the hip to just above the knee.

Calves

Sit with one leg extended in front of you. Place the foam roller underneath this calf and lift yourself off the ground so your calf is resting on the foam roller. Roll from just below your knee to just above your ankle. Switch sides and repeat the process.

When Should You Use a Foam Roller?

You can use a foam roller at any time for general muscle aches and stiffness. But you can maximize your foam roller use by rolling lightly before workouts, increasing blood flow and warming up your muscles.

You can also foam roll after a workout, which may help eliminate metabolic waste and prevent soreness from setting in. Foam roll on your rest days as well to keep your muscles flexible and help them recover faster.

When Should You Not Use a Foam Roller?

You shouldn’t use a foam roller on a muscle if you have an injury, because it can make it worse. If you aren’t sure if your muscle is just stiff or if it’s injured, get checked by a medical professional.

Some signs of injury to be aware of include:

  • Excess soreness on one side but not the other (left/right)
  • Sharp, shooting pains when you’re moving
  • Noticeable pain when you’re at rest
  • Swelling and redness in an area

Choosing Your Foam Roller

Foam rollers come in various shapes, sizes, and densities. New rollers should opt for a medium-density to low-density roller with a smooth surface, which will help you to get used to the pressure without it being too firm and causing more pain.

Once you’re used to it and can easily handle the pressure, you can upgrade to a firmer-density roller if needed. You can also try a foam roller with ridges or texture on its surface.

Accomplished foam rollers might want to look into other shapes, like a peanut, a foam ball, or a massage stick.

As for size, a larger one is probably best for your first one. A roller of about 5 to 6 inches in diameter and 36-ish inches in length will be enough to cover everything we’ve mentioned above.

Common Foam Rolling Mistakes to Avoid

Planning on using your foam roller more often? Here are some of the most common foam roller mistakes to avoid when using yours so you get the best results.

Rolling Too Fast

The faster you go, the less pressure you can exert. Roll too fast, and you’ll be reducing the effectiveness of the action, and you may miss trigger points.

Rolling Too Hard

While pressure is necessary, too much pressure can hurt you and lead to an actual injury. Apply moderate pressure initially, and ease up if you feel pain.

Rolling Over Bones or Joints

Foam rolling is for muscles and soft tissue. There’s no benefit to rolling over a bone or joint—foam rolling is not the answer if you have pain here. See a medical professional instead.

It’s especially important not to foam roll your lower back over the spine because there’s a higher chance of injury. You can roll the muscles around the spine.

Rolling Injured Muscles

Foam rolling is for stiff, achy muscles—not for injured muscles. It’s in your best interest to carefully assess whether or not your pain is an injury or just stiffness, but rolling over an injured muscle can make the injury worse.

Rolling From Only One Angle

Most muscles can be targeted from multiple angles. Changing body position or the position of the roller can help you reach trigger points more easily or find ones you didn’t feel from the first angle.

Rolling Too Little/Too Much

You should be rolling on sore muscles for at least 30 seconds to get the full benefits. Limit your foam rolling to 10 to 15 minutes in total.

Not Breathing Right

As painful as it may be, try not to hold your breath while foam rolling your muscles. This can increase the tension in your body and make it more painful and less effective. Breathe deeply throughout the foam rolling process.

Not Staying Hydrated

Foam rolling can cause toxins in the muscle tissues to be released so they can be excreted. It might not seem big, but staying hydrated before and after foam rolling can help.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.