Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release that involves gentle sustained pressure on the myofascial connective tissue. Evidence suggests that foam rolling reduces tension and improves range of motion.
"Fitness Professionals are not qualified to diagnose or treat injuries. Physical injuries should be diagnosed and treated by a health / medical professional. This article does not provide medical advice, and the techniques should only be used as part of a guided referral from your health professional. Foam rolling is not advised for people suffering from congestive heart failure, kidney failure or other organ failures, bleeding disorders, or contagious skin conditions."
The word Myo means “about the muscles.” Fascia is sheets of connective tissue surrounding the muscles, bones, nerves, and organs of the body.
Points of restriction in the muscle fascia, sometimes called trigger points, can pressure muscle tissue and the associated nerves, often causing excessive pain and stiffness.
Exercise Professionals, therapists, and athletes use foam rollers to perform specific exercises, reducing the pain and discomfort associated with trigger points. Sportsmen and women often “warm-up” with a foam roller before activity.
Throughout this article, I will show you the basics of foam rolling. Before we start, there are a few things you are going to need.
- A good quality foam roller
- A good quality, non-slip yoga mat
- Flexible sports clothing
It would be best if you also took a minute to assess the area where you plan to foam roll. Checking for hazards before you start can save you a headache (literally!) later. Sharp edges from broken flooring, trip hazards, or even an open drawer can cause problems when foam rolling.
Using a foam roller can be a bit of a painful shock. Don’t worry. Your body and mind will become conditioned to it, and the discomfort will ease as you reduce the number of trigger points.
I like to work on what I call bittersweet discomfort. You need to breathe while relaxing the muscle tissue, not screw up your face, and tense your muscles while hyperventilating. Increasing the pain level will not increase the efficiency of the exercise. It’s all about finding balance. I want you to finish a foam rolling session as if you have liberated your muscles, not bruised them.
When you perform every exercise, you need to follow this simple process.
- Control your body as you assume the required position. Do not “flop” or “hop” into the posture. Practising the moves without the foam roller is often worthwhile to ensure you’re strong and flexible enough to hold it safely.
- Once you have positioned yourself, take a few deep breathes and focus on relaxing the muscles. I like to imagine my muscles melting around the foam roller. You should breathe fully and regularly throughout the exercise.
- Make sure your core is braced, and your spine is robust and neutral. Several foam rolling exercises involve a modified plank position. You wouldn’t perform a plank with relaxed abs and rounded shoulders.
- Begin rolling slowly up and down the muscles for at least thirty seconds but no longer than two minutes.
- Some coaches encourage you to roll up and down the muscle’s entire length in long sweeping movements. I feel that this can force you out of the correct posture when working on extended areas such as quads, hamstrings, and calves, potentially risking injury to the shoulders, back, and hips. I like to select a 20 cm section and roll back and forth, looking for trigger points. When I get feedback from the tissue (i.e., it hurts), I focus on that small area until the discomfort reduces. I will then relocate the roller, change my position slightly if necessary and repeat for the next 20cm section.
- Remove yourself from the position by establishing a solid three-point contact with the floor and removing the foam roller from contact with the muscles.
If my muscles feel particularly tight, I perform a “de-sensitizing roll” before starting the exercise. This involves a few quick movements to activate the muscle group I’m about to roll (squats for quads, heel raises for calves, etc.), followed by fast, sweeping rolling at very light pressure. I find this prepares my muscles for the more intensive pressure.
Let’s take a look at some foam roller exercises.
Length of Spine
It targets the back muscles, particularly the spinal muscles.
Position the roller lengthways. Lie supine on the roller with the knees bent and the feet and hands on the floor.
Gently sway the body from side to side, shifting the weight slightly from left to right. The roller will travel a few centimetres on either side of the spine. You should feel a gentle compression and stretch of the fascia on both sides.
Breathe fully and regularly.
Control the swaying movement with your hips and feet rather than your arms and back.
For specific back problems, this may be unsuitable. It may also be problematic for clients with osteoporosis.
Upper Back (Thoracic)
It targets the stubborn muscles of the upper back.
Position the roller sideways. Lie supine on the floor with the knees bent and place the mid-back on the roller. Clasp the hands behind the head to support the neck. The head and shoulder blades should be off the floor.
Raise the buttocks 5-10cm off the floor and bend the knees to bring the buttocks closer to the heels. The roller will travel up the spine towards the shoulders. Then begin to straighten the legs, and the roller will travel back down the spine towards the bottom of the rib cage. Breathe fully and regularly throughout.
I will sometimes change my elbows’ position to increase the range of upper back tissue the roller is affecting.
For specific back problems, this may be unsuitable. It may also be problematic for clients with osteoporosis.
Glutes / Iliotibial Band
Targets the gluteal muscles and ITB
Position the roller lengthways. There are three positions for this exercise to target the different muscle groups.
Buttocks: Sit upright on the roller with the feet on the floor. Straighten one leg but keep the other knee bent. Ensure all of the weight is on the buttock of the straight leg
Iliotibial Band: Rotate the body to the side and cross the bent knee over the straight leg. Rest on the bent elbow
Front of hip – Rotate the body further still to almost facing the floor, keeping the front knee slightly less bent than for position 2
Bend and straighten the knee so the roller travels up and down the length of the hip. Breathe fully and regularly throughout.
When rolling the buttocks, it sometimes helps to feel like you are pinning the trigger point down and peeling it away.
Clients suffering from sciatica may find this particularly painful and might consider avoiding this exercise.
It targets the muscles at the front of the thigh.
Position the roller sideways. Lie prone with the elbows bent and the forearms on the floor (plank position). The roller is underneath the middle of the quadriceps.
Move the roller up and down the thighs by pushing and pulling with the arms (the shoulders will travel behind the elbows to push back and then in front of the elbows to pull forwards). Breathe fully and regularly.
I like to roll three different lines along the quads. A medial line or the inside of the quads. A middle line from the hip flexor to the knee and a lateral line from outside the hip to the outside of the knee. You could find many hidden trigger points that would otherwise not get targeted with a conventional hip flexor to knee roll.
People with lower back issues should maintain a tight core to avoid sagging. People with knee pain might find the lower quads to be excessively painful.
Targets the muscles at the back of the thigh
Position the roller sideways. Sit upright with the roller underneath the middle of the hamstrings. Place your hands on the floor.
Move the roller forwards and backwards underneath the thighs. You can roll both of your hamstrings at once or move one leg off to the side. Breathe fully and regularly throughout.
The hamstrings’ nature makes them notoriously more difficult to foam roll effectively than the quadriceps. If you have a very sturdy hard chair or perhaps a plyometrics box in the gym, try positioning the roller under your hamstrings while sitting with bent legs. This will sometimes target the tissue more effectively.
The hand position can place extra stress on the wrist joint and is unsuitable for specific wrist problems.
Targets the muscles at the back of the lower leg
Position the roller sideways. While sitting down, extend one of your legs straight out in front of you and place the foam roller under the lower leg. Rest your opposite foot on the floor with a bent knee. Position your hands behind you on the floor.
Take the weight in your arms and move the roller forwards and backwards underneath the lower leg. You can roll both calves at once or move one leg off to the side. Breathe fully and regularly throughout.
Try changing the angle of attack by merely rotating the leg slightly. There are often trigger points in the area where the calf becomes slimmer (at the bottom of the gastrocnemius).
This can be an excruciating area to foam roll. It can also stress the wrists and arms, which may be unsuitable for specific conditions.
Targets the muscles of the inner thigh
Position the roller at a 45° angle, halfway between sideways and lengthways. Lie in a prone position (plank) and extend one leg to the side with a bent knee. Position the foam roller under the muscles of the inner thigh.
Take the weight in your arms and move the roller forwards and backwards along the inner thigh. Breathe fully and regularly throughout.
The adductors are full of trigger points. As usual, I will look for a trigger point and focus on it, followed by performing a sawing motion with my leg across the roller to work on the tissue.
This exercise’s leg position can make it unsuitable for people suffering from a degenerative disease of the hip.
It targets the muscles of the side of the upper back.
Position the roller sideways. Lay down on your side and place the foam roller underneath your armpit at the top of your lats. Extend the arm closest to the ground over your head in a straight line with your body. You can bend one knee to 90° if this is comfortable.
Roll slowly from the armpit down towards the bottom of the rib cage. It is worth rotating the upper body slightly as you target the hidden trigger points. Breathe fully and regularly throughout.
Enhance this exercise by making the extended arm’s hand into a fist and giving a thumbs up with the thumb pointing towards the ceiling.
People suffering from shoulder issues might find this position aggravates their injury.
I have been foam rolling for 15 years. I will continue to foam roll forever as part of my preparation and recovery for training and sport.
Foam rolling, performed correctly, is a fantastic tool for imparting change to tight and sore muscle tissue. It is fascinating to study the scientific literature for evidence of its efficacy. The ongoing research shows that foam rolling is not a fad and is here to stay. I hope my article has given you an insight into how to implement foam rolling, not only in your training but in your lifestyle.
How often should I foam roll?
There is no limit to how often you can foam roll. I would suggest you start by performing a 10-15 minute session two to three times a week and see how it can fit into your schedule.
Are foam rollers any different from each other?
The quality of foam rollers can vary massively. I always advise buying the best quality roller you can afford.
Is Foam Rolling painful?
It can be pretty uncomfortable. Hopefully, the tips I’ve provided in this article will allow you to discover the “bittersweet discomfort” rather than pain.
I’ve got an injury, should I use a foam roller?
In most cases, a foam roller is perfectly safe to use. However, I recommend you seek your healthcare professional’s advice to see if foam rolling would be safe and effective during your rehabilitation.
About the Author
Nathan Carter has been a highly qualified health and fitness professional for the past twenty years. Educated at the University of Bath, Nathan has been on a path of professional and personal development ever since, helping thousands of clients to achieve their health and wellness goals. He has hundreds of published articles in both printed and online media.