Foam rollers are a simple piece of fitness equipment, yet carry with them a plethora of ill-informed notions. Often thought of as modern day torture devices, these cylindrical tools are not designed to ignite your pain receptors. In fact, there’s plenty of benefit that can come from a well-executed foam rolling session, provided that you’re using the tool correctly.
Knowing how to use your fitness accessory is just as important as owning it, regardless of the modality or discipline you’re trying to target. Foam rolling is no different, especially if you're trying improve your training recovery. Before we hop into some of the ways you can use your foam roller, it helps to get a little background on the practice itself, as well as the benefits each session holds.
How Foam Rolling Works
The practice of foam rolling is a method of self-myofascial release, or SMO. This discipline has been studied over and over for its intended benefits when it comes to relieving muscle soreness and eradicating any inflammation you may be experiencing across your muscle groups. Your fascia is kind of like webbing across your muscles, and when active, it should be flexible to help promote seamless movement and performance. This webbing can become stiff, however, due to overuse, inactivity or injury.
A good comparison to fascia is to think about your favorite leather goods. Continued, routine use keeps the textile flexible without a lot of stiffness, but leave a leather belt or pair of gloves in the closet for a while and watch how the material stiffens up. Foam rolling helps eliminate similar stiffness in your body through applied pressure and nerve activation.
Along those same lines, foam rolling has long been a popular pre-workout practice because of its influence on removing any muscle tightness before a hefty workout session. Painting away this tightness and rigidity can help improve range of motion, allowing you to move through your runs, circuits and lifting sessions with less internal resistance.
The Benefits of Foam Rolling
“Foam rolling is an application of force to the muscle. We naturally get knots, or ‘adhesions’ to the muscle, solely through movement,” says Charlee Atkins, CSCS, Master SoulCycle instructor and movement and mobility specialist. Essentially, this means the more you move, whether through cardio-based activities like running or strength-centric workouts, the more your muscles can tire and stiffen. Rolling out these developed knots and aches can allow for better blood flow to target areas, creating a better sense of relief and recovery as your training regimen continues. Plus, increasing blood flow to certain areas means the fascia is better lubricated and supported to heal itself post-workout, potentially leading to shorter recovery times — yet there is some benefit to taking a rest day or two from time to time.
On the opposite end of the workout, foam rolling can also have some perceived benefits in getting your body ready for training as opposed to recovery disciplines post-workout. Your fascia has nerves that make it almost as sensitive as your skin, and foam rolling can be an excellent way to get those nerve ends firing across your central nervous system for a more flexible, worthwhile training experience.
Tips for Getting Started With Foam Rolling
Focus on large muscle groups first.
Look, it goes without question that experiencing foam rolling for the first time may lead to some discomfort and unappealing sensations across your frame. Despite the perceived pain, though, you need to realize that this experience will get better as you do more rolling. Your fascia can become used to the added pressure that comes with rolling, but you need to start somewhere to achieve this understanding. It’s important to note, though, that you shouldn’t let discomfort tip over into physical pain. If you’re aggravating a present injury or pushing past that “hurts so good,” threshold, be sure to stop.
A good way to help your body grow accustomed to the sensations attributed to foam rolling is by first focusing on larger muscle groups. These areas can better dissipate the pressure felt across your device, leading to potentially less stress and strain that’s more approachable upon your first go-around. Additionally, aim to focus on meatier areas like your thighs, quads and calves to get a feeling for foam rolling first, as bony areas or joints may lead to more pain and aches than desired.
Roll slow and steady.
When you’re foam rolling, you’re putting pressure on your fascia to help activate those nerve endings while also squashing out any apparent stiffness. That pressure comes from your own bodyweight, and to create a free-flowing, consistent scale, it helps to go slow and steady. Give each muscle group its fair share of attention by rolling at a slower pace. A good ballpark speed is to cover an inch of muscle area per second of foam rolling.
Additionally, remember to move with the grain of your muscle structure, not against it. So, for example, if you’re rolling out your quads, you want to roll from the back of your knee up to your hip, then back down. This can alleviate any potential aches and unwanted pain while still providing exceptional release opportunities to the targeted area.
Take your time on especially tight areas.
Injured or compromised areas within your structure can need a little more kneading than others, so when you do roll across one of these problem spots pre- or post-workout, be sure to give it the time of day. A good practice across these knots is to slow your rolling motion or pause entirely atop the ache. While this might be painful at first, you need to remember that this act is giving your full bodyweight to the targeted spot, creating a better sense of pressure for the sake of myofascial release.
A little goes a long way.
Recovery or warmup practices don’t need to be a long, extended endeavor, and you’re more than capable of promoting better blood flow to your muscle groups with a slow yet short foam rolling session. Plus, odds are that you’re not going to find the pressure and aches as appealing as other recovery routines, which can lend itself to shortened durations. Still, when practiced for 90–120 seconds across your targeted muscles, this can be an effective way to either activate your fascia or help promote post-workout relief.
How to Foam Roll Specific Muscle Groups
How to foam roll your thighs
To target your quadriceps and front of your thighs, lay on your stomach and extend your legs back straight, similar to an Upward-Facing Dog yoga pose. Position your foam roller under your thighs at the base of your hip bones with your toes on the floor. Slowly roll out your quadriceps by creeping back and forth, striving to keep a consistent pressure on the foam roller.
For the back of your thighs, or hamstrings, flip over onto your back with your legs still extended. Place your foam roller just above the back of your knee, keeping your feet elevated from the floor. Walk your hands forward and back to begin your rolling plane while also keeping your glutes raised and elevated throughout your session.
You can also target the side of your thighs for IT Band relief by performing a side plank and resting atop your foam roller, again just above the kneecap. Shift your body forward and back while rolling across the outer portion of your leg. Be sure to switch sides after your 90–120 seconds have passed to help promote a full-body release.
How to foam roll your back
Your back is one of the largest muscle groups you can target with foam rolling, so it helps to understand how to efficiently target this area with each pass. For upper areas, place your foam roller under your upper back, bend your legs and straighten your arms. Brace from your feet and hands flat across the ground to enter a Bridge Pose, and slowly begin to shift forward and backward atop your recovery device.
For lower back aches, you’ll want your foam roller to be resting right at your lower back, slightly above your hips. Enter the Bridge Pose again, and begin rolling out your targeted area. It can help to target lower and upper back muscles in different sessions, as rolling your entire back in one fell swoop can take up a lot of floor space and lead to more readjustments when in the throws of a session.
How to foam roll your hip flexors
Lay on your stomach and place the roller under one hip with your legs spread apart in a staggered stance. Feel free to bend your non-foam-rolling leg as you please for better comfort. Rest on your forearms and begin to roll back and forth across your hip area. After your 90–120 seconds has commenced, switch sides and repeat.
How to foam roll your glutes
Targeting your glutes for foam rolling begins by placing your feet flat on the floor and bending down to sit your buttocks across your roller. Next, with your hands bracing your upper body, palms flat on the floor, begin to slowly roll back and forth across this muscle group, making sure to pause and apply pressure across particularly tender or aching spots.
How to foam roll your lats and shoulders
To target your lats, begin by lying on your side at a 45-degree angle with your foam roller resting in your armpit. With your foam-facing arm extended, begin to roll back and forth across your lat muscles, keeping attention more toward your back than your chest. Repeat on your adjacent side for a complete session.
Shoulders can be a little awkward to target at first, but over time, this modality can be quite useful, especially after upper body routines. Sit on the floor in a side cradle position with your hands down near your knees. Prop your bottom shoulder up atop your foam roller and follow your deltoid muscle through each pass. Your non-targeted arm can also rest out in front of your frame for more guidance and support through each pass. As with any isolated foam rolling exercise, though, be sure to switch sides for a complete routine.
Think you’ve got a solid beginner’s routine to start with? Feel like you’ve got a grasp on how to foam roll properly? Get your fascia firing for better performance and recovery with a few of our favorite foam rollers on the market today.