A foam roller is an incredibly versatile piece of equipment that serves many important roles during and after your workout.
Foam rollers were once used exclusively by personal trainers, professional athletes and coaches as a way of stretching and helping muscles recover. However, in recent years this practice has been brought into the mainstream with affordable products and increased awareness of its benefits.
Most people are familiar with using a foam roller to massage tight muscles, but they can be used for so much more.
Benefits Of Foam Rolling
In addition to just feeling great, there are actually many health benefits to using a foam roller. Here are some:
- Increased flexibility: Foam rolling helps to alleviate muscle tension and tightness, which can actually improve your flexibility and joint range of motion.
- Stress reduction: Releasing muscle tension can reduce the amount of stress hormone in your body after exercising. Lowering this hormone level can help you feel less stressed out and calmer.
- Improved muscle recovery: Relieving muscle soreness and stiffness helps the muscle to recover quicker and be ready for your next workout.
- Injury prevention: Overuse injuries can occur when muscles aren’t stretched properly or when adequate recovery isn’t allowed to happen before the next workout. Foam rolling promotes muscle healing and reduces inflammation and tightness to help prevent injuries.
How To Use A Foam Roller
Foam rollers are most commonly used for myofascial release, which is a fancy way of saying that foam rollers will give you a deep tissue massage to help roll out knots and tight muscles. Carefully position yourself over the roller and use your body weight to slowly roll back and forth on the roller. Common trouble spots include:
- Hamstrings: Place the roller under your thighs as you sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Use your hands to hold your buttocks off the floor so that your weight is primarily on the foam roller and roll back and forth gently.
- Quadriceps: Lay face down on the floor with your legs extended out behind you. Place the roller under the upper thighs and support your weight with your forearms or hands. Roll from the hip to the top of the knee to get a good stretch. You can also do one leg at a time, by keeping the foot of the thigh you are stretching off of the floor.
- Iliotibial band (IT band): The IT band runs along the outside of the thigh, from the hip down to the side of the knee. To work this tendon, lie on your side and place the foam roller under your bottom thigh, between the knee and hip. Cross the top leg over the bottom leg, bend your knee and place your foot flat on the floor. Keep your bottom foot off the floor and support your weight on your forearms or hands. Roll from the hip to the knee as much as you can. Don’t forget to switch sides and do the other leg!
- Glutes: Sit with your butt on top of the roller. Support your weight with your hands slightly behind you. Cross one ankle over your knee (with your knees bent) and carefully shift your weight over to that side. Gently roll back and forth over your glutes. Make sure to switch sides!
- Calves: Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Place the roller under your calves and use your hands to support your weight on the floor. Gently lift your hips and roll back and forth from your knees to your ankle.
Aim for around 20 to 30 seconds on each spot. While you may feel a little discomfort as the roller targets the tension or tight muscles, you shouldn’t feel pain. If you do feel pain, lessen the amount of body weight that you are leaning into the stretch, or try a softer roller.
Here are other ways you can use a foam roller:
- Acupressure: Positioning the roller on a tight muscle can trigger a pressure point, which can cause the muscle to release and relax. This is known as acupressure. You may need to play around with the roller to figure out what works for you: some people find that constant pressure works better at relieving the tension.
- Create an unstable surface: Using the roller as a surface to do push-ups or planks is a great way to increase the difficulty of your workout. Working off an unstable surface will cause your core muscles be more engaged in maintaining the movement, increasing the effectiveness of the exercise.
- Get a better stretch: Use a foam roller as a prop to help you get a better stretch. Place your feet on top of the roller when doing a seated hamstring stretch to deepen your stretch, or place it under your arms in child’s pose to help stretch out your shoulders.
- Use it as a prop: You can use it during your yoga class as a prop to assist you in doing the poses instead of traditional yoga blocks.
Buying A Foam Roller
Ready to go out and get one? Before you find yourself standing in front of an aisle packed with different types of rollers, think about what you’ll be using it for. There are actually several different types of foam rollers available; which one you get should depend on your needs. Here are different types:
- Low-density foam rollers: Low-density rollers are made of lightweight and soft foam. They’re great when used for muscle soreness after an intense workout. While they still help to work out muscle tension, they are less intense and painful than more dense rollers.
- Medium density foam rollers: Medium density rollers are somewhere in the middle between low and high-density foam. They are an excellent first roller and are good for many different purposes. They can be used to stretch out sore muscles, and can also be used for some exercises.
- High-density foam rollers: High-density foam rollers are made from a harder and denser foam. They will give a much more intense and deep rolling experience, which for some people can be somewhat uncomfortable. Firm rollers are also a great choice for helping with abdominal workouts and other specific exercises.
- Short foam rollers: Short rollers also come in varying densities but are shorter than a traditional foam roller, which allows you to better target specific or smaller muscle groups.
- Bumpy foam rollers: Bumpy foam rollers are designed with bumps or waves in the foam to better target knots in the muscles. This helps to release tension quickly and effectively.
- Vibrating foam rollers: Vibrating foam rollers add in the element of vibration to better target muscle knots or tension. Try getting one with adjustable vibration intensity so that you can select the tension that you need each time you use the roller.
Tips for Using a Foam Roller
While using a foam roller isn’t difficult, it is still important to maintain proper form and use it correctly in order to avoid an injury. Don’t spend too much time trying to work out stiff or sore areas. Apply pressure for about 20-30 seconds and then move on to another area. Spending too much time on a particular area can increase inflammation and actually worsen an injury.
In addition, it is important to avoid rolling directly over bone or the spine to avoid damaging those areas.
Slow down! Instead of moving back and forth as quickly as you can, slow down and give your muscles time to adjust to the pressure you are applying. This is the best way to help break up muscle tension and knots, instead of applying a lot of pressure for a long time.
Finally, even though foam rolling is considered safe, there are some people who should not use a foam roller:
- A person with osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is a condition that causes the bones to become brittle and fragile. Foam rolling can increase the risk of bone fractures in someone with this condition and should be avoided.
- A pregnant woman: During pregnancy, a hormone called relaxin is secreted to relax and loosen the pelvis in anticipation of childbirth. However, this hormone works on all of the joints in the body, putting her at risk for injury from foam rolling.
As always, you should check in with the doctor if you experience any serious pain or discomfort after exercising or foam rolling. It is also important to avoid pushing yourself beyond what is comfortable.