You may or may not have heard about it. You may have seen people in the gym rolling across three-foot foam logs that come in a myriad of colors, textures, and firmnesses with grimaces and even sweat, and thought, “What the heck are they doing?” You’re not alone. Foam rolling, while beneficial, isn’t always discussed in fitness classes or online. You’re more likely to hear about it from a personal trainer, physical therapist, or sometimes a massage therapist.
In essence, foam rolling is a self-myofascial release technique that helps detoxify, stretch, relax, and heal the body. It’s basically the same thing massage therapists do to you when you’re relaxing on their table, only you’re the one working out all the kinks. And there can be a lot of kinks: soft tissue adhesions (waste products collected between the muscle fibers and the fascia, that sheath network that gives us our shape), scar tissue, loss of flexibility, increased tightness throughout muscles and tendons, and injuries.
There are a lot of benefits to foam rolling, including increased circulation throughout the body, the detoxification of muscles and elimination of waste products from the body, increased flexibility (range of motion) and lengthening of short muscles, stress reduction, injury prevention and reduction of joint pain, self-induced relaxation and self-massage when money is tight. Yes, they are half the cost (or more) of one massage session. While massages are fantastic and may be more beneficial, not everyone can afford to go every 1-4 weeks, as is recommended.
When using a foam roller, pay attention to a few details. First, while you can virtually roll over any muscles (and tendons with care/caution), it’s important not to roll over: 1) muscle attachment sites, 2) bony protrusions and joints, and 3) unsupported structures (mainly the lower back and belly cavity). Second, pay attention to your breath–do breathe while rolling so the body has a chance to whisk away the toxins you’re breaking up. Third, this isn’t a comfortable activity, and the tighter and/or more active you are, the more painful rolling will be in the beginning. The key is to stick with it, find a roller that works for you, and have patience. It’s really important to roll slowly (about an inch per second, or less), so that means breathing, panting, grunting, crying, whatever you must do to break up adhesions and create fascial traction and length through your muscles.
Finally, when you find a particularly painful spot, stop! Let the roller’s firmness sink against it for 30-90 seconds. These painful spots are large kinks and knots within the muscles that need release. Slowly build up to the full 90 seconds over time as your pain tolerance increases. Also, make certain that you roll across each muscle group at least three times before switching to another side/group.
Here is my personal rolling routine, which I share when teaching, starting on the front of the body and working toward the back:
- Feet: Stand on roller with one or both feet (holding onto something sturdy for balance) and walk as if on a log. The fascia in the feet can, and often do, affect everything else on the way up. If uncomfortable using a roller for this, you can use a can of food or a rubbery ball (great for a more targeted approach to the feet). If you cannot roll every day, try to do 5 minutes per foot a day at the end of each day.
- Quadriceps (front of thighs): rolling from hip crease to just above the knee. I roll across the quads two separate ways, straight on (parallel to the floor) and at a 45-degree angle (to target the outside muscles of the quad group). Make certain your abs support your back.
- Iliotibial (IT) band (outer thigh): rolling from the outside of the hip to just above the knee. Take your time. This one hurts the most! But it’s also possibly one of the most important ones to do.
- Inner thighs (adductors): rolling from pubic bone to just above the knee.
- Tibialis anterior (shins): rolling from just below the knee to the ankle. A lot of times we forget this muscle group, but this is where we get shin splints. It’s good to balance out with the calves.
- Gastrocnemius and soleus (calves): from the heel (or as far down onto the Achilles tendon as you are comfortable going) to just below the knee. Turn the legs inside and outside to get the whole muscle group. For additional depth, cross one leg over the other and roll, again turning the leg to the inside/outside before switching sides. Prop your hands up on books or yoga blocks to assist in lifting your bottom, or keep one foot on the floor to help, as needed.
- Hamstrings (back of thighs): from just above the knee to the ischium tuberiosities (sit bones). Great ab workout also if using the core to roll. Use books or yoga blocks as props for the hands to assist in lifting your bottom, or a foot on the floor if doing one leg at a time.
- Thoracic spine: from lower ribs to the shoulders. Really enjoy this one, lifting the hips as you roll toward the shoulders and lowering them as you roll toward the floating ribs. Remember not to roll onto the unsupported lumbar region. Keep the abs supporting the back and pelvis. For additional work into the latissimus dorsi, rotate shoulders to one side and roll to the shoulder blade, then repeat on the other side.
- Latissiumus dorsi and teres minor (side of ribs): from armpit to as low as possible on ribcage. This is a major attachment site for the muscles of the back, and a major player in upper back pain and headaches. There is no graceful way to do this pose (I often feel like a slug), but be mindful of how much pressure you place on the ribs. (If you’d like, you can also take the roller above the shoulder girdle and target both the triceps and biceps (upper arms) for a complete full-body workout.)
- Pectoralis minor and/or the chest: roll from clavicles to the sternum (breastbone). Men may be able to roll fully on the chest. For women, it’s best if we angle ourselves off to the side and roll across the pec minor. (Trust me, I experimented in class once with the full-on chest roll: there were 17 students, most of whom were women; one of the swore it was worse than a mammogram!) Roll side-to-side gently.
- Wrist flexors: from just below elbow to wrists. Let the fingers curl on their own. Roll arms side-to-side as desired to get the whole muscle group. Fantastic for treating carpel tunnel.
- Neck: place the roller under the neck while lying on the floor, knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod the chin up and down slowly. Then rock head right to left slowly. Enjoy. This is wonderful for lengthening the connective tissues related to the cranium (skull) and helps with headaches.
- Spine and rhomboids: lie on roller with bottom at one end, head supported at the other. Let the body melt over the roller. When ready, with feet wider than hip width and hands on mat, gently rock across the spine side-to-side, letting the head fall in the opposite direction of the rocking motion. When finished, extend arms up overhead and target the rhomboids by bringing elbows down wide till they’re aligned with the shoulders (I call it “Chicken wings”).
- Relax on floor for 3-5 minutes to absorb the benefits you’ve just earned.
One final note: there are a lot of kinds of rollers out there. Pink ones, black ones, bumpy ones, textured ones, half rollers, quarter rollers, rollers with a flat side, egg-shaped rollers. I recommend that beginners find a full-sized smooth roller in a firmness they can tolerate–a softer roller for those with less pain tolerance, a harder one for those with more–at a price they can stand paying. If a full-sized one won’t travel well, a smooth roller half its size will. If unsure of what to choose, softer is better. For the price that most of these are, you can afford to purchase a firmer roller down the road if you make foam rolling a part of your exercise routine.
A great picture guide of foam rolling exercises here.