Foam rolling. Part readiness tool, part recovery tool, and all about keeping your muscles loose and pain-free! But what is it and why should you be doing it at home?
What is Foam Rolling?
I’m sure you’ve noticed those foam barrels that you might’ve confused for a thickly-rolled yoga mat in health and wellness stores recently. They’re in gyms, yoga studios and chiropractors' offices but especially in trendy workout videos on YouTube. Some are smooth, some have ridges and all of them look a little bit intimidating. These “foam barrels” (as my boyfriend called them while perusing Target one day) are called “foam rollers." So, what is a foam roller? A foam roller is a cylindrically shaped self massage tool that uses rolling motions to relieve pain in the muscles. They are typically made of high density foam, and can vary in firmness. Foam rollers can be used pre workout, post workout or any time you’re feeling especially sore.
Why Should You Use One?
While foam rollers can look really intimidating (or silly) at first, they’re surprisingly simple to use. Proponents of foam rolling say that it helps them to relieve sore muscles, that it helps aid in muscle recovery, and helps them improve their overall flexibility. This might be because foam rolling and traditional massage are interlinked as recovery methods for athletes and non-athletes. But what does that mean? It basically means if you can’t effectively reach the area with self massage because of certain reasons (the area is difficult to reach, the area is particularly large, you’ve experienced a hand or arm injury, etc.), you might also benefit from foam rolling.
When Should You Use One?
There’s a little debate of when exactly you should foam roll and whether pre-workout or post-workout rolling is best. Research indicates that foam rolling pre- and post-workout can have benefits such as maintaining muscle looseness and flexibility. You can use the foam roller as a pre-workout technique to ‘awaken’ your muscles and to warm up, or you can use a foam roller for some well-deserved post-workout massage to remove lactic acid from the muscles. Either way works for those using foam rollers for exercise purposes.
But what if you’re just a regular Joe with moderate pain, should you use a foam roller? Absolutely! While foam rollers are excellent workout tools, you can just use them for pain relief too! You can use them for targeted therapy in specific areas like your back, shoulders, hips, and thighs, or you can use them to generally stretch your whole body out. However, foam rolling is not recommended for certain joints, like wrists and ankles, for fear of hyperextension to these muscle groups.
How Should You Use Them?
While we stated you can’t use foam rollers for certain areas (wrists and ankles) you can generally use a foam roller on any other part of the body that needs a little stretch attention.
For Neck Pain - Gentle Pressure
Neck pain really sucks, we’ve all had that really uncomfortable stiff neck. But foam rolling should only be applied incredibly gently to the neck and never with excess pressure. Because your neck is a collection of vertebrae, we recommend using a foam roller to hold your head up while doing this exercise:
Lay flat on the floor with your head resting comfortably on the foam roller, do not apply pressure.
Look left and hold 10 seconds.
Look right and hold 10 seconds.
Repeat six times.
Stretch your head back and hold 30 seconds for a deep neck stretch.
Repeat as needed.
You should feel less tension in your neck and feel a release of pressure from your neck and spine!
For Upper/ Lower Back Pain - Moderate Pressure
This exercise is my favorite; it’s really easy to do and feels great! You’re essentially going to be using your own body weight and gravity to massage out these tension areas like this:
Place your foam roller in the middle of your back.
Engage your core to bring yourself into a position where you can use your legs to roll along the foam roller.
Roll your entire upper and lower back on the foam roller in long, even strokes.
If you feel particularly sore spots when rolling, focus on them by using quick sharp strokes until the soreness dissipates.
Always be sure to keep your back in the center of the foam roller to avoid injury.
For Hip and Leg Pain - Moderate to Deep Pressure
Sometimes it can be hard to reach every spot that hurts when it comes to your hips and legs. Foam rolling is great for these areas! You can use the roller laying down like this -
Sit on the roller with your feet pointed forward
Engage your glutes to rock your hips along the foam roller until you reach your calves
Or using your hands -
Grip the foam roller with both hands
Using your arms push the foam roller in long, even strokes over your legs and calves, avoiding the knees and ankles.
Repeat as necessary
Foam rolling is a wonderful self-massage technique for both relaxing and rejuvenating the muscles, whether you’re using it for exercise or not. The foam roller is a cheap alternative for maintaining your body in-between regular massage appointments. One important consideration with foam rolling is that, like massage, it can leave your body feeling sore the next day. This is completely normal and a regular side effect of most self-massage techniques. Grab a foam roller and get rolling today!
Kerautret, Y., Di Rienzo, F., Eyssautier, C., & Guillot, A. (2020). Selective Effects of Manual Massage and Foam Rolling on Perceived Recovery and Performance: Current Knowledge and Future Directions Toward Robotic Massages. Frontiers in physiology, 11, 598898. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.598898
Nakamura, M., Onuma, R., Kiyono, R., Yasaka, K., Sato, S., Yahata, K., Fukaya, T., & Konrad, A. (2021). The Acute and Prolonged Effects of Different Durations of Foam Rolling on Range of Motion, Muscle Stiffness, and Muscle Strength. Journal of sports science & medicine, 20(1), 62–68. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2021.62
Wiewelhove, T., Döweling, A., Schneider, C., Hottenrott, L., Meyer, T., Kellmann, M., Pfeiffer, M., & Ferrauti, A. (2019). A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Frontiers in physiology, 10, 376. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00376