How to Use a Foam Roller to Relieve Tight Muscles
Foam rollers have become incredibly popular over the last few years due to their convenience and effectiveness at relieving muscle pain. No longer is it just trainers and therapists using them with clients while other gym-goers stare in confusion. Many people have them in their own home and even carry their own to the gym.
Foam rollers are used for self-myofascial release, or “self-massage” in simple terms. Like deep-tissue massage, they are used to apply pressure to “trigger points” in the fascia surrounding muscles. These trigger points, or “knots” are adhesions of muscles that cause pain and stiffness in your body.
In other words, if your hamstrings feel tight from deadlifts or long runs, a foam roller can help relax your muscles, reduce pain, and correct muscle imbalances that create issues like lower back pain or cramps in your calves.
However, many people assume all you need to do is to sit down with any foam roller, roll up and down your muscles a few times, and you’re done. Unfortunately, if that’s how you’re using it, you’re probably wasting your time.
In this article we’ll explain the proper way to use a foam roller on each of your major muscle groups.
Proper Foam Rolling Technique
It’s common to move quickly through the process of self-myofascial release because it can actually be rather painful to get to the end result of less pain.
Muscles take time to respond to pressure and relax, so to actually affect the trigger points in your muscles, you need to spend 20-30 seconds holding the foam roller on each tender spot you find. For many people, some muscle group can have multiple trigger points, so it could take 5-10 minutes just to work out the kinks in your calves, for example.
Use this process to make sure you’re getting the most out of your foam rolling.
Foam Rolling Exercises
Quadriceps (Front of Thigh)
Lie with foam roller under your hips, at the top of thighs, forearms resting on the ground to support your body. Keep feet off of the floor, and slowly roll toward your knees (don’t roll over your knee), pausing when you feel a tender spot. Make sure to keep your hips up, don’t let your stomach or hips sink toward the ground. To add more pressure, stack one leg on top of the other and roll one leg at a time.
Hamstrings & Calves (Back of Legs)
Hamstrings: Sit on the foam roller with legs straight out in front of you, hands behind you on the ground for support. Adjust your position so the foam roller sits right where the back of your leg connects to your buttocks. Roll slowly toward your knees, pausing on any tender spot. Try turning legs slightly in or out to find any additional knots before stopping. To add more pressure, stack one leg on top of the other. You may need to take a break every few minutes to let your arms rest from holding you up.
Calves: Follow the same procedure for hamstrings, but start with the foam roller just below knees, and roll toward your ankles. Again, try turning legs slightly in or out to hit the entire muscle group.
Adductors (Inner Thigh)
Lie on your stomach and place foam roller parallel to your body on one side. Bend one leg to 90 to degrees and place the inner thigh on the roller, just above the knee. Rest forearms on the floor and roll sideways so the roller moves towards your hips, pausing at tender spots.
Outer Thigh & IT Band
Lie sideways on the roller so it sits just lower than your hip. Rest on forearm and lift bottom leg off the floor while crossing your top leg over and placing foot on the floor. Keep body in one straight line as you roll toward your knee, being careful not to round your body at the hips. To increase pressure, stack legs.
Sit on the foam roller with knees bent and feet on the ground. Cross one leg over the other knee, then slightly tilt body to the side of the leg that’s lifted. Prop yourself up with one hand on the ground behind you. Roll slowly between your sit bone toward your hips. You may need to adjust slightly to the right or left as needed to find tight spots. When done, try switching your weight to the side of the leg that's planted on the floor. Repeat on both sides.
Lower Back: It is not recommended to use a foam roller on your lower back. Lower back pain is typically due to tight muscles elsewhere in your body which cause imbalances and lower back pain. This may be a result of poor posture, tight hips and/or weak glute (butt) muscles. Due to the sensitivity of the spinal column and surrounding organs, it is not safe or necessary to foam roll your lower back.
Instead, use the roller to stretch your upper back.
Option 1: Place foam roller perpendicular to your body and lie back on it with foam roller underneath shoulder blades. You can stay here for 20-30 seconds to stretch out the chest and back, or roll up and down slowly and gently by pressing up through your heels. Do not roll lower than your ribs.
Option 2: Place foam roller parallel with your body, and lay on it so the length of your spine is supported with spine on the foam roller. You may stay here with arms out to the side or behind head to stretch, or roll to one side of your spine and stay there for up to 20 seconds. Switch to the other side of your spine when done.
Lats (Sides & Mid-Back)
Lie on your side with foam roller underneath armpit, arm extended straight out, thumb toward the ceiling. Roll down toward your ribs, slightly turning your body toward the ceiling the lower you go. Pause on any tender spots, stopping at chest level, then switch to the other side.