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Foundation Fitness and Rehabilitation

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Training Tips / Safety Injuries

Foam Rolling Essentials: Benefits, Exercises & More

What Foam Rolling Does to the Body

Foam rolling is a form of self myofascial release. Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds muscle (myofascial tissue) and bone. Here it helps provide structure and support, also reducing friction during movement. Fascia even helps hold our internal organs and blood vessels in place.

Sometimes, the fascia around our muscle forms adhesions. These are often referred to as myofascial trigger points. Adhesions can be caused by inflammation that damages the muscle tissue. Muscle imbalance or overworking the muscle can also create adhesions, leading to a buildup of scar tissue in the affected area. Being sedentary can cause adhesions as well.

Myofascial release with a foam roller helps release these soft tissue adhesions. This enables the muscle fiber to move more freely once again by releasing the fascia’s attachment to the muscle spindle. 

Benefits of Using a Foam Roller

The benefits of a foam roller are similar to that offered by massage. One is that it aids in muscle recovery. Effective workout recovery is just as important as the workout itself. Recovery is where the muscle strengthens and grows, and a foam roller assists with this process. It does this, in part, by improving blood flow to the muscle tissue. 

Myofascial release helps reduce muscle tightness. If you’ve ever had a tight muscle, you know how much harder it is to move naturally. This is because muscle tension can limit range of motion, making it more difficult to retain good form. Getting this tightness or tension to release improves the range of motion. Better range of motion means reduced injury risk.

Research also indicates that foam rollers can reduce muscle soreness. It’s not uncommon for new exercisers to develop sore muscles. Even experienced athletes can experience soreness in the muscle, typically referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS. Using a foam roller can help ease both types of soreness.

Best Foam Rolling Exercises

You can target most any major muscle group with foam rolling exercise. The key to getting the most out of each movement is to go slow. Find the tight spot—which is also usually a tender spot—and use the roller there.

Here are a few exercises to consider for common tense or painful areas:

  • Upper back: Soreness in the upper back can occur because of exercise. Sitting for long periods, such as when working at the computer or driving, also contribute to upper back soreness. To perform myofascial release in this area, lie on your back, placing the foam roller perpendicular to the spine, a few inches below the shoulder blades. Inhale while moving the body so the roller goes up the back. Don’t go higher than the top of each shoulder blade. Pause briefly, then exhale and move the foam roller down the spine, going no lower than the bottom of the rib cage.

  • Shoulders. It’s not uncommon for shoulders to hunch forward when doing a lot of desk work. If you have poor posture, this can also cause rounded shoulders. Using the foam roller can help release this area. Lie on your back, placing the foam roller directly under the spine so it is parallel to the body. Instead of rolling the body along the roller during this exercise, it works by moving your arms. Start with them by your side, then exhale as you extend them overhead. When extending your arms, you’ll fan them out to the side, keeping them close to the mat, such as when doing a snow angel. Return to the starting position and repeat.

  • Hip flexor. Many people have tight hip flexors. This can cause pain in the back and neck while making it hard to keep good posture. To release the hip flexors, lie face down and place the roller under the right hip area. Bend the left knee and keep that leg at your side. Roll back and forth slowly, then switch to the other side. 

  • Buttocks. Myofascial release to this area involves lying on your side and placing the roller under one side of the hips. Roll slowly back and forth, allowing the foam roller to go up and down the entire buttock area.

  • Outer thigh. For clients experiencing tightness in their upper legs, using the foam roller on the outer thigh can provide relief. Like the hip flexor exercise, this one begins with lying on the side. Place the foam roller under the outer thigh of the right leg, rolling it from the hip to just above the knee. Follow with the same movements using the left leg.

  • Quads. To ease tense or painful spots in the quads, lie on the stomach with the foam roller under the top of the upper leg, just above the knees. Move the body so the roller goes up and down the thigh area. Pausing on the tender spot can help provide even more relief.

When to Use Foam Rollers

You can use a foam roller at the beginning or end of a workout. If you use it before you exercise, it can help improve range of motion. This makes it easier to move during the workout. Good range of motion can also help prevent a potential injury. Warm-up briefly first, so the muscles are ready for foam roller exercise.

Using a foam roller at the end of the workout is another option. As discussed, foam rollers assist with recovery. They do this by improving blood flow and reducing soreness. Enhanced muscle recovery can help improve athlete performance.

Other Foam Rolling Essentials and Best Practice Tips

What’s the secret to foam rolling success? Here are a few essential best practice tips:

  • Select the right foam roller for you. The best foam roller for one person isn’t necessarily the best for another. New users might benefit from a softer or less firm roller, for instance, while more experienced users may prefer a foam roller that’s a bit denser. A smooth roller provides consistent pressure during the rolling exercise. A textured roller provides more targeted myofascial release. A longer foam roller is good for hitting larger muscle groups. A small roller works well for smaller muscles or to better target a problem area.

  • Apply the right amount of pressure. When using a foam roller, rest your entire body weight on the device. When you hit an area of soreness or pain, stop the movement and allow that area to rest on the roller for a few seconds. Then move slowly back and forth to get the fascia to start to release.

  • Engage in regular foam rolling. Like with any form of exercise or muscle recovery technique, you can’t do it once and expect the benefits to last forever. To get the most out of your foam rolling regimen, do these exercises regularly. Doing them every day provides optimal myofascial release. For those new to foam rolling, adding these exercises just two to three days per week is a good place to start.

  • Use other devices if necessary. What happens if you don’t have a foam roller on hand? You can use foam rolling alternatives such as a massage stick, tennis balls, or even a broomstick. All of these can help target and release muscle adhesions.