The Dos and Don’ts of Foam Rolling

20th October 2017 8 Minute Read

Josh Douglas-Walton

Josh Douglas-Walton

Health and Fitness Writer

Josh is passionate about all things health and fitness, and in his spare time he's a keen marathon and ultramarathon runner....
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Foam rollers are a common sight in gyms and are available in a variety of materials, sizes, densities and textures. Users position themselves on the cylindrical foam tube and then roll up and down using their bodyweight to apply pressure to the target area. This produces a massage-like effect called self-myofascial release technique – SMRT for short.

By changing body position, it is possible to foam roll almost every major muscle in the body although some are easier to reach than others. Foam rolling provides an accessible and cost-effective alternative to hands-on massage treatments and can be performed almost anywhere and any time without the need for a massage therapist.

The effects of foam rolling

Muscles are very complex structures. In simple terms they are bundles of parallel fibres wrapped in a tough fibrous outer layer called fascia. The fibres and the fascia should move smoothly without causing discomfort although long periods of immobility, intense training, repetitive activities such as running or cycling and previous injuries can all lead to palpable areas of tightness and tenderness called adhesions.

Adhesions are places where the muscle fibres and/or fascia have essentially become “gummed up” which can reduce range of movement and cause localised as well as referred pain. Adhesions are often referred to as trigger points, or more colloquially as hot spots or knots.

Adhesions can result in muscle tightness and can also reduce the amount of force a muscle or muscle group can generate by inhibiting normal muscle function. Stretching is commonly prescribed for muscle tightness. While stretching can help reduce muscle tension, increase flexibility and improve or restore range of movement, it does not address the root of the problem; adhesions.

Another disadvantage of static stretching is that it relaxes muscles as it lengthens them which can impede maximal force development. In contrast, SMRT increases range of movement without compromising force production making it more suitable for inclusion in warm ups. SMRT may even increase potential force production by increasing muscle activity. This makes foam rolling especially valuable during the warm up period [1,2].


Where and how to use a foam roller

It is important to note that not all muscles need to be foam rolled equally. To get the best results, users should select SMRT exercises according to their individual needs. Target areas for foam rolling can be identified in several ways:

  • Palpation – using the fingers to feel for adhesions
  • Areas of tenderness found while foam rolling
  • Historical areas of tenderness such as the upper back in desk workers
  • Movement screens, e.g. overhead squat to identify tight muscles
  • Activity-specific – foam roll agonists and antagonists prior to activity, e.g. quadriceps and hamstrings prior to squatting
  • Areas of known tightness, e.g. hamstrings
  • Areas of previous injury

Once the target areas are identified, the user should perform a light general warm up before foam rolling as SMRT on cold muscles can lead to injury. To foam roll properly, the user should lie on the roller so that it is between the target muscle and the floor. They should then roll up and down the muscle using moderate pressure and seeking out any adhesions. For large, wide muscles, such as the quadriceps, it may be necessary for the user to move medially or laterally to ensure that the entire muscle is worked.

If any adhesions are felt, normally characterised by areas of localised tenderness and/or pain, the user should stay on that spot for 30 to 60 seconds or until the tension diminishes. This is normally accompanied by a gradual reduction in pain. If an area is too painful to roll directly, pressure can be reduced by adjusting position or using the arms or legs for more support. In the case of very tender areas, rolling should only be performed on the surrounding areas and gradually introduced to the target area over several sessions.

Foam rolling exercises

There are dozens of foam rolling exercises to try but here are five of the best. They address areas of the body that are prone to tightness and that most people need to work on. The more bodyweight placed on the roller, the deeper and potentially more painful the effect will be. Reduce the amount of weight placed on the roller if a less intense SMRT session is required.

HFE tutor performing an IT band stretch

ITB – located on the outside of the thigh from the hip to the knee. The ITB, short for iliotibial band, is a problem area for many exercisers – especially runners.

Lie on the side with the roller under the lowermost leg. Initially, bend the upper leg and rest the foot on the floor to reduce the amount of pressure. Roll up and down the roller from the side of the knee to the top outside of the gluteus maximus. Stop and focus on any hotspots although it’s likely that term can be applied to the whole upper thigh! Turn over and do the other leg. For more pressure, place the legs together to increase the weight on the roller.

HFE tutor using a foam roller on the hamstrings

Hamstrings – sit up tall with legs straight and hands either side of the hips to form an L position. Place the roller under the thighs. Roll up and down so the roller goes from above the back of the knees to just below the gluteus maximus. If more pressure is required, cross the legs and do one hamstring at a time.

HFE tutor using a foam roller on the quads

Quadriceps – lying on the front and resting on the elbows, place the roller under the thighs. Roll up and down from the tops of the knees to the tops of the thighs. Cross the legs and do one leg at a time if more pressure is required. Avoid excessive lumbar extension.

Glutes – with bent legs, sit on the roller with arms supporting the upper body. Cross the left ankle over the right knee. Roll the gluteus maximus back and forth while leaning from side to side. Once one side is done, switch legs and repeat.

HFE tutor using a foam roller on the thoracic spine

Thoracic spine – too much time sitting at a desk can have a ruinous effect on posture. This hunched position can be undone, at least temporarily, by rolling the thoracic spine. Lie on the back and place the roller behind the shoulders. With legs bent and neck relaxed, slowly roll the roller down the thoracic spine to level with the bottom ribs. Roll back up and repeat. It is not uncommon to hear/feel some clicks as the vertebrae move back into the correct position. After two or three slow passes have been made up and down the thoracic spine, position the roller behind the shoulders and lie back letting gravity pull the thoracic spine into gentle extension. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds before slowly turning to the side and carefully standing up.

Considerations for safe and effective foam rolling

Foam rolling can have a profound effect on muscles and other connective tissue but that effect could be negative if rolling if performed incorrectly. To maximise results while minimising risk, users of foam rollers should observe the following:

    • Never roll over bony prominences – bones can be mistaken for adhesions but repeated rolling could result in inflammation of the periosteum
    • Avoid rolling over joints – rolling joints can cause inflammation of the tendons and ligaments around the articulation. Also avoid hyperextension of unsupported joints
    • Avoid rolling the lower back – hyperextension of the lumbar spine can be injurious although rolling the thoracic spine can provide relief from upper back pain and poor posture. The neck should also be avoided
    • Increase intensity and duration of foam rolling gradually to avoid post-treatment soreness or bruising. Foam rolling can be uncomfortable but should never be extremely painful
    • Individuals performing SMRT should endeavour to remain relaxed and avoid holding their breath to maximise the effectiveness of their treatment
    • Users should understand that it may take several sessions of SMRT to free stubborn adhesions and that overworking an area can result in severe muscle soreness and even bruising although mild soreness is not uncommon
    • Avoid rolling areas that are still sore from a previous SMRT session – wait a day before repeating

HFE personal training student using a foam roller on his IT band

Once the user has finished foam rolling, the muscles should feel worked but not overly fatigued and range of movement of the associated joint(s) should increase.

Foam Rollers – not just for SMRT

In addition to SMRT, foam rollers can be used for other fitness activities:

    • Make press-ups more demanding by placing hands and/or feet on foam rollers
    • Improve balance by standing on a foam roller
    • Use a foam roller in place of a stability ball for hip bridges and hamstring curls
    • Foam rollers make a good alternative to yoga blocks
    • Use a foam roller to increase the demand of core workouts – try doing crunches while lying lengthways on a foam roller
    • Increase proprioception by placing a supporting hand or foot on a foam roller when performing free weight exercises e.g. the supporting hand in one-arm bent-over rows or foot on a roller when performing split squats.

Foam rolling can take as little as ten minutes a day but that adds up to a 70 minute massage each and every week! Cheap and long lasting, foam rollers are hard on the adhesions that can leave muscles feeling tight and tired.

Reference 1: National Center for Biotechnology Information

Reference 2: National Center for Biotechnology Information

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