How to Master Foam Rolling: Your Muscles Will Thank You
If you’ve gone to gym and been intimidated by people draping their bodies over cylinders of hard foam, grimacing in unimaginable pain, you’re not alone.
Many people have no idea how to use foam rollers—or know how incredibly healing they can be. If you’ve ever wished you could afford a deep tissue massage twice a week, maybe it’s time to invest a few dollars in a foam roller.
Foam rolling boasts incredible benefits in the body. It breaks up trigger points (knots) to improve range of motion. It can relieve post-workout soreness by breaking up fascial tightness, which increases circulation in the area. It also works to lengthen muscles and correct imbalances over time, which helps to prevent overuse injuries. In general, it will make your body feel like a human body again, instead of a stiff sandbag filled with rusty steel parts. But, be warned: it’s going to be rather uncomfortable—especially your first few times.
The key to foam rolling is moving slowly and steadily. If you’re just getting started, opt for a softer roller rather than the hard, high-density foams that veteran rollers use. This will make the process less intense and less painful until your body loosens up a bit. Then, you can graduate up to a firmer roller. As a guide, softer rollers tend to be white or blue, whereas hard rollers tend to be black.
When rolling, spend one to two minutes in each muscle group you’re working on. Start at the base of a group and roll up its length slowly, with moderate pressure. If you encounter an especially painful area, hold the roller there and take 5 deep breaths. This will help to allow your muscles to relax. Try not to flex or tense the muscle you are working on, even though it may feel instinctual to react against the discomfort. Just relax, breath and let the roller do its magic.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few areas and techniques that benefit mostly everyone:
CHEST. With all the time we spend hunched over our computers and smartphones, our chest muscles can become short and tight. This leads to a weak upper back and an unattractive slouched posture. To roll out your chest, extend an arm and position the roller at the shoulder area so it’s parallel to your torso. Gently roll the upper arm through to your pectorals, angling the roller as needed. You may also want to work tight lats and the outer edge of the pectorals by positioning yourself like the man below.
GLUTES. Because of the amount of time most of us spend sitting, our glutes are tight, weak and imbalanced in all sorts of ways. To release them, sit on your foam roller, cross your right ankle over your left knee and lean onto your left butt cheek. Stabilize your right ankle with your left hand and support yourself on the floor with your right hand. Slowly roll up and down the entire gluteal region, pausing on tender areas. Repeat on opposite side. This can help to relieve imbalances and pain in the lower back.
HIP FLEXORS/QUADS. Starting face down on the floor, with the roller just underneath the knob of your right hipbone, roll down the outer front of your thigh until you reach just outside the knee. (Do not roll over or too close to your knee.) Repeat a few times, then switch sides. This releases the tensor fascia latae, any tightness between your quads and your steel cable of an iliotibial band. Tightness in this area can also be responsible for hip and even lower back pain, so take it seriously.
Head over to the National Academy of Sports Medicine for even more useful foam rolling exercises you can try out. Or, ask a professional at your local gym for guidance.
Some key warnings: Never roll over bony areas, your lower back or directly on your spine. Bones do not respond as kindly to firm massage as muscles and fascia do. If an area is too painful to apply pressure, gently roll around the area to loosen up the surrounding muscles and fascia before tackling the painful point again.
If you find a spot of extreme tightness, use a tennis ball (or if you’re a real masochist, a lacrosse ball) to release the trigger point. (It may even start twitching as movement is reintroduced to the area.) This is a great addition to your rolling regimen once you get into a regular schedule. Simply place the ball strategically along a tight band and roll gently, as you would with the foam roller, until you find a spot that is tender. Hang out there for a while. The focused pressure of the ball helps to release trigger points and allows your muscles to glide and stretch more fluidly.
Ideally, you would foam roll for ten minutes both before and after every workout. Even if you only do it a few times a week, you’ll feel a significant difference in both your mobility and the quality of your movement. At a fraction of the price of a single massage, what’s stopping you? Give foam rolling a try!