How To Use A Foam Roller: The Definitive Guide
This is how we (foam) roll.
Foam rolling: These days, it seems like everybody’s doing it. A growing number of health and fitness pros – chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, and personal trainers alike – extol the soft-tissue benefits of foam rolling for improvements in muscular flexibility, posture correction, pain reduction, and athletic performance.
There’s actually good research to back up the hype. One recent study in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation found that foam rolling could increase range of motion significantly more than stretching alone. More studies have linked foam rolling to less muscle soreness, better vertical leap, and greater flexibility.
And while some studies have failed to find benefits, nearly all of those experiments involved less than 30 seconds of rolling – compared to 90 seconds or more in studies that found positive results.
But how does using a foam roller help, and what exactly are you supposed to do with it?
Don’t worry, Ascent Chiropractic’s got you covered. Below is the definitive, research-backed guide to using a foam roller to improve athletic performance and flexibility, reduce workout-related soreness, slash recovery time, and knock out muscle and joint pain.
Why Foam Rolling Works
When most experts talk about foam rolling, they like to focus on something called fascia. Fascia is the web of connective tissue that covers and links muscles, similar to shrink wrap. Experts used to think that that was all there was to say about it, but they’ve come to learn that it actually plays a bigger role in muscles’ ability to contract and coordinate movements than they initially thought.
But it can also cause problems. The wear and tear we suffer from normal activities of daily living, exercise, and aging can result in adhesions within this fascia and regions of hyperactive muscle fibers (also known as trigger points) inside the muscles they cover. Fascia restrictions and trigger points tend to happen around injuries and joints that aren’t moving correctly – which is why myofascial therapy goes hand-in-hand with chiropractic care.
Surprisingly little is truly understood about trigger points – other than that it’s a term we’ve assigned to tender/sensitive spots within muscle tissue. Some refer to trigger points as ‘muscle knots’, but our muscles certainly don’t form knots. Depending on whom you ask, you’ll probably get a different response as to what they are, where you’ll find them, and how to properly treat them.
It was physiotherapist Mike Clark in the 90’s who originally took this concept to spread the message of using foam rollers to perform “self-myofascial release” (or SMR) to eliminate trigger points and break up fascial adhesions, leading to their appearance in literally every gym and fitness studio across the country.
When you apply pressure to a muscle with a foam roller, the effect is like squeezing a sponge. And, just as a sponge soaks up water when you release the squeeze while holding it under a running faucet, your fascia and underlying muscle will become more hydrated when you remove the compression of the roller.
Much of the release people feel following foam rolling isn’t from ‘breaking things up’ but instead from re-hydration of the fascia tissue and muscle fibers.
And let’s put this myth to rest: many people believe that when they foam roll they’re breaking up scar tissue. This idea is 100% false; foam rolling DOES NOT break up scar tissue.
It also won’t physically lengthen muscles or fascia – another common misconception. Based on research from Germany, to have any real change on the structure of myofascial tissue, you would need much higher forces than a human would be able to exert on themselves.
Myofascial Release Isn’t The Whole Story
But researchers who have found foam rolling to be effective don’t believe releasing trigger points and fascial adhesions is the whole (or even primary) story – at least not when it comes to reducing pain and soreness.
Interestingly enough, some studies have demonstrated that people who foam rolled one leg also, surprisingly, reduced muscle pain in the other. They didn’t even have to touch the muscle that was actually painful with the foam roller.
So what else is going on when you foam roll?
By stimulating pressure mechanoreceptors in your soft tissues, foam rolling activates the parasympathetic division of your autonomic nervous system, which registers and reacts to pain. Shifting into a parasympathetic mode (as opposed to the fight-or-flight sympathetic mode) induces relaxation to promote recovery.
Your autonomic nervous system is responsible for your body’s unconscious functions like heart rate and blood flow. Research from Japan has backed up this idea by linking foam rolling – independent of exercise – to improved arterial elasticity and vascular function.
Like massage, another practice linked to lower pain and muscle soreness, stimulating these soft-tissue pressure receptors increases something called vagal activity in the brain, which has been linked to relaxation of the nervous system, reduced levels of stress hormones like cortisol, and improved pain tolerance.
In other words, in addition to releasing tight muscles and fascia, when you hop on your foam roller you’re also knocking out whole-body stress and quieting your body’s pain-detection centers. Because of this, there’s a benefit to foam rolling both before and after your workout, and really any other time you decide to fit it into your self-care routine.
What kind of foam roller should you use?
While foam rollers are specifically designed for self-myofascial release, you can get similar results from almost any dense, rollable object – like a tennis ball or lacrosse ball.
The best tool depends on your level of tightness and the muscle group that you’re rolling. If you’re new to foam rolling, and just have a few sensitive spots to treat, the cheap foam rollers in the stretching area of your gym are probably enough.
For general use for most people, we recommend the TriggerPoint GRID™ foam roller that’s made from heavy-duty molded polypropylene to maintain its shape and firmness.
If you really want to up your foam rolling game, there’s the Hyperice™ Vyper 2.0 – the ‘Tesla of foam rollers’. It’s designed to multiply the benefits of foam rolling using the same vibration technology from their Hypervolt massage guns to improve circulation and blood flow.
Some muscles are too small or secluded to be hit directly with a broad cylinder of foam, so when rolling out the posterior deltoids or piriformis muscles, for example, RockBalls can provide more targeted pressure.
First of all, ditch the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality when it comes to foam rolling. Applying more pressure isn’t necessarily better, and, in fact, can cause the muscle to tighten up even more as a protective mechanism. Foam rolling can feel intense, but it shouldn’t be painful.
Pain is your body’s way of saying ‘stop!’ On a scale of 1 to 10, self-myofascial release should never rank higher than a 6. Grinding your muscles into a hard surface can break blood vessels and damage nerve endings, which take a long time to heal, so go slow and take it easy.
Some other rules of foam rolling:
❯ Never roll over bony areas – your spine, knees, shoulder blades, joints, etc.
❯ Wait 24-48 hours between rolling the same muscle. Remember, a foam roller is like a massage therapist – and even they’ll tell you to wait a day or two before hitting the same muscle.
❯ Never roll over open wounds.
❯ Keep your core tight and engaged. This helps keep you aligned and prevents putting extra stress on vulnerable joints.
Ready to get started?
Rest the target muscle on your foam roller and move your body up and down the length of the muscle, pausing in spots that feel particularly tight or tender. When you find these areas, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. In general, studies have shown that two to three sets of self-myofascial release lasting about 90 seconds per muscle group most effectively reduces pain and improves flexibility.
Roll before exercise if you want to boost range of motion and athletic performance. A post-workout foam roll is good for preventing delayed-onset muscle soreness and can actually completely replace your static stretching routine.
While how to roll is fairly self-explanatory, below are some directions for releasing the muscles probably most in need of it.
Lie with your upper back on the foam roller positioned perpendicular to your body. Raise your hips off the floor and roll the length of your shoulder blades. Don’t go into extension – keep your core tight and shoulders pulled forward.
Lie on your side and reach that side’s arm overhead. Place the roller under your armpit. Roll down to your waist.
TFL & IT Band
The TFL and IT band lie on the side of the hip and are typically tight in people who sit at desks for prolonged periods. Lie on your side, and place the roller just under your hip bone. Rest the foot of your top leg on the floor and use it to gently roll your body up so that the roller moves down your leg, about halfway to your knee.
Piriformis & Glutes
Roll your glutes and piriformis by sitting on the roller, with one leg crossed over the other.
Hip Flexors & Adductors
Lie face-down, and raise one thigh 90 degrees out to your side, bending your knee. Rest the inside of your thigh on the roller and roll the area from the front of your hip to your knee.
Sit on the floor with your legs straight, ankles crossed left over right, and a foam roller under your right ankle. Lift your butt off the floor, rolling your right calf muscle over the roller from ankle to knee. Switch legs and repeat.
The Bottom Line
While it’s not the end-all-be-all of myofascial therapy, foam rolling actually deserves its reputation and is a worthwhile addition to your self-care routine.
Whether you’re a pro athlete, weekend warrior, or just looking to get out of pain, study after study shows that combining myofascial release techniques (such as foam rolling) with chiropractic care like we do at Ascent Chiropractic can help correct musculoskeletal problems, reduce pain, and allow you to reach your full potential.