How to Use a Foam Roller
Trainers give their top tips and best exercises.
No one ever said foam rolling was pleasant, but almost every trainer says it can be an incredibly helpful part of one’s exercise routine. If you’ve never foam rolled before, it can be, well, uncomfortable. But the pressure generated from a foam roller is considered the “good kind of pain.”
“Our bodies do amazing things when put under periods of pressure,” says personal trainer Regi Drake. “When it comes to foam rolling, you don’t want to speed through the process. The pressure generated during foam rolling triggers our brains to send a chemical countermeasure to the applied area and achieve a relaxation response. We can only access this by working through that area slowly and intentionally.”
Using a foam roller doesn’t have to be intimidating. With proper form and a few trainer-based tips, you’ll be able to reap all the foam rolling benefits in just a few minutes each day.
WHY DO IT?
One of the main health benefits of foam rolling is tissue flexibility. If you don’t roll out knots and adhesions from the muscle and tissue, the knots can inhibit proper movement and mobility. “Most people that foam roll immediately before or after a workout feel more open and lighter when they walk,” says Justin Orr, owner of San Diego’s Iron Orr Fitness. “They notice that they’re in less pain and have more flexibility, mobility and freedom of movement to perform the activities they love and enjoy.”
Foam rolling isn’t just about muscle tissues, though. It can also help relieve stress, increase blood flow circulation and assist in breaking down lactic acid produced during a workout session. And remember, foam rolling usage has a compound effect to it, which means that you’ll see the most benefits when you do it consistently over time.
WHEN TO DO IT?
If you’ve never used a foam roller before, it can be confusing when exactly in your workout routine you should bust it out. According to Orr, the best time to foam roll is prior to exercise or prior to a warm-up. He likes to foam roll in the morning while drinking his coffee, but any time before a workout will do just fine. “Opening up the body with a foam roller in the morning can lead to better movement patterns throughout the day,” he says. “Off-day foam rolling is great, too. It will help increase circulation and expedite recovery and soreness so that your next workout is more optimal.”
According to Drake, foam rolling triggers a relaxation response from the brain to our muscle tissue, which helps us access better ranges of motion. “This comes in handy before beginning a period of stretching (static or dynamic) and especially before a bout with strenuous activity,” he says. “But you can always foam roll after a workout, too, which is still a way to trigger that relaxation response.”
And don’t forget that a foam roller can also be used to perform some strength-based exercises. Drake says you can use it as a “bench” for a chest press, a support for training a hack squat and even for some core training. A foam roller is truly one of the most versatile pieces of equipment you can own,
WHAT KIND OF ROLLER?
Short, long, thick, thin. There are so many foam rollers on the market. How do you know which one is best for you? For those new to foam rolling, starting with a standard, smooth, high-density foam roller is great because it’s the most basic and most versatile product in the category. If you want to take your foam rolling a step further, you can graduate to a foam roller with textured ridges, which will be more intense but be able to target hard-to-reach areas of the body.
“For a beginner, a longer, smooth cylinder roller with a high diameter and soft density would be perfect to start with,” says Drake. “For people looking for more precise targeting, foam rollers also come in massage sticks that are great for the legs, or foam balls which give off precise pressure to a concentrated area. Longer rollers have the capability of targeting bigger muscles like the back, while shorter ones can access a smaller area, like the foot.”
Here’s the thing about foam rolling: it’s not just about rolling (which is actually a misnomer, according to Orr). “You should only roll until you find a tender or tight spot,” he says. “From there, stay on that spot, put your weight on the tender area and move your body to elongate the muscle tissue and fascia. If you do this, you’ll be ‘breaking open’ the adhesion and tightness. Finding a tender area and then performing movements is the best way to expedite results.”
Orr recommends 5-10 reps of these favorite foam rolling exercises:
Lay on your stomach and place the foam roller on your quadricep. Roll up and down to find a tight area on the front part of your leg. From there, stay on the area and do a hamstring curl by flexing and extending your leg. This motion will unlock your quads, which get tight from sitting all day.
Sit on the foam roller, then place one leg over the other and find a tight area on the outside of your butt. From there, bring your knee towards you and back again, creating a “shearing” motion to unlock your hips and lower back.
This is great for releasing tight calves. Start by putting both calves on the foam roller, then place one leg over the other. Once you’ve found a tender spot on your calf by rolling up and down, stay on that tight spot and point and curl your toes back and forth to unlock tight knots.