How To Use a Foam Roller
A foam roller is a simple cylinder made of either a foam or flexible plastic which you can use to lay on in various positions, to put bodyweight pressure on affected muscle groups.
Foam rolling is fascia stretching, a form of SMR, or commonly known as “simple myofascial release”.
But what is a “fascia”?
Fascia is a thin tissue that connects the muscles to each other. When it’s healthy, it is flexible, supple and glides smoothly over your muscles. But binding in your fascia can form due to a host of conditions, such as muscle injury, inactivity, disease, inflammation, or trauma. Even just sitting at a desk all day can get your fascia “gummed up” and stiff.
How does foam rolling work on a fascia?
Foam rolling can help release that built-up tension in your fascia and re-establish the integrity and quality of a muscle tissue.
For effective and systematic foam rolling, muscle groups should be divided. Foam rolling can be performed prior to and after your workouts. Before exercise, rolling will increase tissue elasticity, range of motion and circulation (blood flow). This can help you move better during your workout and protect you from injury.
Foam rolling post-workout is a great way to enhance recovery. Focus on all of the major muscles you just worked, with an extra emphasis on the areas that feel problematic. By stimulating blood flow in affected areas, you’ll dramatically increase oxygen to your sore muscle fibers and reduce recovery time.
How to choose the right size and density of a foam roller?
Foam rollers come in different densities, which is a primary factor in how effective they are at deep-tissue massage. Using a roller that is too soft can provide inadequate pressure while a foam roller that is too hard can cause bruising and trauma, which can result in pain and have a negative effect on your performance.
If you’re just starting out with using a foam roller, choose one that’s on the softer side. As your technique improves and your muscles adapt you can progress to using a denser (harder) roller. Denser rollers are also better for long-term use because they’re more durable. Softer rollers can get permanently deformed after lots of use, which is an indication that it’s time to replace the roller.
The color of the roller can give a hint to its density.
- White - softest
- Blue and red rollers - typically are medium density.
- Black - hardest.
This can vary by brand, though. A simple way to test is to squeeze rollers to assess their relative firmness.
Some rollers have ridges and knobs that allow you to apply different intensities of pressure and to do a more targeted massage. Other rollers are smooth.
- Smooth rollers: This basic design provides even pressure across the entire length of the roller. A smooth foam roller is a great starting point because the pressure is not as intense as with a textured roller. Also, smooth foam rollers are typically less expensive than textured rollers.
- Textured rollers: Mimicking the hands of a masseuse, ridges and knobs on a foam roller can provide more precisely targeted massage to work out knots in your muscles. Many rollers include a variety of texture so you can find the right amount of pressure.
Sizes and Shapes
Foam rollers are available in a range of shapes and sizes.
Long rollers (around 36 inches) are versatile and a good choice for your first foam roller. They work well for your back because they are long enough to span your entire back when placed perpendicular to your spine. They’re also more stable than shorter rollers when you’re working on your quads, hamstrings and other body parts.
Shorter lengths (around 24 inches) work well to target smaller areas like arms and calves. The shortest lengths (around 4 - 12 inches) work well for portability and in workout areas with limited floor space.
- Diameter: Most rollers are 5 or 6 inches in diameter, which is a comfortable height for easing your body onto and then rolling under control. Some people choose 3- or 4-inch diameter rollers for deeper, more targeted massage.
- Half round foam roller: These look like a foam roller that has been cut in half lengthwise. They are used for leg and foot stretches, and to massage the arches of the feet to relieve the symptoms of plantar fasciitis.
The color, texture, size and shape of a foam roller depend on the area that you will perform foam rolling.
The following are some easy steps on how to use your foam roller:
Hip Flexor Roll
- Lay on the ground with your foam roller under you, perpendicular to your body.
- Place the roller under your hip and set your upper leg in front of your body with your foot flat on the ground.
- Roll your hip up and down with the foam roller.
- Repeat the movement on the other side.
- Get on the ground with the foam roller under your right thigh.
- Bend your left knee with your foot flat on the ground.
- Lift your buttocks slightly off the floor.
- Slowly roll your body forward and backward letting the roller move from the upper thigh to above the knee.
- Roll for 30 to 60 seconds on each hamstring.
- Sit on the ground with the foam roller under one side of your buttocks.
- Keep one foot on the ground and cross your other foot over your knee.
- Support your body with one hand behind you and the other resting on your crossed leg.
- Slowly roll up and down.
- Repeat the movement on the other side, rolling each side for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Sit on the floor and place the foam roller underneath your calves, starting just beneath the knee.
- Place both hands by your sides and lift off as though you were performing a reverse plank, which places your bodyweight onto the calf muscles.
- Slowly push your body backwards so the foam roller rolls down to the Achilles and then roll forwards to return to the start position.
- As you roll you should feel trigger points, these are the places where there is the most tension in the calves and they will feel like painful knots as you roll over them. As you reach a knot, this is where you need to apply more pressure in order to release the tension. Slow down and use little pulses over the knot until you feel it reduce.
- To add increased pressure, isolate each calf one at a time, so now your upper body weight is focused over one leg.
- To intensify this further still, cross the legs one over the other, now your entire bodyweight is focused over one calf.
- As you roll your calf back and forth, rotate it slightly to make sure pressure is applied to the entire muscle. Try rolling with your feet facing inwards and outwards to combat the internal and external sides of the muscles.
TIP: Just like stretching, foam rolling can be essential and beneficial to injury prevention, increasing blood flow, decreasing soft-tissue density and relaxing tight muscles. It also increases flexibility and can be helpful pre- and post-workout. Therefore, foam rolling on a daily basis is highly recommended.
- Rick Kaselj