Misunderstood. Unused. Unwanted. Often, that's the fate of a foam roller. Most workout centers have one or two sitting in the corner. You might even have one at home, collecting dust under your bed or in your storage room. Or, maybe your kids use it for imaginary sword fights or batting practice.
What might surprise you is that foam rollers may be the most effective, versatile, inexpensive piece of workout equipment out there. Once used only by physical therapists or professional athletes, they have become an everyday tool for people of all fitness levels.
Foam rollers are typically cylinder-shaped and come in several different sizes and levels of thickness. They range from $5 to $30. If you can’t find one at your gym or you want one for home, you can easily find a broad selection online or at your local sporting goods store. They are easily portable and can be used by people of any size or weight.
Foam rollers are used for “self-myofascial release,” which is basically another term for self-massage. It helps release knots, trigger points, and inflammation of muscles. “Foam rolling will decrease over-activity of muscle fibers, which will help the muscles recover more quickly and lengthen the muscles,” says Gina Ryan, program manager at the Well for Life Center at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “All of my clients regularly use the foam roller.”
Aside from being highly effective, one of the great things about a foam roller is that you can use it any time. “You don’t have to be warmed up. You can use the foam roller at the beginning of a workout session or after, if you are feeling sore. You can also use the foam roller in the morning when you get out of bed.”
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How to foam roll
Using the roller and your bodyweight, apply moderate pressure to a specific muscle or muscle group.
Roll slowly, no more than one inch per second. When you find areas that are tight or painful, pause and relax as much as possible. You should slowly start to feel the muscle releasing. After a few seconds, the discomfort or pain should lessen.
Discomfort or pain is common with foam rolling
“It is similar to that of a deep tissue muscle massage, or a focused stretch,” says Ryan. She adds, “There may be times when it’s uncomfortable, but it should not be unbearable. You should feel better when you’re done.”
If an area is just too painful for direct pressure, work on the surrounding area first, then gradually work to loosen the entire area.
“Typically, it is more painful to roll during the first week or two of using one. Many of my clients enjoy using the foam roller once they’ve been instructed on how to properly perform the exercises. Give it some time, and you’ll feel the results,” says Ryan.
Ryan adds that if you experience sharp, poking pain, you should apply less pressure or discontinue use. “Don’t roll over joints or bones.”
Always talk to your personal doctor before starting a new routine or using a new piece of equipment. Foam rollers may not be appropriate for certain types of injuries or conditions.
Five easy ways to use a foam roller
Quadriceps: For upper leg pain or tightness
A: Lie facedown on the floor and place the roller under your hips.
B: Lean on your right leg and roll up and down from your hip to your knee.
Hamstrings: For upper leg pain or tightness
A: Sit with your right leg on the roller; bend your left knee, cross your left ankle over your right ankle, and put your hands on the floor behind you to support your weight.
B: Roll up and down from your knee to the top of your hamstring.
Calves: For lower leg pain or tightness
A: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out, hands on the floor behind you supporting your weight. Place the foam roller under your calves.
B: Slowly roll along the back of your legs up and down from your knees to your ankles.
Chest stretch: Stretches the back and chest
A: Lie lengthwise on the foam roller, making sure your tailbone and head are supported. Bend your knees.
B: Spread your arms to make a “T” shape, stretching your chest. Let gravity pull your shoulders back (if your arms tingle, move them down toward your sides until the tingling stops). Relax the back.
Stay in this position for five minutes.
Back: For a tight back — good for desk workers
A: Sit on the floor with the foam roller on your lower back, resting your hands behind you for balance.
B: Tighten your abs and slowly bend your knees to move the roller up your back, just below your shoulder blades.