If you wake up each morning with a persistent lower back ache or find yourself massaging sore shoulders multiple afternoons a week, you’re certainly not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 50 million Americans grapple with some form of chronic pain. So, while you may be in good company, it doesn’t make the discomfort any less aggravating.

The good news? Relief might be just a budget-friendly tool and a few minutes away. Physical therapists have traditionally employed foam rollers, those familiar long, cylindrical pieces of black or blue foam often spotted at the gym, to alleviate tension and, in turn, alleviate aches.

Why consider foam rolling?

Foam rolling, also referred to as “self-myofascial release,” works by enhancing muscle flexibility in the top layers of your tissues, targeting a layer of tissue called fascia that lies atop the muscles and interconnects various muscle groups. Fitness experts assert that the fascia often harbors tight trigger points, and employing a foam roller aids in releasing these points and alleviating soft tissue adhesions.

Incorporating foam roller exercises with stretches can open up restricted tissues, potentially resulting in increased freedom of movement and relief from pain.

Furthermore, foam rolling contributes to an improved range of motion by reducing tightness in the muscles surrounding your joints. Many trainers recommend incorporating foam rolling into both pre-exercise routines to awaken the muscles and post-workout sessions to prevent soreness.

For instance, if your quads are tight, they might be overworking, leaving your hamstrings somewhat inactive. This imbalance can contribute to knee discomfort, making foam rolling a valuable tool in promoting overall muscle harmony.

13 Best Foam Roller Exercises

Lower Body

1. Hip Flexors 

  • Position yourself face down with your weight resting on your forearms, the foam roller underneath your upper thighs, and the tips of your toes (a forearm plank position).
  • Roll down toward your feet to position the roller at your hip joints then slowly roll back and forth using your forearms and toes to control the movement.
  • You can also do one side at a time by moving one leg out to the side of the roller.

2. IT Band

  • Position yourself on your left side with the foam roller under your hip, weight resting on your forearm and the foam roller, keep your ankles together, your toes pointing forward.
  • Slowly roll up (roller moves toward your feet) and down (roller moves toward your head) over the IT band using your forearm to control the movement. Repeat on the right leg.

*Because the IT band is a fibrous tissue and not a muscle, it tends to be a very tight area, so take time to stop and breathe over tighter areas during the 30 seconds of rolling.

Repeat on the right leg.

3. Glutes 

  • Sit on top of the foam roller with your arms behind you, cross one ankle over the opposite knee (in a figure four position), and lean slightly toward the side you want to work on.
  • Roll back and forth, using the foot on the floor to control the movement. Angle your body from side to side to work all the muscles in your butt.

*This is a smaller area so take care not to fall off the roller

4. Quads /Thighs

  • Position yourself in a forearm plank position with the foam roller underneath your upper thigh.
  • Roll down toward your feet to position the roller at your hip joints, then slowly roll back and forth from hips to knees.
  • You can also do one side at a time by moving one leg out to the side of the roller.

5. Adductors

  • Lie face down on the floor with your weight resting on your forearms with both legs extended.
  • Have the roller parallel to one leg.
  • Bend the knee closest to the roller and lift that leg over the roller allowing your inner thigh to rest on top, roll very slightly toward your back, so your inner thigh has good contact with the roller.
  • Slowly move from side to side using your body to control the movement. Repeat on the other leg.

6. Abductors

  • Position yourself on your left side with the foam roller under your hip, The weight is resting on your forearm and the foam roller, bend the left knee and keep the right knee straight.
  • Slowly roll up and down while slightly angling your body side to side to get the entire muscle. Repeat on the right side.

7. Calves

  • Sit in a long sitting position with the roller under your calves, and cross one leg over the other.
  • Lift your buttocks off the floor and begin to roll up and down the length of your calf using your arms and body to control the movement.
  • Angle the body from side to side to reach the entire muscle. Repeat on the other leg.

8. Hamstrings

  • Sit on top of the foam roller with your arms positioned behind you, place the roller at your hamstrings just below your glutes, and keep your left knee bent out to the side of the roller.
  • Roll up and down from below your glutes to behind the knee using your hands and right leg to control the movement. Repeat on the other side.

Upper Body

9. Thoracic Spine

  • Lay on top of the foam roller with your head, upper back, and lower back parallel to the roller and your knees bent. Rest your arms comfortably to your sides.
  • Gently roll to one side, staying in between your spine and your shoulder blades, and move from side to side in this area. 
  • Repeat on the other side.

10. Upper Back

  • Position yourself on the floor with the foam roller under your upper back, with your knees bent.
  • Clasp your hands behind your head to support your head and neck.
  • Gently up and down from your belly button to your shoulder blades.
  • Angle your body from side to side to work all of the muscles in your back (5).

11. Lats

  • Position yourself in a right-side-lying position with the foam roller under your armpit, and extend your right arm so that your forearm and elbow are in contact with the floor.
  • Cross your right leg over your left leg keeping your foot flat on the floor.
  • Roll up and down from your armpit to the top of your ribs. Angle your body from side to side to work the entire muscle.
  • Repeat on the left side.

12. Shoulders

  • Position yourself in a right-side-lying position with your shoulder directly on the roller and clasp both hands out in front of you.
  • Cross your right leg over your left leg keeping your foot flat on the floor.
  • Roll up and down, keeping your shoulder in contact with the foam. Angle your body forward and backward to work the front and back of the shoulder. Repeat on the left side.

13. Arms

How To:

  • Position yourself face down with the roller underneath the armpit of your right arm. Extend your arm out over the foam with your thumb pointing toward the ceiling.
  • Roll up and down with a focus on the area between your shoulder and your elbow.
  • Perform this movement with your palm down and your palm up to work all the muscles in the front, back, and side of the arm.
  • Repeat on the left side.

Q&As

How Long Should You Foam Roll?

Foam rolling exercises can be done every day for 10 to 20-minute sessions. Perform slow, short rolls for 30 seconds over areas of tension (which can feel gritty, lumpy, thick, or fibrous) followed by slower, longer rolls over the entire length of the muscle (2).

You can perform up to three sets of 30 seconds each with 10-second rest periods in between (2).

When to Foam Roll? 

  • Foam rolling is a great way to warm up before a workout, replacing your stretching routine.
  • It is excellent for relieving post-exercise soreness and muscle fatigue.
  • It decreases tightness and muscle tension after prolonged sitting or periods of stress.

Can Foam Rolling Be Harmful?

Foam rolling is a safe and effective practice; however, there are some things that you should avoid.

  • Avoid foam rolling areas that have been injured, as overstressing inflamed muscle tissue can lead to further injury, increased pain, and decreased range of motion.
  • Avoid foam rolling the lower back as mobility in this area can vary from person to person. 
  • Make sure that you are not holding your breath while foam rolling; it is common to hold your breath while doing exercises. Counting out loud can help.
  • Avoid rolling too fast, as slow, repetitive movement is much more effective for improving blood flow and releasing trigger points.
  • Avoid rolling directly over your spine or any other bony prominences. 
  • Avoid rolling over any area that becomes more painful after roller use.

The Final Word

Foam rolling exercises

Whether you are experiencing muscle fatigue and soreness after a hard workout or muscle pain from sitting for long periods with bad posture, using the foam roller is a safe and effective way to decrease tension and facilitate muscle recovery.

Be sure to tighten your stomach muscles while performing foam roller exercises to maintain proper alignment, protect your back, and strengthen your core at the same time.

When starting a new foam roller program, take it slow and pay close attention to your form.

If you experience severe pain in any area that is increased by the use of the roller or does not go away in a reasonable amount of time, you should contact your physician.

Sources:

  1. Holland, Kimberly. “What Is Myofascial Release and Does It Work?” Healthline, 26 Jan. 2015, www.healthline.com/health/chronic-pain/myofascial-release. Accessed 17 May 2020. 
  2. Alger, Kieran. “The Benefits of Foam-Rolling — and 8 Foam Roller Exercises.” Openfit, edited by John Cogdon and Selina Tobaccowala, 13 May 2020, www.openfit.com/big-benefits-of-foam-rolling. Accessed 17 May 2020. 
  3. Risher, Brittany. “Foam Rolling vs. Stretching: Which Is Better?” Openfit, edited by John Cogdon and Selina Tobaccowala, 31 Oct. 2019, www.openfit.com/foam-rolling-vs-stretching. Accessed 17 May 2020. 
  4. Fetters, M.S., C.S.C.S., K. Aleisha. “Here’s What Foam Rolling Is Doing When It Hurts So Good.” Self, 21 July 2018, www. (Provigil) self.com/story/ what-foam-rolling-is-actually-doing-when-it-hurts-so-good. Accessed 17 May 2020. 
  5. “Dissolve Years of Tension in Your Upper Back with This Physical Therapist Approved Stretch.” Well+Good, edited by Ali Finney et al., 25 Jan. 2020, www.wellandgood.com/ foam-rolling-upper-back/. Accessed 17 May 2020.

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