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How to use a foam roller and what exactly does it do?

17th April, 2017

Using a foam roller to exercise the thigh muscles

It can be a love-hate thing but if you’ve tried self-massage using a foam roller before, you’re probably already convinced of the benefits.

Reduced muscle pain, increased flexibility and improved joint mobility can all be achieved using a foam roller and it’s not just for rehab after an injury either. You can foam roll before a workout to help warm up your muscles and after exercising or a run to reduce soreness.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying that I think it’s an essential piece of kit for anyone who takes part in sport or who exercises regularly.

What type of foam roller should I buy or avoid?

A high density foam, smooth roller is the best choice. Avoid gimmicky rollers with bumps and knobbly bits that don’t roll very smoothly. They can be more uncomfortable to use and don’t have any proven benefit over a smooth roller.

How does it work and should it hurt?

There are studies that demonstrate that foam rolling produces improvements in flexibility, pain relief and joint movement but there’s no definitive answer as to why. It’s thought that it may help by:

  • Disrupting the nerves that transmit pain signals (like rubbing your leg when you walk into something)
  • Increasing blood flow to flush out the chemicals that cause inflammation or pain
  • Redistributing water to dehydrated muscles and the soft tissues wrapped around them (fascia)
  • Releasing sore spots in your muscles (trigger points) and tight fascia. This is often referred to as ‘myofascial release’

 Foam rolling isn’t always for the faint hearted. It can be uncomfortable but using a good technique means it shouldn’t be unbearable or a test of your tolerance of pain.

Essentially you are applying compression to your muscles and fascia by leaning on a roller and moving your body backward and forward over it, moving it along the ground.

I’ve seen lots of videos on YouTube of people working on foam rollers really rapidly but it’s much more effective (and comfortable) when applied slowly and in small sections along the muscle, using a moderate amount of pressure. When you find a sore spot, hold for a moment until it relaxes and then move on to the next section.

 Where? … for how long? … and how often?

Lots of people are familiar with foam rolling exercises for the muscles around their hips and in their legs but you can use a foam roller to work on the muscles around your shoulders, upper back and neck too. Avoid foam rolling on your lower back. A tennis ball or spiked massage ball is more comfortable in this area of the spine.

Start with 30 seconds to a minute, rolling each muscle group and increase your pressure gradually … you shouldn’t be gritting your teeth. In fact, if it’s too painful over a specific area, work around it initially until it feels more comfortable. Build up to rolling each muscle for up to 1 minute, twice, with a break of 30 seconds in between.

If you are working on a specific pain or tight problem area, then I’d recommend foam rolling every 48 hours if tolerable. When the condition has resolved then I’d recommend foam rolling after training and on your rest days to maintain healthy muscle tissue. Three times per week is usually about the right level for most people but you can use a foam roller as often as you like as long, as you aren’t being too aggressive and causing pain.

A foam rolling exercise routine for your hips and legs

Most painful conditions affecting your legs will be helped by foam rolling your calf muscles, thigh muscles at the front (quads) and back (hamstrings), as well as the IT band and buttock muscles (glutes). So I’ve put together a programme that targets these muscles groups … just follow the instructions above to get the most out of it:

Calf rolling – support your weight through your arms and push and pull using your supporting leg.

Foam rolling exercise for the calf muscles

Quads rolling – support your weight through both elbows and use your shoulders to push and pull.

Using a foam roller to release the quads

Hamstring rolling – support your weight through both arms and push and pull with your supporting leg.

Foam roller exercise for muscle tension in the hamstrings

IT Band rolling – lean on one elbow and use your supporting leg and your shoulder to push and pull.

IT Band exercise using a foam roller

Glutes rolling – sit on the roller and cross one leg over the other (you can use your hand to hold it in place it you need to). Roll a few inches back and forward.

Using a foam roller to release muscle tension in your gluteal muscles

To sum up I highly recommend foam rolling to everyone … it’s affordable, easy to do and just two minutes applied to each area will improve flexibility, relieve pain and prevent injuries.

Get in touch if you have any questions and we’d be very happy to help you,

The Pilatesfit team!