Foam Rolling 101

Most people have a love/hate relationship with their foam roller.


Rolling can help the body feel more mobile and fluid after just a minute or two of rolling just the right spots. At the same time, rolling can be uncomfortable if you aren’t sure what you’re doing or ignore your body for a long time. 


Foam rolling can be helpful in extending the benefits of massage, so it’s worth learning a little more to determine if it’s a useful technique for you. 

What’s a foam roller?

Foam rollers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with bumps and nubs and some even vibrate. 


A cylindrical log shaped roller is probably what most associate with foam rolling. They can be made from everything from dense styrofoam to PVC pipes wrapped in foam padding but you can use any one of a variety of tools like a foam rolling stick, a cane with knobs on the end and even different sized balls ranging from golf balls to balls the size of a cantaloupe. 


The popularity of foam rolling is also increased by the fact that you can do it practically anywhere: the gym, the living room floor, your hotel room while traveling, even at your desk.

And while everyone can benefit from foam rolling,  if you have rheumatoid arthritis or osteoporosis, foam rolling is usually contraindicated.


Does it really work?

There is a lot of conflicting information about foam rolling and that misinformation gets passed from one person to the next with little or no inquiry about whether or not it’s actually true. 


There have been very few studies done on foam rolling (like massage). Much of what we thought foam rollers did, has turned out to be false..  


The prevailing myth about foam rolling, also sometimes referred to as self myofascial release, is that it breaks up adhesive tissue fibers and melts fascia like butter. The truth is that “melting” fascia is impossible from a manual therapy perspective. 


There has been some debate as to whether we should continue to call it “myofascial release” since the fascia isn’t actually being released.


The fact is fascia has the tensile strength of steel and is so deep and interconnected that it would be impossible to affect the entire “web.” 


In actuality, foam rolling activates your parasympathetic nervous system and deactivates the pain signal from your brain causing your muscles to release their contraction/ relax.


Some other benefits of foam rolling include


Release tension
Improve mobility
Increase range of motion 


Another popular myth about foam rolling is the harder the roller, the more beneficial it is. Wrong.


Just like using a drill to hammer a nail doesn’t work, using a hard object such as a lacrosse ball will not necessarily yield better results than a softer tennis ball. Remember the point is to reduce pain, not inflict it. And you could end up with muscle or nerve damage if done incorrectly. 


Start with a softer object or roller with no knobs or bumps and work your way up. If it is uncomfortable, but bearable, and you feel relief after only 30-60 seconds, that’s a good sign. 


A good, targeted foam rolling session should take no more than 5 to 10 minutes. Also, like stretching, you have to know if the muscle is over or underactive. Foam rolling an underactive muscle has little effect on decreased tension or increased flexibility. And rolling back and forth on an overactive muscle just causes hyper-irritability which will eventually lead to more pain. 




Now that we know a little more about foam rolling let’s talk about some key areas you can foam roll and how to get the most benefit from it.


Knowing which areas to foam roll begins with knowing what the goal is. 


If you’re trying to relieve tension, a static pressure for about 30-60 seconds is most beneficial. If you’re over 65, studies have shown that up to 90 seconds of foam rolling is most beneficial.


If you sit for long periods of time at a desk or have difficulty squatting at the gym some key muscles you want to target might be


Tensor Fascia Latae (Hip flexors) 
Rectus Femoris (main quadricep)
Tibialis Anterior (muscle on the outboard side of your shin bone)
Latissimus Dorsi (between the rib cage and your armpit)
Upper trapezius (upper back)


If you wear high heels for work you might want to target


Lateral Gastrocnemius (outside portion of the calf)
Soleus (lower leg under the calf)
Gluteus Maximus


If you do a lot of work where your arms are above your head--carpenters, mechanics, construction workers you might want to target


Latissimus Dorsi
Upper trapezius
Rotator cuff muscles


If the goal is to gain flexibility or temporarily increase range of motion a more traditional method of rolling up and down the length of the muscle is better. 


To get the most out of this type of foam rolling session: 


Slow your roll - Slowing down your movements to about 1 inch per second. Rolling faster does nothing for the muscle because it does not allow enough time to engage your parasympathetic nervous system. 


Break it up - for larger muscles such as the quads or hamstrings, start at the bottom of the muscle and roll half way up then roll from the halfway point to the other end of the muscle. This helps to slow you down and also not overwhelm your nervous system with too much stimuli.  


Whichever goal you are trying to achieve, always remember to use good posture. Keep your core engaged, spine straight and joints aligned. This will keep you from developing back, shoulder or hip problems from foam rolling.


If you’re ever confused about how to use your foam roller, bring it in on your next visit and I’d be happy to give you some pointers. 


Remember, your foam roller won’t replace your regular massage, but it can be a great tool to use between sessions. 


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