Are your legs feeling sore and tight from lower-body workouts or long runs? Using a foam roller can help. It releases muscle tension in the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves, which can also relieve low back pain.
A foam roller applies pressure to certain trigger points in the fascial tissue (i.e., connective tissue), which wraps around your muscles. This technique is known as trigger-point therapy or myofascial release. Foam rolling the legs after a workout can ease pain and stiffness in both the legs and low back, speed up recovery, and improve overall athletic performance (1) (2) (3).
The Benefit of Foam Rolling Vs. Stretching
Traditional, static stretching is designed to relax the muscles themselves. But trigger-point therapy relaxes the connective tissue that wraps around the muscles.
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Imagine a beetle caught in a sticky cobweb. A beetle usually has the ability to move freely; it can walk and fly with ease. But its range of motion would be restricted by a cobweb surrounding it.
Now envision your muscles as the beetle, and your fascia as the cobweb. To improve mobility in the muscles, you must first improve mobility in the fascia.
Foam Rolling for Lower-Body Release
The human body contains a complex network of interconnected muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue. So pain in one area may actually be caused by tightness in an entirely different region.
For example, consider the quadriceps and hamstrings. Both play a role in bending and extending the knee, and have muscles that connect to the pelvis. So stiffness in the hamstrings or quadriceps could create pain in the knees or hips.
And what about low-back tension? Should you roll on your low back? No, absolutely not.
There are too many small, vulnerable bones in the low back, and they’re not designed for intense pressure. However, using a foam roller to release muscles that connect to the low back via the pelvis (such as the piriformis, hip flexors, and quads) is a safe, beneficial technique for easing low-back pain.
How to Choose a Foam Roller
Foam rollers come in different sizes and densities. Smoother, softer rollers are beneficial for certain demographics, particularly the elderly and those recovering from injury. But most people find that a high-density roller provides the greatest level of support and tension release. Dense foam rollers are also more durable, and more appropriate for long-term use.
Some rollers have raised ridges and spikes, which allow you to be far more targeted in your trigger-point therapy. These rollers are fantastic for athletes, committed gym-goers, and anyone who wants to take their self-massage to the next level.
Foam rolling can be uncomfortable, but it is effective. Remember that you’re in control of how much body weight you place on the roller; less weight is less intense, and vice versa. If you were to quantify pressure, aim for four out of ten. Discomfort higher than a five is considered pain, so it’s no longer effective.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of your foam roller experience:
- Hold the foam roller at each individual trigger point for 20-30 seconds, without rolling on or off that spot.
- Some muscles have several areas of tension. Take your time, and pay attention to the entire region. After each 30-second hold, you can subtly move the roller to a new trigger point on that same muscle.
- To roll correctly, start at one end of the muscle. Then slowly roll your way to the other end. To find your trigger points, you may need to repeat this action a couple of times on each muscle.
- To stay balanced and aligned, work on the same muscle group on both sides of the body.
13 Foam Roller Exercises for Sore, Tight Legs
To warm the muscles and prepare the body for efficient movement, you can do the following exercises before your workout. Or you can do them afterward to increase blood flow, reduce muscle soreness, and nourish the fascia.
Front of Legs
Lie with the foam roller under your hips (at the tops of your thighs). Rest your forearms on the ground to support your body. Keep your feet off the floor, and slowly roll toward your knees. (But don’t roll over your knees.) Pause when you feel a tender spot. Make sure to keep your hips up. Don’t let your stomach or hips sink toward the ground.
To add more pressure, stack one leg on top of the other, and roll one leg at a time.
Hip Flexors (Psoas)
Lie with the foam roller directly under the front hip crease, below the projecting “hip-bone” points of your pelvis (the anterior superior iliac spine). Rest your forearms and feet on the ground to support your body. To increase pressure on the left hip flexor (which is located towards the outer part of your pelvic region), bend the right knee towards the side. Slowly roll up-and-down and side-to-side over this muscle.
Prone Hip Flexor Stretch
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Place the foam roller horizontally below your hips. (It should rest on the flat ledge of your sacrum, not your low back.) Extend the right leg, keeping your foot on the ground. To increase the stretch, hug the left knee to your chest. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds before switching sides.
Shin (Tibialis Anterior)
Start on your hands and knees. Place the foam roller under the front right shin—just below your knee, and slightly to the inside edge of the shin bone. Engage your abdominals, and keep your back flat. Place as much weight on the foam roller as you can tolerate.
Slowly roll along the front of your shin towards your ankle. Pull your knee towards your hands, but keep your hands still. As you roll, pay attention to any trigger spots—where you can stay and hold until the muscle stops spasming.
Back Of Legs
Sit on the foam roller with your legs straight out in front of you. Place your hands behind you on the ground for support. Adjust your position, so the foam roller sits right where the backs of your legs connect to your buttocks. Slowly roll toward your knees, pausing on any tender spot.
To find any additional knots before stopping, slightly turn your legs in or out. To add more pressure, stack one leg on top of the other. Since your arms are holding you up, you may need to take a break every few minutes to let them rest.
Follow the same steps for hamstrings. However, start with the foam roller just below your knees, and roll toward your ankles. Again, to hit the entire muscle group, try slightly turning your legs in or out.
Sit on the foam roller with your knees bent and feet on the ground. Cross one leg over the other knee, then slightly tilt your body to the side of the leg that’s lifted. Prop yourself up with one hand behind you on the ground. Slowly roll between your sit bone toward your hips.
To find tight spots, you may need to slightly adjust to the right or left as needed.
Inner & Outer Legs
Inner Thighs (Adductors)
Lie on your stomach, and place the foam roller parallel to the side of your body. Bend one leg to 90 degrees, and place the inner thigh on the roller (just above the knee). Rest your forearms on the floor, and roll sideways. Move the roller towards your hips, pausing at tender spots.
Outer Thigh and IT Band
Lie sideways on the roller, so it sits just lower than your hip. Rest on your forearm, and lift your bottom leg off the floor. Cross your top leg over it, and place your foot on the floor. Keep your body in a straight line as you roll toward your knee. Be careful not to round your body at the hips. To increase the pressure, stack your legs.
Sides of Calves and Ankles (Peroneus Muscles)
Follow the same procedure for the IT band, but start with the foam roller just above the ankle. Roll towards the area just below your knee. To increase pressure, stack your legs.
These final three exercises are designed to follow the trigger-point series above. Once the fascia has been relaxed through direct foam rolling, you can then follow up with specific mobility exercises, which further relax the hips and low back.
Lie on your back. Keep your legs straight legs, and rest the back of your ankles on the roller. Maintaining straight legs, externally rotate your thighs.
Point the heels in, but point the knees and toes out. Then internally rotate your legs—so that the heels point out, and the knees and toes point in towards each other. Keep slowly alternating between external and internal rotation, allowing the femur head to move freely within the hip socket.
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Arch your feet on the roller. Allow the knees to fall open to the sides in a butterfly stretch. Hold this stretch for 60 seconds, which will allow gravity to take your knees closer to the floor.
Supported Yogi Squat
Stand with you feet hip-width distance apart. Horizontally hold the roller between both hands. The toes are slightly wider than the heels. Keep your weight in your heels. Bend both knees, and lower the hips into a squat. Press your palms into the roller. Keep your chest lifted and spine upright. Hold the squat for 60 seconds before releasing.
To learn more about how to use foam rollers, visit ProSource!
(Your Next Workout: Toned Legs Stability Ball Workout)
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