Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release, is like a deep tissue massage for your muscles. It’s a type of soft-tissue therapy that focuses on connective tissue called fascia.
Fascia is tissue that connects with your muscles, bones, and ligaments to provide support throughout your entire body. (1)
When it works properly, fascia is elastic and can stretch and move as one with the rest of your body. However, many times, due to intense workouts, poor posture or movement patterns, stress, and lifestyle factors, fascia can tighten and become stiff, restricting movement and even causing pain.
Unfortunately, conventional stretching on its own doesn’t always release tight fascia. Direct pressure from a massage therapist, or a tool like a foam roller, or even a lacrosse ball, is needed to release those tight muscles and tissue. It’s important to have muscles and fascia supple and elastic for proper muscle movement and function.
Benefits of Foam Rolling
1. Improves Range of Motion & Performance
Exercise, injury, and lifestyle can cause your fascia to tighten and cause trigger points, or “knots”. These knots are what restrict both mobility and performance. Foam rolling can break up those knots and return muscles and soft tissue back to normal, increasing range of motion. With an increased range of motion, you can perform better in your workouts by engaging muscles fully to increase strength and power. (2)
2. Relieves Muscle Soreness and Aids in Recovery
Fascia provide your muscles with support and protection. Overuse, injury, and even inactivity can cause fascia to tighten, causing inflammation and irritation. Foam rolling breaks up those knots which can actually help increase circulation to your muscles and connective tissues. With better circulation and more oxygen, your muscles can recover faster and you’ll experience less muscle soreness. (3)
3. Relaxes Muscles
Just with deep tissue massage, foam rolling applies direct pressure on tight muscles and knots which helps them relax and release tension. “Rolling” over your muscles and trigger points creates a similar effect that a massage therapist uses when kneading your muscles. (4)
4. Lengthens Muscles & Prevents Injury
Just as it increases range of motion, foam rolling allows you to stretch your muscles more efficiently as well. Foam rolling lengthens muscles and breaks down scar tissues that can prevent you from reaching your deepest stretch. It allows muscles to return to their normal length, which in turn allows for proper muscle function. When your muscles are efficiently stretched and function properly there is far less risk of injury.
5. Correct Muscle Imbalances
Because foam rolling can relax tight muscles, improve range of motion, and lengthen muscles, it allows your body to perform better. It helps correct muscle imbalances by relaxing the overactive, tight muscles, and allowing for proper movement to strengthen the weak, underactive muscles.
6. Can Boost your Immune System
A healthy myofascial system directly correlates with a healthy immune system. Your lymphatic system detoxifies your system and keeps it healthy. Lymph, or lymphatic fluid, runs along the facial plane of your body. When the fascia in your body are tight, it restricts the movement of lymph. Foam rolling will release tight fascia, allowing for proper detoxification and immune function.
Fair Warning: Foam Rolling Won’t Feel That Great…
For some, foam rolling seems as if it can’t possibly help if it is so painful while actually doing it. But again, think of it as a deep tissue massage. Most people understand and know that deep tissue massage can be uncomfortable and even painful. Foam rollers are really just a tool used as a substitute for the hands, elbows and forearms of the massage therapist.
When foam rolling, it is important to choose the right type of roller to start with to minimize the amount of discomfort in the beginning (sometimes the pain the first time can be enough to scare people off forever!). Foam rollers come in different densities, or “hardnesses”. The harder to roller, the more painful it will be if you have extremely tight muscles and fascia. When starting a foam rolling program, choose a softer roller (usually colored white or light blue) and start there.
As soon as you move off of the foam roller, the muscles you were working on should stop hurting and actually feel relieved and more relaxed. As the discomfort starts to go away when foam rolling, this means that you have been able to work out those knots.
As you progress through a foam rolling program and the pain starts to decrease, you gain flexibility and increase range of motion, and then move up to the next level of hardness in rollers (usually a black roller). Eventually, you will become accustomed to the uncomfortable feeling and even start to enjoy it. You may eventually even want a roller that is lined with a PVC pipe in the middle to really dig into those muscles.
Tips for Foam Rolling
- Roll each muscle group for 1-2 minutes and roll very SLOWLY. When you hit a tight spot that is painful or uncomfortable, HOLD on that spot for 30-45 seconds. You should feel the tension release slowly.
- Make sure to keep breathing, even when it’s painful. Holding your breath won’t allow the muscles to release and relax.
- Be sure to RELAX the muscle as best you can. If you are flexing or tensing the muscle group you are trying to roll out, you won’t feel the trigger points you need to release.
- Drink plenty of water for the next 24 hours. Your body needs to rid itself of the lactic acid released after rolling.
- The next day your muscles may be a bit sore. That’s normal, they should feel slightly fatigued and possibly a tiny bit tender. Wait 24-48 hours to foam roll again if you’re sore.
- Never roll on a joint or bone and DO NOT roll your lower back. Also, when rolling your upper back be careful not to roll directly on your spine, instead always roll one side of your back at a time by slightly leaning to that side. There are small knobs on your vertebrae, called facets, that could get injured when rolling directly on your spine.
- If an area is too painful to apply direct pressure, shift the roller and apply pressure on the surrounding area and gradually work to loosen the entire area.
Full Body Foam Rolling Routine
Here’s a good routine to get you started using your foam roller. Some muscle groups may be more sensitive than others, THOSE are the ones that you need to focus on! You will eventually be able to feel which muscle groups tend to always be tight for you personally. If you work at a desk (like most people), some areas to pay special attention to are the chest (and fronts of shoulders), lats, hip flexors, and IT-band.
Lay facedown with the bottom of the foam roller angled away from you, and your arm extended out to the side over it. (The foam roller should rest in the crease of the front of your shoulder.) Lift your stomach and hips off the floor to press your weight into the foam roller. Roll forward and backwards a few inches over your chest and your front shoulder muscles. Repeat on the other side.
Lie on your RIGHT side with the foam roller just under your armpit and your RIGHT arm extended over the roller. Bring your LEFT leg over and place your foot on the ground for support. Press all of your weight into the foam roller and roll along the RIGHT side of your torso from your underarm to the bottom of your rib cage, and then roll back up. Repeat on the other side.
3. Thoracic Spine
Lay with the foam roller in the middle of your back across your shoulder blades. Clasp your hands behind your head for support, but don’t pull on your neck. Shift slightly to your RIGHT side and lift your hips off the ground to put as much weight as possible up your upper right back. Roll from your shoulder blades down to the bottom of your rib cage and back up. Do NOT roll directly on your spine. Repeat on the other side.
Sit on top of the foam roller with your RIGHT ankle crossed over your LEFT knee. Shift your weight to the RIGHT slightly to apply pressure onto your right glute. Roll forward and back slightly to release, then switch sides.
5. Hip Flexors
This can sometimes be a tricky muscle group to reach. The best way to hit it is to angle the upper part of the foam roller away from you so that the bottom part of it lines up with the crease of your pelvis and hips. Roll back and forth a few inches to release the hip flexors and shift your weight slightly from side to side to hit those muscles a little differently. Repeat on the other side.
Lay facedown, almost in a plank position on your elbows, with the foam roller just under your hips on your quads. Shift as much weight as possible onto the foam roller and slowly roll down your legs to just above the knee and roll back up. Also, try externally rotating your legs to hit the inside quad muscles, and internally rotate your legs to hit the outside quad muscles.
Lay on your side, with the bottom RIGHT leg placed onto a foam roller between the hip and the knee. Cross your LEFT leg over and place the foot on the floor. Place as much weight as possible into the bottom leg and roll from the hip to just above the knee and back up. Repeat on the other leg.
Sit on the floor and place the foam roller under your RIGHT lower leg, between the base of your calves and your Achilles. Cross your LEFT leg over your right. Press into your hands and lift your hips off the ground to apply pressure onto the roller. Slowly walk your hands towards the foam roller to roll it up your leg. Stop just below the knee and roll back down. The most sensitive spot will mostly likely be at the base of your calf muscles. Repeat on the other leg.
After foam rolling it’s best to stretch out your muscles. Try this Stretch Routine to help lengthen your muscles and improve range of motion even more.
(Read This Next: Straighten Up: How to Fix Posture)