The Mighty Foam Roller

By Mike Howard

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“The $20 Massage Therapist”, “The pool-toy-looking-thingy”, “The foam of profanity”.

Whatever you want to call it, the foam roller is an effective, inexpensive and vastly underused gym accessory.

For about $20-30, you can improve mobility, relieve muscle stiffness, improve brain-muscle efficiency and improve performance.

Here’s how it works.

Foam Roller Basics:

The idea here is that you roll your body weight along the foam roller, massaging through restrictions that may occur in the muscle and fascia. The exercise physiology geeks refers to this concept as “Self-Myofascial Release Technique”.

Without getting into complex details about fascia, the myotatic stretch reflex and autogenic inhibition, I’ll summarize by saying that certain structures are prone to trigger points (spots of irritation in the muscle fiber) and breaking down these trigger points through foam roll release can help improve the quality of our soft tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia etc) and hence the quality of our movement.

Trying it out:

This page on the Sports Fitness Advisor site gives a detailed explanation of trigger points and an excellent basic exercise guide. So if your gym has a foam roller, try it out or even consider buying one if you think you may benefit from using it.

The sensation of rolling will range from a gentle pressure to somebody taking a jackhammer to your muscles. This will vary from one area to another. I keep having to tell my clients (and reminding myself) that the more you feel it, the more you need it. That said, do what you can tolerate and build from there.

Try using the foam after a cardio warm-up (and before your weight training) or at the end of your workout. Either replace or add these exercises to your regular stretches that you do already. Although it may feel slightly uncomfortable, my personal experience is that I feel much better afterward and so do my clients.

Demonstration Video

Have you used a foam roller? Share your experience.

54 Comments

  1. jjmoree

    Awesome stuff!!! Quickly wrote up these steps to help show how to properly foam roll!
    a. – Slow Pressure – Slow your Roll
    • Apply pressure in the direction of tissue stiffness at the pace of roughly 1 inch per 2 seconds.
    • · When you come to a painful area of restriction, wait and keep pressure on that area
    • This can take 30 seconds or more to begin releasing so be patient; it’s not uncommon for overly tight areas to take 2 – 5 minutes to release
    • When change is actually being made there may be a burning sensation in the tissue. Don’t quit at that point. This is a chemical change taking place and the beginning of release.
    • Keep in mind more is not better; Consistency over quantity. After a few minutes your are not getting extra benefit by keeping pressure on one area, either move to the next technique or roll to another area on the target muscle group. Work up and down of the area and do so frequently to free up tight trigger spots.
    b. – Rotate Side To Side on Sore Spots and Knots
    • When you find a painful spot gently rotate the body part side to side until the pain starts to relieve.
    c. – Pin and stretch on trigger spots
    • Keep pressure on a painful area with your mobility tool (pin it) and stretch the muscle your mobilizing at the same time. “Bend and Extend” the muscle while it’s pinned on a trigger point along with Slow Pressure in order to encourage full range of motion to the deeper layers of the soft tissue.
    • Once you have a good grip on the knotted tissue, move through the range of motion that is restricted and encourage new range of motion through easy repetitive movement. Don’t force it by going to too hard
    • Fascia is designed to transmit force so too much force can transmit to other areas targeted.
    • Make sure you aren’t moving too far through your range of motion that you lose your initial grip on the tissue your mobilizing.
    Also, I’ve honestly found no other products that provide as much relief as these do, and they have an awesome grip that I haven’t seen before, highly recommended!

    Reply
  2. Ray Kirton

    The hard foam roller could almost be called “the torturer” when used on the IT band…………………………

    I understand that it will help in making our feet walk and run in line.

    Reply
  3. Ray

    Hi Jona
    I have a friend with fibromyalgia….and would appreciate knowing how effective the hard faom roller was for it?

    Reply
  4. Frank

    Professional llama rider? Ha!

    Reply
  5. Pam

    I have a very weak lower back and have been exercising like crazy but know for sure without stretching my back and getting it stronger, I am not going to succeed. Where did you get yours and does it come with lower back exercises>

    Reply
  6. Josh

    Don’t do it before training! It does relieve tension and cause muscle relaxation, but this is not a good idea before a workout… you need to do a dynamic warmup and muscle activation before training, and perform “stretch” type activities after. Doing otherwise can cause problems… even though it may feel good at first.

    Reply
  7. Tricia

    I’d like to try the foam roller too!

    What size is everyone using . . . I understand that it is available in 18″ or 36″? Can anyone recommend where to purchase this in Canada?

    Thanx for your help and I look forward to some feedback.

    Reply
  8. MLW

    Just experienced this stretch for the first time in PT for rotator cuff impingement. My shoulders are tight. When I first was told to lay on the roller I was like, you’re kidding? But I easily situated my spine along the roller. I could really feel the stretch. Love it. Am looking for a source.

    Reply
  9. MikeK

    My personal trainer showed me how to use rollers only after he had spent several sessions manually stretching me out. The rollers look like they would be a cinch to use, but for me that was not the case. Having my trainer show me what exactly to do and NOT to do allowed me to slowly gain confidence and competence in using these simple but remarkable stretching and massaging objects. Just be careful; you can injure yourself if you don’t know how to properly do the exercises.

    Reply
  10. J0e

    Since my job is really stressful i thought it would be good idea to get one to relive my tension. First day i got it i almost cried my back was that tight. It was soar for like 2 weeks. 2 weeks of pain and now im back to a healthy back. Oh yea its also nice on your leg muscles after a long run.. love this thing!

    Reply
  11. brandon

    Try Foamerica.com… they have these things and they are dirt cheap… not sure of the quality… but they are like a third the cost of Target.

    Reply
  12. keith

    I just started using a roller for IT to see if it will help outer knee pain when hiking, working on ladders and after standing and walking long periods on concrete floors. Hope it works.

    I had knots and pain in upper back/neck. A trick I read about was to roll a lacross ball around the upper back against a wall. Really helped target trigger points between shoulder blades.

    Reply
  13. keith

    I bought my roller through WalMart online. $15 and free delivery to a closeby Walmart store.

    Reply
  14. djay

    Hey. I’ve already commented but I should point out a really, really great FREE resource, a free video that shows you how to use the foam roller:
    http://www.mypypeline.com/store/video/stretching_with_a_foam_roller_1/

    And for any of the tri geeks out there, an awesome tri-specific stretch from a tri coach:
    http://www.mypypeline.com/store/video/stretch_for_triathletes_1/

    You don’t have to buy anything and you don’t even have to be a member or sign up to the site. Just press play on the player.

    Reply