Foam rollers are very popular these days. Places like Target and Walmart carry them. Grandmas and grandpas are foam rolling. Doctors are prescribing them. What began as a niche mobility tool used only by the most obscure fitness nerds has become commonplace. But if you want to get the most value out of your foam roller—and avoid doing any damage—you need to learn how to use it correctly. It’s not as simple as “rolling” on it. There’s an art to it. And a science.
But before we get into how to use a foam roller, let’s go over what a foam roller is actually doing (and not doing).
What Foam Rolling Does (and Doesn’t) Do
Foam rolling is not physically breaking up knots or muscle adhesions.
Foam rolling is also not lengthening the tissue like you’re rolling out a slab of dough. Research shows that foam rolling doesn’t physically stretch or lengthen the muscle.1
Instead, foam rolling seems to relax the nervous system. It works through neuromuscular connections rather than brute force physical modification. After foam rolling an area while moving that tissue, your nervous system has determined that this is the proper, safe range of motion for you. Foam rolling gives you a short opportunity to establish a new “safe” pattern. Rather than physical adhesions, it’s removing neuromuscular blocks and harmful patterns. You reset the system and reprogram it, or leave it open to reprogramming with better movement.
Foam rolling might also works through something called diffuse noxious inhibitory control, or DNIC. When a tissue hurts, it’s because your nervous system has decided that inhibiting movement in that area (through pain) is safer and better for you than allowing movement through that area. But sometimes, the nervous system decides to blunt the pain because it’s safer and better for you to move it than remain motionless. Consider a soldier taking a big wound in battle. He’s grievously wounded, but extreme pain would only prevent him from making it to safety. The nervous system blunts the pain so he can make it back alive. The foam roller may be doing something similar.
How to Use a Foam Roller
Relax into the roller; don’t tense up.
This can be tough to pull off because by its very nature, foam rolling is uncomfortable. Painful, even. But here’s what happens when you tense up: your body fights the healing effect the foam roller is supposed to have on you.
You should be able to breathe easily and normally. If you’re holding your breath, that indicates a stress response. You’re probably going too hard or being too tense.
Don’t grimace. Don’t grit your teeth. Try to smile, or at least maintain a neutral facial expression. Any outward expression of pain and discomfort will register with your nervous system. What you’re trying to do here is reassure your body that you can handle the pain, that the pain isn’t all that bad, and the tissue can start feeling better.
Stay at a spot until it stops hurting.
If you’re rushing through your foam rolling session, skipping over areas because they “hurt too much,” you are missing the point. Instead of avoiding the pain, you need to seek out and sit with the pain. Once you find a tender spot, stay there for at least a minute or until the pain subsides.
Explore range of motion while sitting on a tender spot.
When you roll your quads and find a tight, tender spot, stay on that spot and then extend and flex your knee through its full range of motion. This seems to make foam rolling more effective than if you were to just stay on the spot with zero movement through the knee.
Focus on one large area per session.
You’re not going to effectively hit your entire body in a single session. There’s not enough time for that. Instead, focus on one large area— your legs, your glutes, your calves, your hamstrings, your pecs, your thoracic spine—and do a great job there. Be thorough and take your time. You can focus on another section during the next session.
Do not foam roll bones.
Bones should not be foam rolled. It doesn’t help. It’s totally pointless. Foam rolling is intended for soft tissue application only.
Do not foam roll your spine.
You can and should foam roll the lumbar muscles running on either side of your spine, but you should not roll the actual spinal column itself. As a bone, it doesn’t respond well to foam rolling, and it can actually irritate and hurt you.
Don’t foam roll the site of the pain; foam roll the tissues around it.
If your knee hurts, foam rolling the knee itself probably won’t help. If your calves hurt, foam rolling the calves isn’t the answer.
You need to go above and below the affected tissue. Keep rolling the tissues around the painful area, working your way above and below until you find the tender spot.
Use a lacrosse ball (or two taped together) for harder to reach areas.
The foam roller doesn’t work as well on every muscle or tissue. Hamstrings, the TFL, the pecs, and specific points in the thoracic spine seem to respond much better to lacrosse balls. They offer more direct, targeted pressure and can really get deep in there.
Foam roll before workouts to increase range of motion.
Foam rolling before your workout is better for range of motion and performance, especially if you take advantage of the open “movement window” and move.2 Foam roll, do some mobility drills to take advantage of the window, then get to training.
Foam roll after workouts to reduce muscle soreness and improve performance.
Studies show that foam rolling after training reduces subsequent muscle soreness and maintains performance (where it would otherwise suffer).3 I can see foam rolling being very effective for athletes who need to quickly get back into training after a workout or competition.
But overall, if you keep all these concepts in mind, foam rolling is pretty easy to do and very versatile. Happy rolling!