Foam Rolling…Hurts So Good! A Beginner’s guide to Foam Rolling.

For the last few years, foam rolling is in the limelight for fitness enthusiasts. You might have seen variety of foam rollers in the gyms or the PT clinics. You probably own one yourself and roll your muscles frequently. Ever wondered what exactly you are achieving from all the OOhhhss and the AAahhs while foam rolling? It’s called the Good Pain- It hurts to roll but you don’t want to stop because you know it will help you or you have been told to roll through the pressure pain.

Foam Rolling is Self Myofascial Release technique. Let’s see what the new buzzword actually is? Fascia is like a thin cling-wrap kind of tissue that wraps around all the muscles, bones, nerves among other anatomical structures. Its hard to find a place in our body without a fascia. Within a muscle, this fascia has multiple layers. It covers every single muscle fiber, then bundles of these muscle fibers and also covers the entire muscle. In a normal healthy state, the fascia is quite flexible. It glides and slides as our muscles stretch and contract. However, due to several reasons, like intense workouts, sustained poor posture, stress and many other lifestyle factors, fascia can become stiff, develop adhesions and this can cause pain.

Imagine fascia to be like silky hair all smooth and sorted. And then you get some sticky syrup on the hair and it is all bunched up. That is how the muscle fiber and fascia is when it has developed adhesions. These adhesions in the muscle presents as tight, tender points which causes pain and discomfort when pressure is applied. These adhesions in the fascia are more colloquially known as “trigger points” or “Knots”. Fascial adhesions can overtime cause tightness in muscles and/or referred pain to other areas in body. Stretching is a common advise for tight muscles. We have already seen the benefits of regular stretching and the two common method of stretching. You can read my post on what type of stretching and when to do it and some great stretching exercise illustrations in previous posts.

While muscle stretching is important for flexibility and to maintain active range, it will have very little effect on fascial issues. Adhesions respond to application of direct pressure as in Myofascial release techniques. This pressure causes the adhesions to loosen up and return healthy glide and slide of the fascia, eventually affecting the muscle flexibility and joint range of motion. See how everything is connected. Its not uncommon for someone to have trigger points in one muscle, but symptoms in neighboring joints/body region.

Benefits of Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a self- myofascial release technique.

  1. As mentioned above, it helps in improving the fascial sliding, in turn loosening up the adhesions. 1
  2. The pressure of Foam rolling improves arterial function which means better blood circulation, improved nervous system responses which in turn helps with recovery after an intense workout/ athletic performance. 2
  3. Foam rolling helps warming up the muscles, improves flexibility of muscles and improves joint range of motion. 2, 3
  4. It helps attenuate delayed onset muscle soreness after an intense workout. 2
  5. Whether foam rolling before workout/ sport session improves muscle performance immidiately for that activity is still questionable. The jury is still out on that!

Pretty good reasons to start Foam rolling, Right? I will make it even better by showing you few basic foam rolling techniques and the rules to get you started. These muscles can benefit from Foam rolling tremendously, as they are the ones that get angry and tight and all knotted on us as we try to live our lives and function!

Rule # 1 – Accept and be prepared that you will moan and groan, and want to kill the foam roller (can you? well throw away the foam roller) and make all weird faces with eyes shut and jaw clenched. Especially if you are a beginner. Honestly, it’s not that bad! But always, keep breathing. Deep Breaths as you Roll away.

Rule # 2– You can control the pressure on the roller, to make it less intense. Don’t sweat in pain. This should feel like a deep tissue massage, not sharp pain. If you experience pain, it has to be evaluated by a Physical therapist before you continue.

Rule # 3Take your sweet time with every muscle group. Recommendations for duration of foam rolling is all over the place. Multiple studies have tested varied duration- from 30seconds to 90 seconds for every muscle group. However, dosage of 90 seconds per muscle group has shown the most measurable effect on soreness, pain and fascial tightness. 4 Start rolling for short duration and prolong the rolling as you can tolerate going up to 90 seconds over few weeks.

Rule # 4Do it anytime. Foam rolling has shown benefit before or after workout. It improves flexibility and joint range of motion, which are good reasons to get it done before workout, after workout or any other time of the day.

  1. Quadriceps Roll out- Front thighs.
  • Start in forearm plank with the roller under the center of your quads perpendicular to your legs. Keep your head in line with your spine, eyes facing down and pull in your bellybutton to engage your core muscles.
  • On your forearms, crawl forward until the roller is just above your kneecaps, then crawl backward until the roller is at the top of your thigh. Start out with rolling in parts, then the entire length of thighs.
  • If you hit a sore spot, hold the roller there and bend and extend the leg that is feeling the knot.

2. Calf Roll Out

  • Position the roller under the bottom of your right calf, and cross your left ankle over your right calf on the roller for pressure, as shown.
  • Slide the roller up your calf and repeat the movement until the entire calf has been rolled out.
  • When you feel a tight spot as you roll your calf, hold on that point and flex your foot towards you then away from you 5-10 times. Then move to next section of the calf.
  • Repeat on other calf.

3. Glute/Piriformis Roll Out

  • This is a basic yet super effective way to hit the piriformis on the foam roller.
  • Bring one foot over the opposite knee and tilt slightly towards the leg that is laying over the knee.
  • Roll from the top of your butt check to the mid to lower section. You will feel the piriformis as you roll over it. You definitely can’t miss it!

4. Hamstrings Roll Out- Back thighs

  • Place the foam roller underneath your thigh, place the opposite foot on the ground or on the leg being rolled out for added pressure.
  • Gently roll your body back and forth, from glute to knee.
  • You can slightly rotate for body out to feel more pressure on the outer side of the hamstrings- A.K.A the Biceps femoris muscle.

5. Thoracic Roll out- Midback

  • Lie face up with the roller under the midback, knees bent and feet planted on the floor.
  • Interlace your fingers and place your hands behind your head, relaxing your neck.
  • Engage your core and raise your hips up off the floor.
  • Using your feet, slowly roll your body up and down so the roller moves over the midback to the bottom of your shoulder blades to the base of your neck.
  • Do not roll your neck!

6. Rolling your outer thigh- Iliotibial (IT) band ideally should be done after consulting a PT. You will be surprised that your PT might not want you to roll the IT band. If you suffer from knee or hip pain, rolling IT band/outer thigh is not the solution most of the times. Rolling the muscles of the leg mentioned above will be of more help.

How to Choose a Foam Roller

When choosing a foam roller, there are 3 considerations:

  1. Density: A soft roller can provide inadequate pressure, and a hard high density roller can cause some bruising. It depends on how comfortable you are with the foam rolling techniques. If you are a beginner, and very new to foam rolling, a foam roller on softer side is a good choice. However, softer foam rollers typically have a give and eventually needs to be replaced as they deform from regular rolling.
  2. Texture: Some rollers are smooth all over and provide even pressure while rolling, whereas some others have ridges and knobs for targeted deep pressure. Smooth rollers are generally less expensive than the textured rollers.
  3. Size: Foam rollers come in different diameters. 6 inches diameter works well for most myofascial release work. Some people choose a 4 inch diameter roller for more targeted areas. Long foam rollers measuring 36 inches in length are very versatile and is the best choice as your first foam roller. Shorter 18 inches rollers are used for targeted smaller areas like arms and calves. The shortest ones are 4-8 inches in length. They are good portable rollers, but needs modification of rolling techniques.

Foam roller recommendations

Heads Up! Affiliate links coming up! As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you buy something through one of those links, you won’t pay a penny more, but I will get a small commission. Really small!! Which helps keep this website going!

If you are new to foam rolling or you just prefer gentle rolling, this OPTP foam roller sold on Amazon is a good choice. It is soft density, 36 inches long and 6 inches in diameter.

If you want the pressure of moderate density foam roller. This Gaiam Foam roller meets all the criteria.

Once you start rolling regularly, you might want to move on to the high density foam rollers that provides deep pressure. This AmazonBasics firm foam roller is exactly what you will need.

Looking for some tough love? This 321 Strong Extra firm Foam Roller is perfect for those who love and can tolerate the deep pressure from the knobs on the this textured roller.

At the end of the day, remember that foam rolling is a tool to help you feel better. Don’t stress about following a fixed routine. Roll one or two muscles in the morning, and few maybe after work if you feel stiff, Or maybe before bedtime. I usually don’t follow a routine. I scatter foam rolling throughout the day. Definitely get few muscles rolled out at work, but my favorite time is after kids are in bed, while watching a show.

Roll away and remember to Breathe and Relax!

  1. Krause F, Wilke J, Niederer D, Vogt L, Banzer W. Acute effects of foam rolling on passive stiffness, stretch sensation and fascial sliding: A randomized controlled trial. Hum Mov Sci. 2019;67:102514. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2019.102514
  2. Beardsley C, Škarabot J. Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2015;19(4):747-758. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2015.08.007   Self myofascial release has shown benefits for general population and athletes by improving muscle flexibility and enhancing recovery by affecting Delayed onset muscle soreness.

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