5 Foam Rolling Mistakes to Avoid

Story at-a-glance -

  • Foam rollers can be used to mimic myofascial release treatments, which help reduce muscle immobility and pain
  • Common mistakes include rolling directly on the painful area, rolling too fast, rolling for too long, using bad posture, and using the roller on your lower back

By Dr. Mercola

Foam rollers are inexpensive, easy to use and take up little space, so it's no wonder they're now popular in health clubs, physical therapists' offices, and home gyms. What's more, they're incredibly effective for working out "knots" or trigger points in your muscles.

Foam rollers are often used by therapists and athletes to mimic myofascial release treatments, which are typically used to help reduce muscle immobility and pain.

Its benefits are often compared to getting a massage, because as you roll on it, fibrous tissue is broken down and circulation is boosted, helping to relieve tension and pain. As explained by the American Council on Exercise (ACE):1

"Foam rolling is also called myofascial release and is designed to work out the "knots" in your muscles. You could compare the practice to self-massage. The technical terms for 'knots' are trigger points or myofascial adhesions.

Fascia is a form of connective tissue that wraps and bundles muscles (myo) together. Myofascial adhesions can develop through stress, training, overuse, underuse, movement imbalances and injuries.

They are essentially points of constant tension and addressing them can have a positive effect on your workouts. Ignoring them can lead to further dysfunction and may perpetuate and/or cause injury."

5 Foam Rolling Mistakes

Form and technique matter when using a foam roller, just as they do with other exercise techniques. Many people wait to use a foam roller until they feel a tight spot in a muscle, then simply "roll" it out. This might provide you with some relief, but it likely won't give you the full benefits that foam rolling has to offer.

The video above, which features one of Mercola.com's personal trainers Jill Rodriguez, demonstrates proper techniques for foam roller exercises. The Huffington Post also shared five very common mistakes:2

1. Rolling Directly Where the Pain Is

A painful area may be the result of tension imbalances elsewhere in your body. Plus, rolling a painful, inflamed area might increase inflammation and inhibit healing. It's often best to roll just a few inches away from a highly sensitive area first and then use large, sweeping motions to cover the entire area.

In the case of iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), a type of knee injury for which foam rolling is often prescribed, it's best to roll the muscles that attach to your IT band (your gluteus maximus in your buttocks and your tensor fasciae latae along the edge of your hip) rather than the IT band itself.

2. Rolling Too Fast

Avoid rolling too quickly; your movements on the foam roller should be slow and concentrated. If you roll too fast, your muscles won't have time to adapt to and manage the compression, and you're not going to eliminate adhesions.

3. Spending Too Much Time on Knots

It's OK to work on your knots using the foam roller, but if you spend five or 10 minutes on the same spot, you could cause damage to the tissue or nerves. This is especially true if you also attempt to place your entire weight on the knot.

Ideally, you should spend just 20 seconds or so on each tender spot while managing how much pressure you apply. When using a foam roller you should apply enough pressure so that you feel some tension released, either with constant pressure or by making small movements back and forth. A mild amount of discomfort is expected but you shouldn't be in pain.

4. Using Bad Posture

Using a foam roller properly requires you to hold your body in various positions, which requires strength. If you use improper form or bad posture while doing this, it could exacerbate existing postural deviations and cause injury.

The best way to ensure you're using the proper posture is to work with an experienced personal trainer. If this isn't possible, consider videotaping yourself while foam rolling, and then comparing your form to the proper form (for instance, in Jill Rodriguez's video above). You may be able to spot problems and correct your posture this way.

5. Using a Foam Roller on Your Lower Back

This is counterproductive because rolling your lower back will cause your spinal muscles to contract to protect your spine. To release your lower back, try rolling the muscles that connect to it, including your piriformis (located within your glutes), hip flexors, and rectus femoris (a main muscle in your quads), according to NASM certified personal trainer Monica Vazquez.

It's OK to work your upper back with a foam roller because your shoulder blades and muscles protect your spine, but stop when you get to the end of your rib cage.

What Hurts? 8 Foam Rolling Fixes

If you're new to foam rolling, start out gradually with lighter pressure and a shorter session. In time you can progress to more intense pressure. While foam rolling can be done both before and after a workout, pre-workout sessions should focus on problem areas. Post-workout sessions can focus on all of the muscle groups worked that day. If you have specific aches and pains, foam rolling may be useful too. Following are eight common pains that foam rolling may fix, compiled by Men's Health:3

1. Low-Back Pain

As mentioned, you shouldn't roll your lower back directly. Instead, try rolling your hips (if your hips are stiff, it causes you to bend at your waist, which puts pressure on your lower back).

"Start seated on the foam roller, feet flat on the floor, knees bent, and your hands on the floor behind you. Cross your right leg over your left, forming a figure 4 with your legs. Rotate your hips to the right until you find a spot in that hip or glute that feels tight… Move your hips forward and back to massage any tight areas. Repeat on your left side."

2. Upper-Back Pain

Rolling the tight muscles in your upper back may help relieve pain and stiffness.

"Sit on the floor with your knees bent. Place the foam roller behind you, perpendicular to your torso. Lie back on the foam roller. Adjust it so that the roller is even with your shoulder blades... Raise your butt up so that your weight is supported by your feet and the foam roller. Touch your elbows together [in front of your face]. Move your hips up and down to roll along your upper back."

3. Heel Pain

Heel pain, especially upon your first steps in the morning, is often plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the plantar fascia that runs along the bottom of your foot.

"While standing on your left foot, place a lacrosse ball or golf ball underneath your right foot. Shift your weight to put some pressure on the ball, but keep most of your weight on your left foot. …Roll up and down the foot from toe to heel. Turn your foot slightly in or out as you roll, making sure to hit every inch of the bottom of your foot. Repeat on the other foot."

4. Shoulder Pain (Back Side)

The area in the back of the shoulder joint is often neglected, leading to strength imbalances and pain.

"Lie faceup on the floor with the foam roller placed in the middle part of your back. It should be parallel to your body. Cross your left leg over your right and place your left foot on the floor, and turn your torso 45 degrees to the right… Use your left foot to push your body back and forth, running the roller up along your lat… When the roller is touching the back of your shoulder, stop. With your elbow bent 90 degrees, move your arm around to help work out any knots you feel. Repeat on the other side."

5. Shoulder Pain (Front Side)

Foam rolling your front shoulder muscles may help prevent injury and pain. "Begin lying on your belly, your right arm in a goal post position. Place the foam roller on the ground between your chest and shoulder. Position the roller at a 45 degree angle so it crosses your body like an X… Extend your right arm forward, like Superman. Then pull your elbow down toward your ribcage. Repeat to work out any knots. Repeat the move on your left side."

6. Shin Pain

Shin splints, common in runners or jumpers, are often caused by inflammation of the sheath surrounding the tibia bone. Foam rolling can help release this inflammation (but don't do this exercise if your shin splints are due to stress fractures).

"Begin on your hands and knees with the foam roller underneath your chest on the floor. Draw your right knee toward your face and place your right shin on the foam roller… Using your left leg to control the pressure, roll up and down your shin. When you find a tough spot, stop, and flex and extend your ankle."

7. Achilles Tendon Pain

Pain in the bottom of your calf can be caused by limited mobility in your ankle. Foam rolling can help to break up restrictions in your calf.

"Sit on the floor, legs extended. Place the foam roller underneath the belly of your right calf. Cross your left ankle over your right… Roll up and down along your right calf. Turn your foot to the inside and outside to hit the calf from every angle. If you find a knot, stop, and flex and extend your foot to massage the hot spot against the roller."

8. Knee Pain

If you have knee pain due to your iliotibial band (IT), the tendon that runs along the outside of your thigh, rolling it is not likely to help (it's far too thick, like leather). Rolling the inside of your thigh is a better option that may help reduce inflammation in muscles that pull on your knee joint.

"Lying face down, bring your right leg out to the side and rotate it so that your inner thigh is against the floor. Place the foam roller on your inner thigh perpendicular to your leg. Pin your forearms to the floor in a shoulder plank position… Use your arms to work the roller up and down along your inner thigh."

There Are Scientifically Proven Benefits to Using a Foam Roller

If you've never tried a foam roller before, you may be skeptical about its benefits. But sometimes the simplest activities offer the most profound fitness benefits (like push-ups and squats), and foam rolling is certainly a demonstration of this. Foam rollers have scientifically proven benefits, including:

  • One study found that using a foam roller on your hamstrings may lead to statistically significant increases in range of motion after just five to 10 seconds4
  • Another study found that using a foam roller reduces arterial stiffness, which may indicate improved flexibility, and improves vascular endothelial function5
  • Older women who used foam rollers for balance training showed improvements in dynamic balance after just five weeks6

For Best Results, Use Your Foam Roller Daily

My favorite foam-roller activity is to combine the Trigger Point Foam Roller with the Power Plate, which I do regularly. The vibration from the Power Plate synergizes powerfully with the Trigger Point Foam Roller because it has a hard plastic shell. A conventional foam roller would dampen the Power Plate vibration, not transfer it. This combination can radically increase your range of motion and flexibility. I particularly like a padded plastic roller called the Trigger Point Performance Foam Roller, as this one doesn't wear out over time; it retains its shape to help you get the benefits.

Remember, you don't need to wait until a sore spot appears to bring out your foam roller. You can actually use it daily (even if it's for just a few minutes) to help prevent trouble spots in your muscles from occurring. The actual foam rolling should feel mildly uncomfortable but not painful. If you use too much pressure, you can cause your muscles to tense up instead of relax. So start out gradually and lightly, and increase the pressure slowly until your experience only a tolerable level of discomfort. If you're not sure where to begin, try this simple tip from ACE to identify which trigger points to start out on:7

"When starting out, take inventory over a couple of workouts to determine your areas of greatest need. A great way of identifying needs is to compare left and right sides. Most of the muscles rolled will be the extremities and can be rated on a sensitivity scale of 1-10 on each side. It is very common for one side to be more sensitive than the other. The more sensitive side deserves more attention and should become the higher priority. But keep comparing sides. If done well and consistently, sensitivity should decrease and left and right differences will balance out."

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