By Dr. Mercola
A foam roller is an inexpensive fitness tool that should be part of your home gym, for multiple reasons. As its name implies, a foam roller is a large "log" made out of foam that helps your body to warm up for exercise and recover afterward.
It takes very little space to store, is lightweight and inexpensive, yet it offers numerous benefits that can be difficult to achieve without it. Foam rollers, though, do degrade with time, which is why use I use the Trigger Point Performance Grid Roller that doesn't deteriorate with time.
What Is a Foam Roller Good For?
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. One of their greatest uses is for working out "knots" or trigger points in your muscles.
These may develop from stress, overuse, repetitive motions, movement imbalances, or injuries, and if you ignore them they're likely to become increasingly tense and painful.
Even if you don't have a specific knot present, foam rolling is still beneficial for reducing tension and relaxing your muscles. 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… As you might imagine, muscles and fascia do not literally tie themselves into knots.
However, the analogy isn't too much of a stretch (no pun intended). Take an elastic band and tie a knot in the center and stretch the band. The elastic around the knot can stretch, but the knot itself will stay put and get tighter.
This will result in a 'speed bump' of sorts, affecting the shortening and lengthening of the affected area. This is not unlike the functionality of muscles. The area around the adhesion gets worked, but the area affected by the adhesion will not reap the same benefits."
This is where foam rolling comes in, helping to release trigger points, increase blood flow, and improve tissue quality. When you perform various exercises with the roller, it also helps to engage your muscles and build strength. Plus, because the foam roller is unstable, using it works your core muscles and helps improve balance.
The Benefits of Foam Rolling Are Scientifically Backed
Sometimes the simplest activities offer the most profound fitness benefits (like push-ups and squats), and foam rolling is certainly a demonstration of this. But don't let its simplicity fool you – 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 seconds2
- Another study found that using a foam roller reduces arterial stiffness, which may indicate improved flexibility, and improves vascular endothelial function3
- Older women who used foam rollers for balance training showed improvements in dynamic balance after just five weeks4
Many people wait to use a foam roller until they feel a tight spot in a muscle, then simply "roll" it out. While this can be effective, it's a mistake to regard the foam roller as only an occasional fitness tool. 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.
10 Ways to Use a Foam Roller at Home
My favorite foam-roller activity is to combine the Trigger Point Foam Roller with the Power Plate, which I do nearly every day. 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 and retains its shape to help you get the benefits.
There are many other techniques you can try out as well, of course. The Huffington Post recently shared 10 foam-roller exercises designed to target tight spots and help relieve pain, courtesy of Barry Duncan, owner and operator of Momentum Fitness:5
1. IT Band
"To get into position, put the roller under your hip and keep one leg on the floor as a support. Start at your hip and work the roller down to the knee by moving alongside it. If you find a tender spot, push down and hold or roll quickly back and forth over the tender spot. This will help loosen up the IT band."
2. TFL or Hip Flexor
"This one includes the same instructions as the last one, but this time spread your legs outwards. Start at your hip and work down to the knee. If you find a tender spot, push down and hold or roll quickly back and forth over the tender spot. Similarly to the last exercise, this will help stretch out your hip flexors."
"Get in plank position and put the roller under your hip. Keep your hands on the floor and core tight. Start at your hip and work down to the knee in order to stretch your quadriceps from the front."
4. Hamstring and Glutes
"Start by sitting on the foam roller, then roll your hips towards the ground. To increase pressure, keep your bum in the air."
"Sit on the ground and start with the foam roller behind the knee and pull your knees up. As the image shows, lift the hips up and roll back and forth, keeping the legs straight."
"You might not think about stretching your ankles, but it's a good idea. For people who get really tight on the sides of the ankle, start at the ankle bone and roll up to mid-calf."
7. Latissimus (Back Muscles)
"Start at the armpit and roll down your side to the rib cage. This move will help you loosen up your back muscles."
8. Low Back And Hip
"Start with your hips on the roller and shoulders on the floor. Rock back and forth. For a better workout, lift one leg in the air and rock back and forth or turn the roller vertically and go side to side."
9. Upper Back
"This move can be a continuation of the last move, or you can start with your hips on the ground and the roller in the middle of your back. Lift the hips up and roll to the neck."
"For the glutes, start by sitting on the foam roller and bend both knees and roll your hips forward. For a targeted workout, go onto one glute."
Using the Correct Pressure While Foam Rolling Is Crucial
Although the after-effects of using a foam roller are great – less pain and tension, more relaxed muscles – the actual foam rolling can be uncomfortable or even painful if you use the wrong amount of pressure. ACE explains:6
"…you can and should control the amount of pressure applied and steer clear of pain. Learning how to control the amount of pressure to a mild and tolerable discomfort is important. The objective of rolling is to help the area relax, and applying too much pressure can reflexively invite the opposite response. When introducing pressure to a sensitive area, you may experience a slight knee-jerk type reflex. But if you do not go in too hard, you should experience what feels like air being slowly let out of a tire."
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.
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 whereas post-workout sessions can focus on all of the muscle groups worked that day. The benefits of this simple movement are quite impressive, but you won't know until you try it out for yourself. As ACE noted:7
"Foam rolling is one strategy that can help improve symmetry in the body. By taking a few minutes during each workout (and each day if necessary) to work out adhesions, you can help prepare for, and recover from, exercise more effectively. Tension can be released from the area, while blood flow and nutrients can increase, leading to healthier muscle tissue and a more effective fitness program."