The use of foam rollers to provide self-myofascial release (self-massage) has grown in popularity over recent years as a staple in the wellness/recovery routine of many active people, and for good reason. Foam rolling has been closely linked to increased oxygen rich blood flow in muscles (source), faster muscle recovery (source), improved flexibility (source), increased range of motion (source), and even injury prevention (source). Tapping into these many wonderful benefits, however, assumes that the foam roller is being used correctly and is targeting the right areas. Below is our list of foam rolling dos and don’ts that will hopefully help answer a few common foam rolling questions and offer some valuable foam rolling tips. For a more detailed guide on foam rolling moves, positions, and information be sure to check out our “About Rollga” page!
- Roll Slowly – The goal of foam rolling is to release restricted muscles by initiating the breakup of facial adhesions. Fascia, like muscle, is constantly cycling through states of breakdown and repair in response to physical activity. When fascia is repairing itself, however, it often bundles up or gets stuck, in turn restricting the muscle it encapsulates. The application of pressure from foam rolling stimulates the breakdown and repair of tangled fascia that is restricting muscle movement. In order for restrictive fascia to be manipulated, however, adequate pressure must be applied to the fascia for an appropriate amount of time, as fascia is thick fibrous tissue. Thus, while a quick, light pass of the foam roller may feel nice, it really won’t do much in terms of releasing fascial adhesions. To properly evoke fascia breakup, spending roughly 20-30 seconds rocking back and forth on a fascial adhesion (think knot) is generally a safe bet. Additionally, muscles themselves can enter a tightened state in response to physical activity. According to this article, foam rolling stimulates neuromuscular reactions in the muscles, that when given adequate time, will relax muscles from their tightened state. Again, allowing a 20-30 seconds rocking pause over tight areas is recommended to relax muscles.
- Hydrate – Hydration affects just about every aspect of physical performance. Recovery is no exception. Maintaining adequate hydration throughout the recovery process is key as it prevents the decrease of blood volume due to dehydration. Keeping blood volume at a homeostatic level allows necessary nutrients to flow freely towards the muscles and for waste products to flow freely towards the liver and kidneys to be processed. Thus, properly hydrating before and after foam rolling ensures that the increased blood flow and flushing of waste products stimulated by foam rolling are activated effectively.
- Use Cross-Fiber Pressure – Muscle fibers within each muscle of the body are aligned in only one direction. The connective tissue that surrounds the muscles (fascia), however, is not. Fascia runs in all directions around muscles and thus often requires multiple directions of pressure to manipulate. According to this article, applying 4-10 side-to-side strokes on a muscle with a foam roller in conjunction with up and down strokes can effectively aid in the breakup of stuck tissue and restore proper muscle range of motion.
- Foam Roll Before and After Exercise – Foam rolling before and after exercise are two great times to take advantage of the benefits foam rolling offers, albeit for slightly different reasons. Foam rolling before exercise with slightly quicker, lighter strokes is beneficial as it promotes blood flow in the muscles and primes them for the upcoming activity. According to this article, foam rolling before exercise can also give muscles added pliability and range of motion that can decrease the chance of injury during activity. Foam rolling after exercise with longer, deeper strokes, on the other hand, promotes faster muscle recovery (source) and increased muscle flexibility (source).
- Apply Most Pressure When Working Towards The Heart – When using a foam roller, the pressure applied to the area being worked on not only affects muscle and fascia, it also impacts the body’s vascular system. Because veins and arteries have one-way valves that prevent blood from falling down the vessels on its return trip to the heart, rolling away from the heart (against the valves’ closed position) can cause damage to the valves. According to this article, foam rolling away from heart can even cause the valves to rupture, creating varicose veins and blood pooling.
- Roll Tendons (IT Band) and Bones – Muscles contract, tendons and bones do not. Tendons stretch but are stretched only to return to their normal state. Therefore, there is no contracted or restricted state from which tendons and bones need to be release from. In fact, according to this article, tendons that are too loose may actually cause biomechanical issues that could lead to injury. As such, rolling on bones and tendons should be avoided as rolling on them will only lead to more harm than good. Rolling the muscles around bones and tendons, however, is a great way to both alleviate tension on the tendons and bones and ease discomfort often felt at muscle to tendon or muscle to bone attachment points. Rolling the muscles surrounding tendons and bones without rolling the tendons and bones themselves, however, can be a quite difficult task. Thus, using a foam roller like the Rollga (shop here) that is contoured to fit the body and to provide protection to tendons and bones while rolling, can be a great option.
- Roll The Lower Back – Unlike the upper back, the lower back (the area between the bottom of the ribcage and top of the pelvis) does not have bone structure extending laterally from the spine. This is problematic when foam rolling for two primary reasons. First, the lack of protective bone structure in the lower back leaves vital organs (kidneys and liver) exposed and therefore susceptible to damage from excessive pressure, according to this article. Second, because there is no supporting bone structure attached to the spine in the lower back, a significant amount of the pressure from foam rolling is placed on the spine itself. Thus, in order for the spine to be protected and supported when rolling the lower back, the muscles around the spine contract, leading to the increased chance heightened lower back tightness and/or injury (source).
- Foam Roll Directly On An Injured Area – Soft tissue injuries are an unfortunate part of just about every sport or physical activity. Foam rolling can help to assist the healing process of soft tissue injuries as foam rolling can loosen muscles and help to break up scar tissue that may be limiting the body’s range of motion and/or placing extra stress on areas of the body that are not equipped to handle added stress. Foam rolling directly on injured areas, however, should be avoided for two primary reasons. According to this article, rolling directly on an injured area can actually increase the irritation and inflammation within the injured area, and often doesn’t truly address the root cause of the injury. Instead, it’s better to roll the areas surrounding and/or connected to the injured area as doing so will help alleviate tension on the injured area and thus allow the injury to heal more effectively.
- Stay On One Spot TOO Long – While foam rolling slowly and pausing on fascial adhesions is generally recognized as the most effective way to utilize a foam roller, pausing on a particular spot for too long can actually do more harm than good. According to this article, pausing on one spot for more than about 20-30 seconds at a time can lead to nerve irritation and/or damaged tissue. That said, rocking back and forth on a tight spot for roughly 10-20 seconds in combination with a slow, controlled roll can really work wonders in activating the release of stuck fascial tissue. While the line between staying on one area for too long and staying on that area for just the right amount of time may seem somewhat arbitrary, the main takeaway should be to err on the side of slightly underworking an area as overworking it could end up making things worse.
Tense or Flex Your muscles - Foam rolling can be a quite painful undertaking at times, especially when rolling over a tight or tender spot. When a painful area or spot is being rolled, the body’s natural reflex is to tense up to both protect the muscle being rolled and dull the pain. Flexing the muscle being rolled, however, decreases how effectively a foam roller is able to release fascial adhesions as a tense muscle will prevent the foam roller from applying adequate targeted pressure deep within the tissue. Tightened muscles can also cause the body to stray from proper form when foam rolling, risking diminished benefits and/or injury.