Foam rollers are cheap and effective tools for improving muscle elasticity and reducing the pain associated with muscle stiffness. But, as their popularity grows, many new comers to foam rolling exercises wonder if they are actually doing it right. Are there specific techniques they should be using? Which muscle groups should they be targeting?
Let’s take a look at how to use a foam roller in order to ensure you are getting the best results. Along with that, we’ll also examine one common area of pain where foam roller use is definitely not advised.
Some Great Foam Roller Exercises
Stand and place the arch of one foot over the roller. Lean forward to apply gentle pressure, roll your foot slowly over the roller in a forward and back motion. (Actually, I prefer a tennis ball for this but a roller will do in a pinch).
Hamstrings & Calves
For your hamstrings and calves, place your hands behind you for support and extend your right leg with the upper thigh over the roller. Keep your left leg bent with the foot flat on the floor. Roll slowly from buttock to knee to locate a tender spot. When you do, hold your position for a few seconds, release and then repeat the movement over the spot.
In the same beginning position, repeat the movement this time with the roller under your calf. After you have worked both hamstring and calf on one leg, switch and repeat the movements on the other leg. When you become more advanced, you can do this exercise on both legs at the same time. Since calves are such a problem area for many people, I go into more depth on how to foam roll your calves here.
Lie face down supporting your weight on your forearms and hands. With the foam roller under one leg and that foot off the ground, place as much of your weight as you can tolerate on that leg. Roll slowly from above your knee to just below you hip. Repeat with the other leg. If you’re new to rolling, this can be pretty tender so take it slowly!
Glutes and Hips
Sit on the roller, positioning it at the top of your glute muscle with one leg crossed over the other. Slightly lean into the leg you are working on and slowly (and carefully!) roll your buttocks over the roller. Switch legs and repeat. You'll be surprised how tight these muscles can be.
For the lateral (side) of the hips, lie on your side and place the roller under the area just below your hip bone. Bend your top knee and place your foot in front of your bottom leg for support. Rest on one elbow as you roll up and down over the roller. Repeat on the other side.
Position the roller under your shoulder blades. Bend your knees, keeping your feet flat on the floor. Lift your buttocks off the floor and cross your arms across your chest. With your core muscles held tight, roll slowly, moving the roller up and down from your shoulder blades to the middle of your back.
You can also lie on the roller position vertically along your spine and just spread your arms out to the side or slightly above your head to really get a great chest stretch.
Why Foam Rolling The Lower Back Is Not Advised
Sometimes, what you don’t do on your foam roller is just as important as the things you do. No doubt you are thinking that if the foam roller exercises work so well for muscle pain, then it should do wonders for that ache in your lower back. Certainly, we’ve all seen people doing it and the internet is full of pictures and information directing you on how to foam roll your lower back. Don’t! In fact the National Academy of Sport Medicine recommends against it.
If you use a foam roller on the unprotected region of your lower back you end up getting results opposite to those you want. Here’s why.
- Your muscles tense up to protect your spine because the foam roller forces it into an unnatural position.
- Organs located in the region of your lower back, such as the kidneys, are not well protected by skeletal structures. Applying excess pressure to that region puts those organs at risk of damage
- Depending on the cause of your back pain (such as spondyloarthritis or inflammation of the spine), you could end up making the situation worse - causing yourself more pain and discomfort in the long run.
The truth is, foam rolling is actually great for lower back pain but not if you use it directly on your lower back. Quite often, the pain you feel in your lower back does not originate there but is a symptom of a musculoskeletal issue somewhere else. To ease lower back pain, use the foam roller on your glutes, calves and hips instead.
I have used a foam roller for some time now and I fully understand how very easy it is to get it all wrong. Improper foam roller use can leave you in more pain and discomfort than you started out with in the first place.
The foam roller stretches, exercises and techniques I have shared with you should go a long way in helping you prepare for your work out and get the best recovery afterwards. Just remember to start slow and that the benefits come over time with regular use.