Foam rollers are one of the most versatile pieces of exercise equipment around. Originally designed to relieve soft tissue injuries or stress, you can use a foam roller to release tight muscles and tendons, improve range of motion, and boost circulation.
More recently, foam rolling has been making its way into the realm of rehabilitation, as a research-proven treatment option that is safer than many traditional modalities. Foam rolling has many of the benefits of massage therapy without the costs.
What is foam rolling? It is a form of self-myofascial release. It involves applying pressure to the muscle via the roller. Many people find this treatment beneficial in increasing blood flow and reducing pain in muscles, fascia, tendons, and ligaments.
Foam rolling has become a more widely accepted form of active recovery for athletes after an intense workout. It’s cheap, portable, and easy to do. Yet doing it right is tricky. Let’s look at some of the most common mistakes you might make when you use a foam roller.
Using the Wrong Pressure or Moving at the Wrong Speed
There’s a sweet spot with foam rolling-not too gentle and not too hard. If you’re too light on the pressure, you won’t get many benefits. If you apply too much pressure, you can make the muscle even tighter. The key is not to apply too much pressure in one spot. The more weight you place on the roller, the more force you’ll place on the tissues. If you feel pain, reduce the amount of weight you place on the roller.
Another common mistake people make is foam rolling too fast. To get the maximum benefits, roll at a controlled speed, a maximum of an inch per second. Faster than this, and you won’t get as many muscle loosening benefits.
Skipping Your Upper Body
Most people foam roll their lower body and skip out on their upper body, but the muscles in your upper body get too tight too. Since the upper body is smaller, it’s hard to get a cylindrical foam roller into certain areas. Some people substitute a ball, like a lacrosse ball, in place of a cylindrical foam roller. That’s perfectly acceptable and can get the job done.
Don’t skip your upper body because you think it’s too hard to roll. If you’re new to the practice, start with your hamstrings and calves, then move up to the gluteal muscles, then the quadriceps, then your lower and upper back, then your neck, and finally work at your face, hands, and fingers.
Rolling Over Bones
Foam rolling over bones isn’t only counterproductive, it’s risky to the health of your bones. When you do this, you place too much pressure on bony areas and can injure yourself. It’s easy for this to happen if you’re not monitoring where you roll closely. Don’t let the roller drift into bony areas.
Foam Rolling Injured Areas
Foam rolling isn’t the answer to everything that ails you. If you have a severe muscle strain, foam rolling will be painful and you may even prolong recovery because you irritated the tissue. If you’ve got a painful muscle strain, or an inflamed tendon, stop foam rolling until the tenderness goes away. If you continue to roll the uninjured areas, avoid areas that are injured or feel tender.
Using the Wrong Foam Roller
You might be tempted to get one of the fancy textured foam rollers, but textured rollers apply more pressure to tissues. Using a textured roller will probably be too uncomfortable in the beginning. Start with a softer, untextured roller until your muscles adapt to the treatment. You can always upgrade to a textured foam roller later.
Also, start with a softer foam roller and gradually increase the firmness over time. You can buy extra-firm rollers, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready for one. Better to work up to a firmer texture once you get the hang of rolling and your muscles adapt to the pressure.
Foam Rolling Your Lower Back
You might be tempted to foam roll your lower back, but resist the urge. It won’t be productive, and if you do it regularly, it could worsen back discomfort by irritating your spine. When you roll your lower back, there are no structures in your lower back to reduce the force of the roller, unlike your upper back where you have your shoulders. The foam roller places direct pressure on the spine, and that can lead to spine irritation or even injury. If you have back pain, talk to your doctor before using a foam roller on your back.
Not Doing It Often Enough
You won’t get many benefits from foam rolling if you do it sporadically. Make it part of your routine and reap more rewards. . A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that foam rolling increases muscle range-of-motion short term and improves flexibility. Although it feels a little uncomfortable while you’re doing it, it’ll pay off with less muscle tightness and stiffness afterward. Make sure you’re doing it correctly though.
The Bottom Line
Foam rolling is an essential part of an overall mobility strategy. Whether you are doing it before, during, or after working out, foam rolling should be part of your fitness routine. Enjoy the benefits that foam rolling offers, but make sure you’re doing it correctly.
- Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. THE EFFECTS OF SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827-838.
- Macdonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Jan;46(1):131-42. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a123db. PMID: 24343353.
- Wiewelhove T, Döweling A, Schneider C, Hottenrott L, Meyer T, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M, Ferrauti A. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Front Physiol. 2019 Apr 9;10:376. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00376. PMID: 31024339; PMCID: PMC6465761.