Foam rollers are very popular these days. Places like Target and Walmart carry them. Grandmas and grandpas are foam rolling. Doctors prescribe them. What started as a niche mobility aid used only by the most obscure fitness geeks has become commonplace. But if you want to get the most out of your foam roller and avoid damage, you need to learn how to use it properly. It’s not as easy as “rolling” on it. It has an art. And a science.
But before we get into how to use a foam roller, let’s take a look at what a foam roller actually does (and doesn’t do).
What Foam Rolling does and doesn’t do?
Foam rolling is not physically breaking knots or muscle attachments.
Foam rolling is also not extending the fabric the way you roll out a slab of dough. Research shows that foam rolling does not physically stretch or lengthen the muscle.
Instead, foam rolling seems to relax the nervous system. It works through neuromuscular connections rather than brute force physical modification† After you roll an area of foam while moving that tissue, your nervous system has determined that it’s the right, safe range of motion for you. Foam rolling gives you a brief chance to establish a new “safe” pattern. Instead of physical adhesions, it removes neuromuscular blocks and harmful patterns. You reset the system and reprogram it, or leave it open for reprogramming with better motion.
Foam rolling might also work through something that diffuse harmful inhibitory control, or DNIC. When a tissue hurts, it’s because your nervous system has decided that inhibiting movement in that area (through pain) is safer and better for you than allowing movement through that area. But sometimes the nervous system decides to tone down the pain because it’s safer and better for you to move it than to remain immobile. Think of a soldier who sustains a major wound in battle. He is badly injured, but extreme pain would only prevent him from getting to safety. The nervous system soothes the pain so he can get it back alive. The foam roller may be doing something similar.
How to use a foam roller?
Relax in the roller; do not worry.
This can be difficult to do as foam rolling is naturally uncomfortable. Painful, even. But here’s what happens when you’re tense: Your body fights against the healing effect the foam roller is supposed to have on you.
You should be able to breathe easily and normally. Holding your breath indicates a stress response. You are probably going too hard or too tense.
Don’t grimace. Don’t grind your teeth. Try to smile, or at least keep a neutral facial expression. Every expression of pain and discomfort will register in your nervous system. What you’re trying to do here is reassure your body that you can handle the pain, that the pain isn’t that bad, and that the tissue can start to feel better.
Stay in one place until it doesn’t hurt anymore.
If you’re rushing through your foam rolling session, skipping areas because they “hurt too much,” you’re missing the point. Instead of avoiding the pain, seek out the pain and sit with it. Once you find a tender spot, stay there for at least a minute or until the pain subsides.
Explore the range of motion while sitting in a sensitive area.
When you roll your quads and find a tight, tender spot, stay there and straighten and bend your knee through the full range of motion. This seems to make the foam rolling more effective than just staying in place with no knee movement.
Focus on one large area per session.
You’re not going to effectively hit your entire body in a single session. There isn’t enough time for that. Instead, focus on one big area — your legs, your glutes, your calves, your hamstrings, your pecs, your thoracic spine — and do a great job there. Be thorough and take your time. You can focus on a different part during the next session.
Do not foam with bones.
Bones should not be foamed. It does not help. It’s totally pointless. Foam rolling is for soft tissue application only.
Don’t foam your spine.
You can and should foam roll the lumbar muscles that run on either side of your spine, but you shouldn’t roll the actual spine itself. As a bone, it doesn’t respond well to foam rolling, and it can actually irritate and hurt you.
Do not foam at the site of the pain; foam roll the tissues around it.
If your knee hurts, foam rolling the knee itself probably won’t help. If your calves hurt, foam rolling the calves isn’t the answer.
You need to go above and below the affected tissue. Continue to roll the tissues around the painful area, working your way up and down until you find the tender spot.
Use a lacrosse ball (or two taped together) for harder-to-reach areas.
The foam roller does not work equally well on every muscle or tissue. Hamstrings, the TFL, the pecs, and specific points in the thoracic spine seem to respond much better to lacrosse balls. They provide more direct, targeted pressure and can really go deep into that.
foam roller before workouts to increase range of motion.
Foam rolling before your workout is better for range of motion and performance, especially if you take advantage of the open “window of motion” and move. Foam roll, do some mobility exercises to take advantage of the window, and then get some exercise.
foam roller after workouts to reduce muscle soreness and improve performance.
Studies show that post-workout foam rolling reduces subsequent muscle soreness and maintains performance (where it would otherwise suffer). I see that foam rolling is very effective for athletes who have to start training quickly after a training or competition.
But overall, if you keep all these concepts in mind, foam rolling is quite easy to do and very versatile. Have fun rolling!
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