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If you’ve never invested in a foam roller — commonly found at sporting goods stores for 20 to 40 bucks — you’re doing your muscles a major disservice. Regularly using a foam roller offers many of the same benefits as a sports massage, including reduced inflammation, scar tissue and joint stress, as well as improved circulation and improved flexibility.
“Foam rolling helps with increasing muscle flexibility and joint range of motion, especially when used in conjunction with an active warm-up routine,” says Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, certified facial stretch therapist and owner of Los Angeles–based Fusion Wellness & Physical Therapy. “It also helps with muscle-force production when done before exercise, reducing exercise-induced muscle soreness, reducing delayed onset muscle soreness, increasing pressure pain threshold and reducing trigger-point sensitivity.”
Timing and Tips
The timing of using this self-massage tool also matters. Jeffcoat suggests foam-rolling the desired muscle groups immediately before a workout to increase flexibility of the muscle and range of motion of the nearby joints.
“Pre-activity, foam rolling has been shown to reduce muscle stiffness and improve range of motion,” Jeffcoat says. “The best results are seen when it’s used with dynamic stretching and an active warm-up. Research supports using the foam roller over the desired area for 90 seconds up to two minutes — longer has shown negative results in performance.” She also suggests using it immediately postworkout to reduce DOMS and exercise-induced muscle damage.
The following exercises can be performed separately or combined into a 10-minute preworkout or postworkout routine. Since it’s best to perform roller exercises once your muscles are warm, you’ll need to do a quick five-minute warm-up if you opt to do them right before a weight-training session.
For each exercise, slowly roll back and forth as described for 20 to 30 seconds before moving on to the next exercise. As you roll, take deep, slow breaths to help your muscles relax. Always avoid rolling onto your joints — the roller should stay positioned under your muscles at all times — and if you hit a particularly tight or tender spot, stop rolling and apply direct pressure for 30 seconds, or until the pain abates.
“For recovery, the research supports using as much pressure as possible while respecting your boundaries for pain,” Jeffcoat suggests. “And use caution when using a foam roller for inter-set activities. If you are rolling your quadriceps exclusively, research shows a decrease in hamstring activation. This could lead to a decrease in performance, specifically in a person’s ability to continually produce force of the hamstrings. This occurs due to a phenomenon called reciprocal inhibition, where activation of one muscle group creates an inactivation in the opposing muscle group.”
If you’re new to foam rolling, only incorporate this series of moves into your routine every other day for two to three weeks. After that, you can try doing it once or twice daily — both before and immediately after your workouts.
How to Foam-Roll Your Upper Back (Thoracic Spine)
Start: Rest your back against the broad side of a roller positioned underneath your shoulder blades. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Lift your butt and place your hands behind your head, or cross your arms over your chest.
Roll: Keeping your core muscles tight, slowly roll forward and back so that the roller moves up and down between the middle of your back and the top of your shoulder blades.
Tip: Don’t tilt your head forward to look at your legs as you roll — this may place stress on the spine. Keep your head and neck in line with your back at all times.
How to Foam-Roll Your Latissimus Dorsi
Start: Lie on your right side with your right arm extended along the floor as shown and the roller directly under your right armpit — the roller should be perpendicular to your body. Bend your left arm and lightly place your left hand on the floor for support.
Roll: Roll up and down so the roller moves from your armpit to just above your waist. Once you’re finished, switch positions to work your left side.
Tip: Keep the thumb of your extended arm pointed up toward the ceiling — this puts your arm in a position that helps pre-stretch your lats.
How to Foam-Roll Your Quadriceps
Start: Lie face down with the roller positioned directly under your thighs. Bend your elbows so that your forearms are flat on the floor to support your weight — your feet should be suspended above the floor or lightly touching as shown.
Roll: Keeping your abs drawn in and core muscles tight, use your arms to gently roll your body forward and back to move the roller up and down from your pelvic bone to just above your knees.
Tip: Want to increase the intensity and really get at that ache? Stack your feet to roll one quad at a time.
How to Foam-Roll Your Iliotobial (IT) Band
Start: Position your left hip against the broad side of a roller on the floor. Cross your right leg over your left as shown, and put both hands on the ground for support.
Roll: Using your left arm to assist the motion, roll your thigh back and forth over the roller from just below your hip to above your knee. Continue rolling for the allotted time, then switch positions to work your right leg.
Tip: If you need more pressure to loosen things up, stack your legs — but keep in mind that your stability will be challenged.
How to Foam-Roll Your Glutes
Start: Sit on the floor with your legs straight. Extend your arms to lift your glutes, place the broad side of a foam roller under your butt, and bend one leg and angle your body so one cheek bears the brunt of your weight.
Roll: Move your glute back and forth across the roller. (Keep in mind that the range of motion will be small.) When your time is up, shift your weight to the other side and repeat.
Tip: Press through your palms and move through your shoulders to shift forward and back.
How to Foam-Roll Your Hamstrings and Glutes
Start: Sit with your legs extended in front of you and the broad side of a roller positioned directly under your thighs. Place your hands flat on the floor behind you for support.
Roll: Using your arms to initiate the motion, slowly roll back and forth to move the roller up and down from the bottom of your glutes to just above your knees.
Tip: As you roll, try rotating your legs in and out from your hips — this will allow you to hit your hamstrings more thoroughly.
How to Foam-Roll Your Calves
Start: Sit on the floor with the roller underneath your calves. Place your hands on the floor behind you and raise your butt off the floor — all your bodyweight should be on your hands and the roller.
Roll: Slowly roll forward and back to move the roller up and down from just below your knees to above your ankles.
Tip: To up the intensity, do the move one side at a time by stacking your legs. To change the emphasis, try turning your feet in or out as you roll.
How to Foam-Roll Your Shins
Start: Get on your hands and knees on the floor, with the broad side of a foam roller placed underneath your shins. Your hands should be positioned just in front of your shoulders on the ground and your heels rotated slightly outward.
Roll: Shift your weight forward, bringing your shoulders in front of your hands, to move the roller from your ankles to just below your knees. To target the appropriate muscle, lean on one shin at a time as you roll.
Tip: Make sure you don’t roll directly onto your knees because this can cause discomfort and exacerbate injuries.
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