Whether you've been an athlete your whole life or you just recently started working out, you know the sore muscle struggle is real. Being sore is good in that it lets us know we're actually working toward change — but the pain is also sometimes enough to make you never want to do another squat or lunge again. Foam rollers help, but why spend upwards of 20 bucks when all you need is a tennis ball? Yup, there are a ton of self-massage exercises you can do for myofascial release with nothing more than a good ol' fashioned neon yellow ball.
These exercises will help you stimulate blood flow and buff waste away from tight muscles, which loosens you up and and leaves you feeling relaxed. Just don't expect the process to be painless. When you dig into your muscles with a tennis ball, you can isolate knots that you might not otherwise target. This has a "hurts so good" sensation that can get pretty intense.
To make the process easier, make sure you're targeting soft muscle tissue — not bones or joints. If you find a spot that hurts, move slowly, allow your body to carefully roll back and forth across the adhesion to help loosen things up and understand the power of gravity: The more body weight you use, the deeper you'll dig and the more it'll hurt. Lift your weight slightly away from the ball during intense moments. The goal is to loosen up tight spots, not end up bruised.
If you're prone to tension headaches, or if you find your neck getting tight after a long day in front of a computer, take a few minutes to ease the pain with a tennis ball. Simply lie on the ground and place a tennis ball behind your neck, just to the right of your spine and under your skull. Sink into the tennis ball and roll your head slightly to the left and right, avoiding your bony bits. If you find a tight spot, stop and hold your position for 30 seconds before continuing. Switch sides after a minute or two.
You might not always notice sore spots surrounding your shoulders in your upper back, but chances are you have them. The shoulder joint is incredibly complex, and lots of muscles originate and insert around the joint. The tricky part is finding tightness without placing too much pressure on the flat, triangle-shaped bone of the scapula. Start by manually massaging under your armpit, behind your shoulder and across and around your scapula. When you find areas of tightness, lie back on the tennis ball and let gravity do the work, moving the tennis ball as needed to target new areas.
3. Upper, mid and lower back
You can use one tennis ball or two to target the muscles that run along your spine and into your sacroiliac joint (your pelvis). By using two tennis balls, you can target both sides of your spine at once. To keep the balls in place, put them in a tube sock and tie a knot between the balls to prevent yourself from rolling the ball over your backbone. Place the knot along your spine, so the two tennis balls are on either side. Use gravity to target tight areas, rolling very slowly to loosen things up.
If you find a spot deep in your lower back that you're having a hard time sinking into, cross the same-side leg over your opposite knee and roll slightly to that side.
The glutes consist of the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus — and together they're some of the most powerful muscles in the whole body. They're also responsible for almost all of the movements of your thigh, which means you're using them... a lot. Even if you're not feeling sore, I bet you'll find some tightness when you give this one a whirl.
Start by sitting with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Place a tennis ball under your right glute, then lift yourself up slightly by placing your hands behind you for support. Roll slowly until you find a tight spot, then hold your position. To get a deeper massage, cross the same-side leg over your opposite thigh and bend your same-side elbow to use gravity more.
Take your time on each glute, really covering each cheek from top to bottom and side to side. When you're done with the right side, switch to the left.
I find that all the sitting I do leads to very tight, sore hips, particularly of the hip flexors (the iliopsoas) and the muscles responsible for external rotation and abduction, including the deep muscles of the glutes. As always, make sure you don't roll the tennis ball directly on any bones — rather, aim for the soft muscle tissue at the front and around the sides of your hips. This is one of my personal favorites.
Because the quads consist of such long muscles, I usually use a foam roller to loosen up the knots — it's faster and pretty effective. That said, if you have areas that need greater isolation, a tennis or lacrosse ball can do the trick. Simply lie on your stomach, supporting yourself on your forearms. Pull your right leg up toward your chest, but rotated out to the side. Place the tennis ball under your left thigh and put the ball of your left foot on the ground for leverage. Use your toes to push and pull yourself forward and backward to roll across the top of the ball. Take your time, and when you're done, switch legs.
Like the muscles of the quads, the hamstrings are long, so I usually start loosening them up with a foam roller. If I find a tight spot, I switch to the tennis ball. Simply sit up straight, extending your right leg in front of you, your left leg bent and your foot flat on the floor. Place the tennis ball under your right hamstring and use your hands to press yourself up so your glutes are off the floor. Use your hands to help pull yourself forward and backward over the ball. You can also flex your right foot and rotate it inward and outward to further target sore spots.
Roll out your calves the same way you roll out your hamstrings, but place the tennis ball under your calves. Don't forget to rotate your foot to help target your outer calf!
If you're a runner, you'll want to do this exercise! Place the tennis ball under your foot along the "meaty" section. Place a hand on a wall or chair for support and relax your weight onto the ball, slowly rolling it from front to back and side to side.
Laura Williams, M.S.Ed. is a personal trainer, freelance writer and entrepreneur who works with a wide variety of fitness clients. She's also the founder of the website Girls Gone Sporty.
Originally posted June 2015. Updated September 2017.