How to Use a Foam Roller in Your Workout

Feb 3, 2018 at 10:00 a.m. ET
Image: AleksandarGeorgiev/Getty Images

The deeper you get into your workout routine, the more you reap the rewards — and ahem — the aches and pains, especially if you lean toward a more strenuous approach to exercise — say with running, boxing, high-intensity interval training or CrossFit — you might wake up the next day tight and sore. As any fitness professional or trainer will tell you, prioritizing rest is just as important as making the effort to work up a sweat. One effective way to ensure you’re giving your body the TLC it not only needs but craves is by using a foam roller.

Even if you’ve seen some buddies use one of these or you’ve read about their miracle-working wonders, the sight of one might be a tad intimidating. Before you walk away and subject yourself to a sensitive neck or uncomfortable shoulders after arm day, take it from these pros, who explain how super-simple these stretching accessories can be.

What is a foam roller?

Nah, it’s not what your grandma puts in her hair before she sleeps. Fitness influencer and enthusiast Brian Mazza explains foam rollers are an inexpensive, versatile piece of equipment that helps you work out the knots in your muscles while giving yourself a deep tissue massage.

“You can use it to loosen up areas that are tight like your outer thigh, quadriceps and upper back,” he tells SheKnows. “You can also enhance your planks with it, build your balance and strengthen your core, safely crack your back and more.”

When you spot them in the gym or at your beloved boutique fitness studio, you’ll notice they come in all shapes and sizes. As fitness expert Hans David Rearick adds, a variety of brands offer these cylindrical tools anywhere from 12 inches to 24 inches in length and between 6 and 8 inches in diameter. Some are smooth, while others are more jagged, and the higher-tech ones have vibration modes. While you can get started with a single one, those who swear by them might have a variety at home to target everything from their legs and buttocks to their arms and neck.

Why are they important to your routine?

With most workouts, the goal is to get your heart pumping, your blood flowing and your muscles working. Not only does consistent exercise help you maintain your weight, but it helps to manage your level of happiness by constantly circulating endorphins.

All of this sweat is great for your mind and body, but it can cause fatigue when you stay consistent with your routine. That’s where foam rollers come in handy. As Mazza explains, “they help increase blood flow throughout the body, help with better movement and increased range of motion.”

And if you intend to stay active for, say, as long as you can, Mazza adds they also help decrease your chance of injury because you’re properly stretched out after each workout. This means you can keep going for longer and won’t have to take as long to recover between sessions.

Even if you think your go-to stretching moves are enough, Dana Morrissey, fitness expert and fascial stretch specialist, says it’s not enough to provide relief for those who are generally very tight post-sweat. Sometimes, it can even do damage.

“Muscles can be either too short [or] too long — when something feels tight, it can certainly be because of the latter. Stretching what is already on stretch can lead to strains and tears,” she explains. “Even for those who aren't flexible, a foam roller can help get to those places self-stretching cannot. While the jury is still out on how the science exactly works, proponents of foam rolling report less muscle soreness, less tension and better flexibility following rolling.”

How to use a foam roller

Ready to give it a roll? Awesome. Just remember, you don’t have to spend a lot of time applying your weight on the foam roller, Morrissey explains. “Thirty to 45 seconds on each body part you want to work on is enough time to make a change. All exercises below are to be done in this time frame. Overdoing it can create pain, and as always, if something doesn't feel right, stop immediately,” she recommends.

Save a little time at the end of your next visit to the gym and try out these beginner-approved moves that might make you a believer.

For tight calves:

After a marathon-training run or a particularly squat-heavy session at the gym, going up and down stairs could be torturous the next day. As a way to prevent or diminish the next-day soreness, Morrissey suggests lying flat on your back and placing the roller underneath the middle of your right calf while bending the left knee and placing it on the floor out of the way.

“Slowly bend and straighten the right knee so the roller starts gliding over the muscles. Keep your movement small and try to keep your right foot relaxed,” she instructs. Then, repeat on the other side.

For sore quads & fronts of thighs:

For many people, this group of muscles is what Morrissey calls a "hotbed of knots." In addition to making leg day rather uncomfortable and difficult, having soreness in this area can create pain in your lower back and knees too. Ease this area by placing the roller slightly above both knees while you come into a forearm position with your neck long.

“Slowly roll about an inch or 2 inches of the quads at one time. After 30 to 45 seconds, stop your movement and windshield wiper the legs (move them left to right) or if you are seated, windshield wiper the roller on your legs using your hands. Continue to work your way up the thighs in the same fashion,” she says.

For a tight upper back:

No matter what type of fitness routine you prefer — including softer movements, like yoga or Pilates — you’re bound to experience upper-back pain after you really put in the extra effort. Morrissey says this area is one of the most important to focus on, especially to keep your spine healthy over time. Begin in a seated position with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, bringing them as close to your bum as you can. Then, place the roller under the middle of both your shoulder blades as you interlace your fingers behind your head and draw your elbows toward the ceiling.

“Press your weight into your feet and lift your butt into a hover. Begin to roll small sections of the upper back at a time, again just an inch or 2, for 30 to 45 seconds,” she says. If you’re uncomfortable here, you can also try this same movement against a wall for less intensity.

Once you’ve finished with that area, she says to sit back down, keeping your upper back on the roller and side-bend at your waist left and right as your upper back is on the roller for 30 to 45 seconds. “Repeat the same sequence, doing one or two more spots down the back, but stop at the bottom of the bra line/rib wall area. It's not ideal to do full-body weighted movements on this area of the ribs as they are floating,” she adds.

So, after your next workout, instead of complaining about sore muscles, you might want to try a foam roller as a way to help your recovery and soothe any aches.

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