Foam Roller Benefits (and why they hurt)

March 8th, 2019 Functional Fitness, Recovery
foam roller benefits

You’ve probably seen them at the gym—these unremarkable foam tubes—usually tossed on the floor or banished to the corner. It’s possible you’ve even used one in the past or watched other people use them. But do you really know what a foam roller is—or what it does?

In this article, we’ll go over why we use foam rollers, including the many benefits that come with their use.

Have you tried a foam roller or two in the past but avoid them now because it’s too uncomfortable?

We’ll go over why that happens, too. You may just find that the benefits far outweigh the discomfort.

What Is a Foam Roller?

A foam roller is a piece of fitness equipment. Foam rollers are long and cylindrical but come in a variety of sizes and textures. When used properly, they help your muscles recover more quickly and can ease muscle discomfort and body aches.

How Do Foam Rollers Work?

Foam rollers can be used in a variety of ways, depending on your specific pain and needs. Their cylindrical shape allows them to roll easily along your targeted body area, usually using your body weight to create the pressure.

The available scientific studies on foam rollers are still in their early stages. While many health organizations—including the Mayo Clinic—fully support the use of foam rollers, there’s still some debate taking place on why they work.

We’ll go ahead and visit some of the popular theories here. As scientific studies continue and our understanding of the body and foam rollers evolve, we’ll learn more about how they work. We may even discover it’s a combination of theories that have foam rollers doing what they do.

Myofascial Release

One of the leading theories one has to do with myofascial release.

Applying pressure this way while “rolling out” areas works to break up the tissue that connects your muscles. This tissue is called fascia. The fascia surrounds muscle fibers, nerve fibers, organs, and bones.

The fascia is actually not present in a single location. Rather, it exists in layers—an extensive network that works around the individual muscle fibers and cells. It also surrounds muscle fiber bundles and the muscle as a whole.

Fascia is fairly solid, with a little stretch but not much pliability. When you think about fascia in this way, it’s easy to understand how a tight network of fascia could impede movement. This network can prevent both flexibility and range of motion.

With the use of a foam roller, you’re able to break up that fascia. Once it is broken up, the muscle can move more freely. This can help improve muscle recovery while also increasing your range of motion.

Adhesions

As you’ve just learned, the human body is a sophisticated network of muscles, fibers, and connective tissue. Add in the skeleton and organs, and it’s easy to understand how things can go wrong.

Ideally, your body works without a hitch. Things should slide neatly by one another like a well-oiled machine. We all know that’s frequently not how things are, though.

Adhesions are one of the things that can impact your body’s functionality. Adhesions happen when fibers become tangled together, creating knots.

Once an adhesion begins, just like with other knots, it’s likely to continue becoming a bigger mess until you address it. Using a foam roller to press into, separate, and begin to work out the adhesion can help restore functionality.

As with any workout, physical therapy, or long-term change, you may need to invest in multiple sessions before seeing full results. You may not be able to break up the tangled fibers on your first round with a foam roller. Commit to using it regularly and you can continue to free those fibers—and your body.

Nerve Stimulation

Another popular theory for why foam rollers work has to do with triggering nerve stimulation.

This theory has more to do with the brain than with the body. In this scenario, the foam roller triggers the nerve endings to send information to the brain. In turn, the brain sends a message to the muscles to go ahead and loosen up.

While the details on why it happens may not be pinned down just yet, these theories yield the same results. Whichever ends up being true, people agree that a loosened, more functional body will be yours with the use of a foam roller.

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Kinds of Foam Rollers

There are a variety of different foam rollers. Some have specific purposes, while others can be used for multiple purposes. Some of the foam rollers you’re likely to come across include the following:

  • Universal foam rollers: These foam rollers are of medium density and can be used for massage or for exercise.
  • Soft foam rollers: These foam rollers are of light density and are very malleable. They will provide a gentle rolling experience.
  • Firm foam rollers: These foam rollers are extremely firm. They’re great for very tight muscles that need significant pressure to find relief.
  • Specialty foam rollers: Specialized foam rollers usually have a specific purpose. Whether it’s a shorter portable roller or a unique shape or texture, there are foam rollers out there suitable for every need.

When to Use a Foam Roller and the Benefits You Can Expect

Now that you know a little bit about foam rollers, you probably want to know more about the hype surrounding them. It’s not unwarranted. There are some real benefits that come with using foam rollers.

You’re probably also wondering when you should use a foam roller. The truth is, there’s no wrong time to use a foam roller. There are, however, times you’re more likely to want to reach for one. We’ll go over some of those prime times to use a foam roller.

Tension Relief

Using foam rollers to massage the body and help relieve tension and tightness is quite common. We live busy, hectic lives and spend more time commuting or hunched over a computer screen than we should.

Using foam rollers can help work out the kinks and pain that set up shop in your body during the course of a regular day. Adding foam rolling to your regular care routine can leave your body feeling rather more limber and relaxed. Combat the day-to-day aches with consistent foam roller sessions.

Post-Workout Recovery

Research shows that using a foam roller post-workout can help improve your muscle recovery. Foam rollers do this by increasing the blood flow to your muscles, which can help prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness. That’s the lingering pain you feel long after your workout has ended.

Spend a few minutes with your foam roller after your workout to better prepare your body for your next session. Your body will thank you for it, and you’ll love the physical results.

Flexibility

Committing to using foam rollers on a regular basis can lead to an increase in muscle flexibility. This can, in turn, lead to improved performance and efficiency during workouts. It’s also likely to improve your form, meaning you’ll be less susceptible to injury.

If you’re looking for a foam roller routine designed to increase your flexibility, this one may be helpful to you:

Exercise

Foam rollers can also be used during workout routines to increase instability. This will leave your muscles working harder to create stability—even those hard-to-isolate, smaller muscles. Using foam rollers can up the challenge for you and have you seeing results you’ll love.

You’re most likely to use foam rollers to up the ante on low-impact, balance-driven workouts. They’re great for engaging and strengthening the core by making all of your muscles work harder. If you’re into yoga, Pilates, or other calisthenic-style activities, you may find a lot of use for foam rollers.

To see how a foam roller can be used during a workout routine, check out this video.

Pre-Workout Warm-Up

You already know foam rollers can be used during workouts, as well as post-workout to speed up recovery. You may be surprised to learn you can also use them before your workout to improve results.

The friction created while using foam rollers creates energy and heat. This heat can literally warm up your fascia and muscles. This can loosen tissue, fibers, muscles, and joints. Doing so will lead to a greater range of motion and a more effective workout.

People who began their workout with a warm-up that included foam rolling reported their muscles were less fatigued. Add in an after-workout foam rolling session, and your less-fatigued muscles will be on the road to a quick recovery.

Recovering quickly from a workout means you can get to your next workout faster. Using a foam roller can encourage greater effectiveness during the workout and better recovery after your workout. It quickly becomes apparent how a foam roller can be a great tool to help you achieve your fitness goals.

Injury Recovery

No one wants to be faced with an injury. If you do find yourself rehabbing from an injury, though, a foam roller can be a great assistant. Though, you will obviously need to use more than just a foam roller to fully recover.

Foam rolling can help prepare the muscles for upcoming physical therapy or strengthening exercises. While warming up the muscles, it can also break up scar tissue, which can be quite important.

Scar tissue can resist movement and impede flexibility. Breaking up the scar tissue could help you get back your preinjury mobility. If you’re recovering from a significant injury, consider working with a professional physical therapist. Leaving an injury unaddressed can lead to lack of use and less flexibility as well.

But What About the Pain?

It’s easy to see the good that comes along with using foam rollers. If you’ve used a foam roller before, though, you may have experienced discomfort during use. Are you wondering why something that can do so much good for you can also cause so much pain?

If you haven’t felt pain when you’re using a foam roller, that’s okay. In fact, foam rollers shouldn’t cause pain. However, if you’re using them to work through a trigger point or post-workout, using a foam roller may result in some pain.

This pain happens because the muscle is responding to the applied pressure. A well-used or sore muscle will leave you feeling pain when pressure is applied. Whether it’s your own hand, that of a masseuse, or a foam roller, applying pressure will cause pain.

Don’t bail on foam rolling just because you’re feeling a little discomfort. As we’ve learned here, there’s some real science behind why that pain is happening. Unfortunately, you aren’t likely to be able to reap those amazing benefits without experiencing a little bit of discomfort.

No Pain, No Gain

You’ve heard the adage a million times. It’s one of those sayings that seems to be applied to everything you’re working for. Hours at the gym? Hours at the office? No pain, no gain.

It’s just the same with foam rollers. Pressing a foam roller into tight muscles stimulates nerves and pain receptors. It’s as simple as that. Foam rollers can give you great benefits—unfortunately, the very thing that brings those benefits (pressure) can cause some discomfort during use.

When Pain Is Unusual

Discomfort during use can be easily explained. Intense pain, however, isn’t the norm. If you’re experiencing an unusual, significant amount of pain, it may be due to one of the following reasons:

  • Pressing too hard: It’s easy to get sucked into the belief that more is better. Firm, evenly applied pressure is critical when using a foam roller, but you don’t need to press too hard.
  • Existing damage or an underlying injury: While this isn’t necessarily likely, you should always follow up on unusual ongoing pain with your doctor. Rule out an underlying cause before assuming it’s something you just need to work through.
  • Rolling the wrong part of the body: Foam rolling is most appropriate for muscles. Avoid rolling tendons, ligaments, or joints, and focus only on your muscles.

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Tips and Tricks to Getting the Most out of Your Foam Roller Sessions

Knowing the basics about foam rollers is a great place to start. Are you looking to jump into using a foam roller? Here are some tips and tricks that can help give you the best results.

Where You Should Not Use the Foam Roller

You may think you’ve just clued into the next big thing. Don’t go hog wild with the foam roller just yet, though. There are some areas of the body you’ll want to avoid using the foam roller on

  • Lower back: This area is extremely delicate and very vulnerable. Foam rolling here may be tempting if you have back pain, but doing so can cause spasms and inflammation to your vertebrae. The risk to your spine is much greater than any benefits you would see by employing the foam roller.
  • Shoulders: You may gently foam roll on the meaty part of your shoulders, but you’ll want to avoid the actual joint. Again, this is a fragile space where significant damage can take place.
  • Elbows and arms: Foam rolling these areas will not be as effective as correct stretching techniques or manual massage. If you experience frequent pain in the wrist or elbow, consider wearing a supportive brace during exercise.

Where You’ll See the Most Results With a Foam Roller

You’ll want to focus the bulk of your foam rolling on your large muscles. In your lower body, you can foam roll your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. In your upper body, stick to your traps and lats.

For optimal results, plan on using the foam roller every day. While the results from foam rolling are real, they’re also relatively short-lived. You’ll want to plan on foam rolling before and after workouts. In between workouts, pull out the foam roller when your muscles are feeling tight or your body is sore.

You need to be consistent to see optimal foam rolling results. But you can take comfort in knowing a good routine doesn’t need to take much of your time. Spend 30 seconds on each area per session. If you have a little more time to dedicate to it, you can do up to three 30-second sets of foam rolling.

When foam rolling, focus on a third of the muscle at a time. Give the first third a few passes and then move onto the next. As you wrap up your rolling session, give one or two passes along the full length of the muscle. This will give each part of the muscle the attention it deserves and helps you get the most from your foam rolling session.

It’s pretty amazing to think that a half a minute can provide you with so many amazing results. You have very little to lose by implementing a foam rolling regimen—and so much to potentially gain.

Don’t Be Afraid to Customize Your Routine

Everyone’s body is different and has different needs. While these are some great guidelines for using a foam roller effectively, recognize that you may have needs that differ. Experiment with the foam roller to determine what works best for you.

You may find longer sessions of foam rolling help you more or maybe foam rolling twice a day keeps you in a better place. Don’t be afraid to alter your plan and make adjustments as you go. You may even find that you need to tweak your routine on occasion.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using a Foam Roller

When using a foam roller, there are a few things you’ll want to watch out for.

Using the Foam Roller Directly on an Injury

You already know how many great benefits come from using a foam roller. It’s easy to understand why you’d think using one to address an injury would be a good idea.

Using a foam roller directly on an injured area can create more inflammation. This inflammation will result in more pain—and can slow down the healing process.

This doesn’t mean a foam roller can’t be beneficial to you while you’re recovering from an injury. It really just means you need to keep the way your body functions in mind.

Your body is a complex network. No single piece can be fully isolated from the next. If you have a particularly tender area of the leg, consider focusing your foam rolling on other nearby areas. Doing so can help prime your body to better protect the injury while you recover.

You’ll also find that a body recovering from an injury works to compensate what’s injured. This means the rest of your body will be expected to pick up the slack to keep you on the go. Managing the rest of your body with a foam roller can help keep things moving smoothly while you fully heal.

Using the Foam Roller Too Quickly

I know I mentioned that foam rolling sessions don’t need to be long to be effective. They shouldn’t, however, involve moving the foam roller quickly over an area.

The key to using a foam roller is even and consistent pressure. Moving quickly over an area may rev up the blood flow, which is good. It won’t work to break up the fascia, though.

In fact, many people err on the quick side when foam rolling because it hurts less. It hurts less because it isn’t doing what it needs to do to actually work. It’s imperative the muscle and fascia receive that pressure and stimulation to loosen up.

If you’re short on time, use the foam roller correctly for a shorter period of time, or focus on your problem areas. This way, you’ll still be seeing results where you have used the foam roller instead of wasting the time with a speed round.

Focusing on One Area for Too Long

I know what you’re thinking. More is better. And sometimes it is—until it’s not.

Just like other areas of fitness, there’s a fine line between pushing for maximum results and overdoing it. You need to know where to draw that line to prevent injury and to keep getting the most out of the foam roller.

Adding 15 extra seconds or one more set of rolls probably isn’t going to hurt you. It may even be that extra push your body needs. But continuing to focus aggressively on one area for five minutes? It will just be counterproductive.

You can create fresh inflammation, prolong the pain, and increase damage. In fact, extended periods of intense pressure can even do some nerve damage.

Instead of hyper-focusing on an area, begin slowly. Start with gentle pressure at the recommended 30-second intervals. Remember to focus on each segment of the area individually and then do the cohesive pass.

Give your body a break and reevaluate a few hours later. Still feeling the tightness? Go ahead and do a mini rolling session. Addressing ongoing pain with this method will give you better results.

Using Bad Form

Just like when you’re exercising, your form is going to be crucial to your foam rolling experience. Remember, you’re using your body weight to help create the pressure you need. Approaching rolling with poor form can have you injuring yourself or rendering your rolling session totally ineffective.

Try to remember that sessions don’t need to be long to be incredibly worthwhile. If you can’t do the full 30 seconds in a single position, do a good 10 seconds instead. Just like with exercise, never compromise on your form. A few good reps are better than many bad ones.

Using the Foam Roller

Now that you know how (and when) to use the foam roller, let’s go over how you’ll put that foam roller to muscle.

Foam Roller for the Lower Body

Hip Flexors and Quadriceps

Begin in a low plank position, with the foam roller placed near the point of the hip. The foam roller should be perpendicular to your body. Gently rock forward and backward, allowing the foam roller to move along the leg.

Make sure to begin near the pelvis and gradually work your way down the quadriceps. To target the entire leg, you may twist your body slightly to the side, to roll along the outer edge of the leg.

Hamstrings

Begin by sitting, legs extended in front of you. Bridge up and place the foam roller just beneath your seat. Cross one foot over the other at the ankle and rock slowly forward and backward.

Gluteals

Begin by lying on your side in a modified low side plank position. Slide the foam roller up beneath your body just below the hip. Cross your other leg over the front with your foot near your opposite knee. Slowly roll back and forth and move down the length of the leg toward the knee.

From this position, go ahead and move until you’re fully seated on the foam roller. Strive to keep your feet elevated off the floor, though occasionally touching for balance is okay. This is similar to the hamstring roll, except you’re focusing further up on the gluteus maximus.

For more information on foam rolling the lower body, and to get a visual of it in action, this video may be helpful:

Foam Roller for the Upper Body

The Back/Traps

As we covered above, you do need to be careful when using the foam roller on your back and shoulders. However, rolling the upper back can be a great way to treat an aching body.

Begin on your back with hands behind your head, knees up, and feet flat on the floor. With the foam roller just beneath your shoulder blades, go ahead and press your feet into the floor. Your hips should elevate, allowing your body to be parallel to the floor. Gently roll back and forth on the foam roller, propelling yourself from your legs.

Remember to support your head and neck and keep your spine aligned properly. Do not roll down beyond mid-back. To see the exercise in action, watch this video:

Lats

Begin in a modified low side plank position. Extend the arm that’s closest to the ground, rotated so your thumb is facing up toward the ceiling.

The foam roller should be pressed between your chest and your armpit. Lats wrap around here, so you’ll need to lean in toward the floor for this roll as well.

It may seem a little awkward to get the positioning and the momentum you need here. Just know a good foam roll for aching lats can go a long way

To see this one in action, go ahead and watch this video:

Using Foam Rollers for a Healthier You

While the exercises listed here can help you get started with a foam roller, this list is far from exhaustive. There are many variations you can explore to help target specific areas and weaknesses.

As you use your foam roller, you may discover certain techniques work better for you during warm-up as opposed to post-workout.

You may find you want to invest in multiple foam rollers with different shapes, densities, and textures. This can help allow you to fully customize your rolling approach and give you the best results for your individual needs.

Foam rollers can help get your body in prime condition to tackle whatever fitness goals you have set for yourself. Most importantly, using them can have you living a life with less pain and more mobility. If you haven’t given them a try yet, wouldn’t you say it’s about time you did?

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