How to Use a Foam Roller the Right Way

Man foam rolling calf
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Foam rolling has become a common practice for lifters and athletes alike. And it’s no surprise: foam rolling has been shown to increase blood flow, help hasten muscle recovery, and increase range of motion, to name a few. But are you getting the most out of it? Probably not.



Fact is, there’s more to foam rolling than just going through the motions, and even the most experienced lifters and athletes make mistakes. When most people use a foam roller, they simply roll up and down a muscle. This is a good start, but it’s not enough if you truly want to release tightness and get on track to a balanced body.

We spoke with Jim Smith, C.S.C.S., the founder of Diesel Strength and Conditioning and David Reavy, founder of Chicago-based React Physical Therapy and creator of the Reavy Method, a whole body approach to physical therapy and exercise. Here’s how to

The Basics

1. There’s an Order to Things

Even if you’ve got a mental Rolodex of foam rolling moves, you should make sure you’re hitting your muscles in the right order for optimal results. “Working across the body from the bottom up, from the top down, and from the outside in will ensure you cover all the major muscle groups,” Smith advises. But going through the movements in the right order still doesn’t mean you’re getting the most out of them.

2. Breathe Through the Discomfort

Most lifters move quickly through a foam rolling routine, but end up holding their breath because it hurts—so slow it down, Smith explains. Rushing through the movements minimizes the benefits, so focus on deep breathing and taking your time with each muscle.

3. Add Other Movements to the Roll

“Try to introduce movement when you’re using the foam roller, like military pressing with your arms when foam rolling the upper back,” Smith says. You’ll benefit even more from the soft-tissue stretching while you roll out. If you foam roll, you probably also stretch. But combining the two can be even better. For example, the sliding pigeon stretch performed on a foam roller targets the external rotators of the hips, the IT bands, and glutes. Here’s a demonstration of the move, which offers immediate benefits to your squat technique, Smith says.

4. Hit Smaller Muscle Groups

Another common mistake lifters make: neglecting smaller muscle groups. Ever hear of your teres minor? Can you point to your gluteus medius? Foam roll your illiotibial tract very often? Many lifters forget these essential supporting muscles because they’re harder to see, and because the pressure from the foam roller may be too much.

5. Move Off the Floor

Getting into those smaller muscles too painful? “Take the roller off the floor and place it up on a flat bench,” Smith advises. “That can provide different angles to attack the target muscle groups, and allows you to better control the pressure and the amount of body weight you use.”

6. Complement Rolling With Other Tools

Speaking of neglect, lifters often overlook other tools that are just as useful for rolling out, like such as medicine balls or tennis balls. These everyday tools can target more specific areas that you may not be able to hit with a foam roller, like your upper hamstring or the small muscles of your lower back.

7. Time It Right

Once you’re hitting every muscle from every angle, you might want to take timing into consideration. You’ll see plenty of sweat-soaked gym-goers rolling out after a tough workout, and that’s great. However, that’s not the only time you should utilize a foam roller. “If you have especially tight areas and you’re having problems achieving optimal technique for the exercises in your workout, foam rolling during your warm-up, prior to your training session, can be a great idea,” Smith says. Hips, calves, lats and the upper back are some of the most common areas that can benefit from rolling out during a warmup. It’s also important to remember that your recovery doesn’t have to be limited to the time you’re in the gym. “Foam rolling at night after a shower can also be a great way to wind down and get ready for sleep,” Smith adds. That way, your overall recovery will be quicker so that you can get right back at it tomorrow.

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8. Contract and Relax Mid-Roll

Rolling alone treats the entire muscle the same, and doesn’t focus on tight, restricted areas, Reavy says. You need to take rolling one step further and actively contract and relax the muscle you’re targeting while you use the foam roller (or any releasing tool, such as a lacrosse ball) to provide pressure. For example, when foam rolling the quads, you should roll until you find a sore spot, then stop on that area and bend your leg up and down—that’s the contraction and relaxation part—until you feel the muscle relax into the foam roller. This will feel a little more uncomfortable, but it’s far less painful than a muscle or ligament tear down the road. Using this contract-and-relax technique while you roll helps to better release tight muscle fibers, and allows other reciprocal muscles to engage. That means improved range of motion, body alignment, and positioning. And that’s what will help you avoid injury and get better results from training.

How to Use a Foam Roller on Each Muscle Group

Here are a few key ways you can try this on a foam roller or lacrosse ball at home. Perform these releases in the morning, on a daily basis, to break restrictive patterns in your body (like sitting down all day). I’d also encourage doing them before any kind of activity in place of stretching.

Hip Flexor Release

  • For this release, use two lacrosse balls taped together.
  • Lie on your stomach and place the double lacrosse ball just below your hip bone.
  • Lean a tolerable amount of weight onto the lacrosse balls.
  • Bend the knee on the side of the release back to a 90-degree angle.
  • Swing your leg side to side in a tolerable range of motion.
  • Repeat for one minute on each side.

Vastus Lateralis Release

  1. Lie on the side you wish to release.
  2. Place the foam roller under your bottom leg halfway between your hip and knee.
  3. Slide your leg up and down along the foam roller, moving it from the top of the knee to the base of the hip, and focusing on more tender areas.
  4. Repeat in 30-second intervals for two minutes.
  5. To focus on a specific area of the IT band, locate the most tender area with the foam roller and stop. Bend your knee at a 90-degree angle, and then straighten. Repeat motion of bending and straightening knee for 10 to 15 seconds.

Subscapularis Release

  1. Lie on your right side with your right arm extended so you can rest your head on your bicep.
  2. Place a lacrosse ball under the muscle at your side just under the armpit, pinning the ball to the ground.
  3. In this position, bend the elbow to 90 degrees and rotate your shoulder in and out.
  4. Continue to move the ball around to tender spots and do this movement for 45 seconds or until tension resolves. Repeat on the other side.

Pec Release

  1. Stand facing the wall and place a lacrosse ball two inches below the collarbone and toward your armpit. Lean your body into the ball.
  2. Move the ball right and left until you find a tender area. Next, move your arm and shoulder forward and back, then up and down.
  3. Do these movements for 45 seconds or until the tension resolves.

Upper Trap Release

  1. Stand with your shoulder under a weighted barbell in a rack. (You can also use a lacrosse ball placed half way between the neck and edge of the shoulder on the restricted side, against a wall.)
  2. Move left and right until you find a tender area. Next, shrug your shoulder up and down for 45 seconds, or until the tension resolves. 

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