You’ve Been Foam Rolling Wrong, Now Fix It

how to foam roll
The most effective way to foam roll your muscles. Getty Images

You’ve probably noticed foam rollers everywhere. Unlike some fitness fads — I’m looking at you Waist Trainer — I am actually happy to see this tool trending. When used in the right way, foam rollers can have enormous benefits for your body, helping to release tight muscles, improve range of motion, and prevent injury.

Unfortunately, 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 tight muscles and get on track to a balanced body. Rolling alone treats the entire muscle the same, and doesn’t focus on tight, restricted areas. 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.

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

  • Lie on the side you wish to release.
  • Place the foam roller under your bottom leg halfway between your hip and knee.
  • 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.
  • Repeat in 30-second intervals for two minutes.
  • 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

  • Lie on your right side with your right arm extended so you can rest your head on your bicep.
  • Place a lacrosse ball under the muscle at your side just under the armpit, pinning the ball to the ground.
  • In this position, bend the elbow to 90 degrees and rotate your shoulder in and out.
  • 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

  • Stand facing the wall and place a lacrosse ball two inches below the collarbone and toward your armpit. Lean your body into the ball.
  • 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.
  • Do these movements for 45 seconds or until the tension resolves.

Upper Trap Release

  • 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.)
  • 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.

David Reavy, founder of Chicago-based React Physical Therapy, is the creator of the Reavy Method, a whole body approach to physical therapy and exercise. Reavy works with numerous pro athletes from the NFL, NBA, MLS, and the WNBA.