September 07, 2021
You may have seen people exercising with foam rollers in the gym, on social media or in a late-night infomercial. Foam roller exercises are a standard component of many active people’s training routines these days for good reason. These affordable, easy to use foam rollers can provide you with a full body massage that helps to reduce muscle pain, improve range of motion in your joints and sometimes even enhance athletic performance. There’s a reason why foam rolling exercises and routines are so popular these days; they work! In this article we’ll cover 14 foam roller exercises that can be added to your workout routine so you can move and feel better.
Foam rollers come in different shapes sizes and materials but they all generally have the same utility. The basic foam roller is a cylindrical piece of foam that is solid or hollow, very firm or soft, smooth or with knobs. Some foam rollers these days even have built-in heating/cooling mechanisms or with the ability to vibrate. The purpose of a foam roller is to apply concentrated pressure onto specific points of the body to workout knots or trigger points in the muscle. By leaving these painful knots untreated you can lose flexibility in the muscles. So, don't hesitate to start foam rolling!
Foam rollers enable us to perform self-myofascial release or SMR where you will massage painful knots or adhesions called trigger points. The word myofascial comes from myo or muscle and fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue that protects and supports muscles and organs.
When the fascia gets damaged there is an obstruction that dehydrates the fascia, this creates painful knots or adhesions. These knots or trigger points can be painful and restrict movement at the injured site and can even send pain to other areas of the body.
The exact mechanisms of why and how foam rolling works isn't entirely understood but the common schools of though on the matter are:
Foam rolling and stretching are two different activities that have a similar end goals; to keep your muscles healthy and pain free.
As covered above, with foam rolling you are applying pressure to massage adhesions that have formed in the fascia.
Stretching can be split into two methods; static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching should be done after a workout session to try to lengthen the muscle so as it recovers it doesn’t tighten up. You can think of static stretching as you did growing up where you had to bend over and reach to your toes before gym class.
Dynamic stretching should be done before a workout. With dynamic stretching you are actually moving your body through a range of motion to warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing to them. Both types of stretching plus foam rolling are beneficial to keeping your musculature healthy and flexible if done properly and at the right time.
You should do your foam rolling before any type of stretching if you want the optimal results. The common analogy pertaining to the question of what comes first foam rolling or stretching is the rope or rubber band analogy.
The analogy goes like this: Picture your fascia (muscle tissue) as a rope or rubber band and there were some knots in the middle. Would it be easier to lengthen the rope or band with or without the tied knot? That was a rhetorical question; of course it would be easier to lengthen a rope or band without the knots present. This example relates to the musculoskeletal system well. The foam roller works on reducing the trigger points or knots so that you can properly lengthen the muscles with stretching.
You’ll see plenty of companies and websites touting some truly astonishing benefits of using foam rollers. We will stick to what the science says without getting into the hearsay or marketing tactics. Foam rollers have a number of benefits and we swear by them.
Here’s a look at some benefits of foam rolling:
Affordable & Accessible: Foam rollers can provide a great full body self-massage if used correctly. There’s not much of a learning curve with using a foam roller properly. You need to get the foam roller and your body in the correct positions then apply pressure, that’s it. Seeing how a 1-hour massage will usually cost more than a foam roller, it’s an unbelievably budget friendly option to keep your muscles pain free and you at you peak performance levels. You can pick up a foam roller online or at a big box store and get a nice full body massage at any time you’d like using your foam roller at home.
Improve Joint Range of Motion: There has been a number of scientific studies to quantify the effectiveness of foam rollers in regards to increased range of motion. This systematic review of multiple studies came to some interesting conclusions regarding foam rollers. These studies used 6 x 36 inch foam rollers, one made of polyethylene and the other a hollow PVC pipe with an outer shell made of ethylene acetate foam. The research suggests that foam rollers may offer some short-term benefits for increasing sit and reach scores and joint range of motions at the ankle, knee and hip without negatively affecting muscle performance. The key findings included:
The reasons the foam roller is thought to be effective for ROM improvements is that foam rolling alters the visoelastic and thixotropic property (gel-like) of the fascia, increases blood flow due to the friction, increases intramuscular temperature, breaks down scar tissue and alters muscle spindle length.
Enhance Athletic Performance: Many of the claims about foam rollers enhancing athletic performance are usually anecdotal but this meta-analysis scientifically demonstrated the positive affects that foam rolling can have on athletes. Pre-exercise foam rolling seemed to be effective for short-term enhancements in flexibility. It also showed that sprint performance was improved and that post-exercise foam rolling reduced muscle soreness. Overall, there aren’t enough high-quality and well-designed studies that give the optimal treatment protocol of foam rolling that can definitively say what the exact benefits are in regards to sports performance.
Reduce Muscle Pain: Any athlete or person who works out with intensity knows the feeling of being super sore a day or two after a hard training session. This muscles soreness known as DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness can be a real pain. Foam rolling can be a saving grace to alleviate and/or reduce this muscle soreness. This study found that DOMS resulted in decreased athletic performance but when following a foam rolling protocol recovery times improved. The foam rolling protocol here was 20 minutes on a high-density foam roller immediately following exercise then every 24 hours afterwards. Needless to say, if you’re looking for an affordable, reliable, time efficient and easy way to speed up muscle recover from exercise then you must start using a foam roller regularly.
The science is out on the best time to foam roll. It’s been shown that foam rolling can be beneficial both pre and post-exercise without negative consequences. The best time to foam roll is largely dependent on you as an individual and your personal experience. We tend to do both with a short session of foam rolling on the muscles we’ll be working pre-exercise then we follow it up with a longer foam rolling session once the workout is over.
Foam rolling exercises are easy to execute and can be done just about anywhere you have the space to lie down. Try incorporating these 14 best foam rolling exercises into your daily routine that hit all the major muscle groups of the body including the calves, hamtrings, hips, quads, back, chest and arms.
Foam Roller Exercises For Calves
These muscles get worked every time you stand up and walk around so they have a tendency to get tight. Using a foam roller on tight calves can help to improve blood flow and work out any knots or tightness that may be present. The calves are comprised of the gastrocnemius, soleus and the tibialis anterior muscles which can all become tight. Those suffering from shin splints or tight calves can find some respite in using a foam roller. You should probably try to use a smaller 18 inch foam roller here due to the size of the muscles rather than the 36-inch foam roller which might be difficult to hit these smaller muscles. Foam rolling your calves can be great to do before bedtime if you’re someone who experiences calf cramps at night. You can even get a few minutes of calf foam rolling in when you wake up to keep your muscles loose and relaxed before a long day ahead of you.
Note: If you want to add more bodyweight pressure then bring your extended leg and place it on the back of the leg that you’re working. Don’t apply direct pressure to the shin bones.
Note: Place your inactive foot on top of your leg to apply more pressure.
Foam Roller Exercise For Hamstrings
Hamstrings are one of my problem areas for muscle tightness so I make it a point to get some foam rolling in for my hamstrings before and after a workout. The hamstrings are comprised of biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus. Using a foam roller on the hamstrings can help to improve flexibility and massage out the tightness. Foam rolling my hamstrings after a leg day is something I swear by to reduce the DOMS that I usually get in this region. Foam rolling the hamstrings might be one of the most common ways you’ll see people use a foam roller at the gym. It is important to note however that if you think you’ve pulled or torn the hamstring, you should avoid foam rolling as it can worsen the injury. Another potential issue to mention is to be careful when foam rolling the areas where the hamstrings attach to bony areas like the ischial tuberosity (butt bones) or where the hamstring connects to the tibia behind the knee. Applying pressure to these areas can cause compression injuries or make injuries worse. If foam rolling the hamstrings doesn’t help alleviate the muscle tightness, then it might be caused by neural tension. This is when stiffness in the lower back and glutes restrict the sciatic nerve from moving which in turns causes your brain to send a signal to the hamstrings to tighten up. If this is the case then you should definitely visit a physiotherapist.
Note: You can also target one leg at a time by having one leg bent with your foot on the ground while you roll on one hamstring. You can also add bodyweight in this way by placing one leg over the other.
Foam Roller Exercises For Quadriceps
Unfortunately, many people are sitting for prolonged periods of time so the thighs or quadriceps frequently suffer from adhesions or knots. The quads are made of four muscles; vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius and the rectus femoris. The quads are partly responsible for hip extension, flexion of the hip, extension of the knee and more, so keeping these muscles flexible and healthy is vital for daily life. We will cover two foam rolling exercises so that you can hit both the front and outer thigh.
Note: Don’t roll your IT band, you should be focusing on the vastus lateralis here.
Note: You can also perform the front quad release one leg at a time with your other leg out to the side for support. Try to move in multiple directions on the foam roller for example move your leg side to side and/or kick your heel up toward your butt.
Foam Roller Exercise For Hip Flexors
Foam rolling the hip flexors and glutes can be a real life saver because you can loosen the fascia and muscle tissue to relieve tightness enabling you to go about your days pain free. Once again because many of us spend hours on end sitting at a desk, our hip flexors can become tight which can result in hip, back and pelvic pain. Sitting for long periods of time shortens the iliopsoas muscle which results in tight flexors. Foam rolling the hip flexors is a fantastic option to release the tension and stretch these muscles. Below is a great foam rolling exercise to release the hip adductors.
Note: Play around with the angle of the foam roller and your leg in order to hit the enitre inner thigh.
Foam Roller Exercise For Glutes
Talk about a real pain in the butt, tight glutes can also cause hip and back pain. The gluteal muscles are made up of the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius and gluteus maximus. These muscles allow us to squat run, jump and move dynamically.
Although not a gluteal muscle the piriformis is often the culprit that needs the most attention in terms of treatment. This small muscle allows us to externally rotate the thigh. A tight piriformis can lead to lower back and sciatic like pain that travels down the leg so it’s essential that you try this foam rolling exercise to release this muscle.
Note: For a more intense massage try using a lacrosse ball or massage ball.
Foam Roller Exercise For IT Band & TFL
The IT band or iliotibial band is a thick strand of connective tissue that runs along the side of the leg. The IT band is responsible for protecting the lateral thigh while promoting stability and movement in the knee and helps with hip rotation. The IT band can be come tight due to overuse or repetitive movements such as running. There’s some debate to whether or not foam rolling the IT band has any measurable positive benefits. If you have mild tightness in the IT band then you should foam roll other areas like the tensor fasciae latae, glutes, hips, quads, calves and hamstrings before rolling the IT band as this might help with reducing the tightness felt in the IT band area.
Note: Don’t apply excessive pressure as this could aggravate IT band syndrome if that was the root cause of your pain and tightness. Lean over a bit to target the TFL on the upper thigh.
Foam Roller Exercises For Back & Shoulders
The back is one region of the body that receives mixed feelings regarding foam rolling. Although it can be beneficial to foam roll the back it can also present some potential for injury or making pain even worse. Back pain is one of the most common issues people face. Its generally accepted that foam rolling the mid to upper back properly is beneficial and can alleviate tightness. The areas that foam rolling could be detrimental to is the neck area and the lower back. Foam rolling on the neck can put too much tension on the spinal column which can lead to injury so it’s best to avoid this. If you do want to massage the neck with a foam roller you can try to place your head on the foam roller like a pillow then slowly turn your head side to side.
A foam roller can work wonders for releasing tight lats and shoulders. By rolling your lats you can reduce tightness and increase ROM in the shoulders. Tight lats often can make it difficult to reach overhead. Using a foam roller on your lats is the perfect solution as the lats span a large area that a foam roller can cover in the matter of a few minutes.
The lower back is the other area of the back that you must be hyper aware of if you attempt using a foam roller here. This area of the lumbar spine doesn’t have the same support as the thoracic spine so you shouldn’t roll directly over this area. You can try to roll out the lower back while in a side lying position to release muscles on the sides of the back. A massage ball can enable you to specifically target areas in the lower back region while lowering the risk of injuring yourself. Lower back pain is often due to other problems such as tight piriformis, hips, glutes or leg muscles. By completing these foam exercises that don’t directly target the lower back you may still be able to alleviate your pain.
If there’s one area of the back that everyone agrees to in using a foam roller it’s the upper back or thoracic spine area. Being hunched over so often can do a number on our posture and mid-upper back. Excessive hunching can cause pain and stiffness in the upper back, a foam roller can help to ease this stiffness while providing some much-needed mobility work.
Note: You can curl your trunk forward to apply more pressure into the foam roller. Lean to the right and left and roll on the sides of your upper back.
Foam Roller Exercise For Chest
Chest workouts get a lot of attention in most people’s workout routines which is great to strengthen the pecs but sometimes the chest gets overworked and the muscles become tight. This muscle tightness can pull your shoulders forward creating a slouched posture.
A tight chest can lead to poor shoulder and scapula mobility as well as upper back, shoulder and neck pain, which can ultimately limit the amount of weight you lift and put you at risk of injury because the back muscles won’t be activated properly when pressing.
Release the chest muscles with the foam rolling exercise below.
Note: You can move your arms like you’re making a snow angel to ensure that you find and work out all the tight spots.
Foam Roller Exercise For Forearms
Foam rollers can also be used for myofascial release on your arms. If you spend a lot of time working with your hands whether it's hammering nails or hammering your keyboard, wrist pain and tight forearms are common place in today’s society. Pain and tightness in the forearms can lead to wrist, elbow and shoulder pain if not treated properly. If you’re suffering from elbow or shoulder pain or you have limited mobility in your wrists then it might be time to give foam rolling a shot. Here’s how you can foam roll both sides of your forearms so you hit both the flexors and extensors.
Note: Once you find a trigger point you can squeeze and release your fist to help get deeper into the fascia.
Foam Roll Exercises For Triceps & Biceps
Both of these upper arm muscles are attached to the elbow and shoulder so having tight triceps or biceps could eventually lead to pain in those joints. The triceps have three heads; lateral, medial and long head that in total make up roughly 60% of the muscle mass of the upper arm. The largest of the triceps muscles is the long head which stretches from the shoulder blade to the elbow. The triceps are used to extend the arm at the elbow and are involved in pushing and overhead movements as well. Tight triceps can result in limited mobility at the shoulder and the elbow.
Note: You can use your other hand to press down for extra pressure if needed.
The biceps are comprised of two muscles; the biceps brachii (short head and long head) and the brachialis. These muscles on the front of the upper arm are responsible for flexion at the elbow. The biceps are recruited in pulling movements but are also used to help rotate the forearm. Tight biceps can lead to shoulder or elbow pain same as the triceps but can also radiate down to the forearms. It’s important to keep the biceps loose so that it doesn’t throw other muscles out of alignment or cause you pain when picking object up or pulling weights.
Note: You can use your other hand to press down for extra pressure if needed.
You can do this foam rolling routine once a day as your schedule permits or you can always do this routine once then supplement it with more foam rolling exercises before or after your workout session. We will start from the ground up and this foam rolling full body routine should take less than 20 minutes.
You should try to foam roll daily. Everyone no matter how busy has at least 5-10 minutes to spare to get a nice foam rolling routine in. The beautiful thing about foam rolling is you can buy one for the same price of a week or two of coffee and you can use it in the comfort of your own home.
Traditional massage has been around for thousands of years because it makes people feel and function better. Foam rollers are the new kid on the block that can help to get rid of those pesky knots that keep developing in your muscles. There's absolutely no reason to miss out on the benefits of foam rolling; they cheap, easily accessible and they can reduce muscle pain and tightness in the matter of minutes. So, what are you waiting for? Let's get rolling!
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