How To Foam Roll Your Way To Reduced Pain, Regenerated Muscles, And Improved Mobility [Infographic]
Welcome to a brave new world. Whether you’re a world-class athlete, running aficionado, or lifting legionnaire, foam rolling is an absolute must-do for anyone that exercises regularly.
If you’ve looked on quizzically as a select few roll out their butts (see above), don’t blow it off. There’s plenty of method behind that weird madness. Foam rolling is a powerful tool that can reduce tightness and stiffness; boost flexibility and range of motion; and effectively alleviate runner’s knee, lower back pain, plantar fasciitis, sciatica, and other excruciating injuries.
And it’s not a mythical, uber-complicated tactic reserved for physical therapists, personal trainers, or fitness gurus — it’s an inexpensive, do-anywhere, brutally simple solution for anyone that’s active, in pain, or simply wants to proactively knock out injury. It’s so simple that even your mom can do it. Or grandma.
Here’s the skinny on the foam rolling phenomenon and why it might be the most important tactic in your entire fitness arsenal.
WTF Is Foam Rolling and How Does it Work?
Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release — aka self-massage — that can help loosen up tight, hyperactive muscles; release pesky trigger points; improve blood flow and circulation; and stimulate the healing and recovery process.
Think of foam rolling as actively ironing out your muscles, or more accurately, the fascia. Fascia is a layer of connective tissue that wraps and connects nerves, bones, and muscles throughout the body. Because it’s weird and abstract, I’ll let Dr. Jamey Schrier explain it:
“Fascia is the framework of your body. For example, when you eat red meat and get that white stuff in your teeth, that’s not the muscle. It’s the white stuff, or the fascia, which keeps everything together and keeps you in place. So people who have tight muscles don’t really have tight muscles — their fascia is tight. That’s where the whole foam rolling thing comes in. You’re releasing fascia, which increases flexibility.”
By digging into the fascia, foam rolling effectively breaks up trigger points — nodes of tightly bound muscle fibers, which we colloquially call “knots” — scar tissue, and other adhesions that pop-up over time from generic overuse.
That’s critical. Trigger point and scar tissue build-up creates tightness and directly restricts mobility, flexibility, and range of motion — three issues that can lead to pain, poor performance, terrible posture, and major injury.
In really severe situations (like with sciatica) misalignment can compress nerves and cause MASSIVE pain, tingling, numbness, and inflammation.
What Are The Benefits of Foam Rolling
Tightness, stiffness, and trigger points are an inevitable by-product of running, weight-training, sports, and even working a desk job — foam rolling is an easy way to reverse the trend without chronically hitting a masseuse or chiropractor.
Plus, it’s incredibly inexpensive (rollers run $20-$40; we like The Grid Foam Roller) and only takes 15-20 minutes/day. Do it in the gym, on your bedroom floor, or in front of your favorite TV show. BAM, fitness efficiency.
Foam rolling packs the following benefits —
- It increases blood flow, which helps accelerate recovery and decrease post-workout muscle soreness.
- It corrects musclular imbalances, increases mobility and flexibility, and improves range of motion — all of which prevent common injuries. This also directly unlocks increased power and explosiveness, which produces better gains.
- It helps reduce pain. Specific rolling exercises can alleviate runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, lower back pain, fybromyalgia, tennis elbow, shin splints, sciatica and other painful conditions.
- It fixes posture.
- It’s relaxing and can reduce stress — the mild pain and laser-like focus can help distract yourself from whatever’s eating away at your cranium.
- *BONUS*: It’s a solid core workout — most foam rolling moves build core stability.
The benefits are universal and pack a massive punch. Jump in.
How To Foam Roll Like A Champ
A lean stallion rolling out his IT band.
When you’re rolling, the mission is always to seek and destroy trigger points. They’re brutally simple to recognize — they send pain signals, which often radiate to surrounding areas. For example: if you’re rolling out your IT band (fascia that runs along the side of your leg), mild pain will often pop up along the outside of your knee, down your calf, and may even shoot into your foot.
Congrats — that’s a trigger point in full-effect. You’re literally invoking pain, in a way that feels like you’re pressing down on a bruise. IT HURTS SO GOOD.
To get to that point, slowly roll the foam roller up-and-down each muscle group until you hit a tender hotspot (that’s the trigger point). Once you’ve got it, dig in and maintain strong pressure for 30 to 60 seconds. You can also move in and out of the spot slightly — 1-2 inches, forward and back or side-to-side — while in the holding phase.
Repeat for the opposite side of your body, and then do it once again for the same muscle group. That’s a total of 2 circuits per side, per session. A few tips before rolling in:
- Go slow at first. It WILL be painful and uncomfortable, but we promise it gets better. Almost therapeutic. If 30-60 seconds is too much, start with 10, 15, 20 second sets.
- Never roll joints.
- Rollers come in varying shapes, sizes, and densities. Typically, white rollers are the least dense, while black rollers are the most dense. Squishy people should start with a white roller, those with more muscle should go straight to the black tube. If you’re really daring, have a high pain tolerance, or if you’ve got major muscle mass to cut through — use The Grid.
- Rolling is great pre-workout as a warm-up; post-workout to speed recovery and reduce soreness; or anytime of day as a form of self-therapy (e.g. when you first wake up or while you’re watching TV).
The infographic below from Greatist goes in-depth on a few of the most basic moves to wring out your body, including the IT band, hamstrings, butt, and upper back.
Focus on the spots where you’re chronically the most tight and inflexible; what’s sore (yeah, you’re rolling INTO the soreness); or the muscle groups that you’re working (or already worked) on any given day.
*In part 2 we’ll unleash a full foam-rolling routine and dive deep on self-therapy for specific issues (e.g. runner’s knee, sciatica, tennis elbow, etc).
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ELLO ELLO I'm Bryan DiSanto.
I'm the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Lean It UP
, a CPT/CSN/Fitness Coach, Chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu – Paris, NYU graduate, ex-fat kid
, and all-around fitness junkie.
I also contribute to Men's Health Magazine
When I'm not working on my abs (or somebody else’s), whipping up avocado roses
and avocado toast, or running a Tough Mudder, I'm probably yelling at a Carolina Panthers game somewhere.
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