The Importance of Foam Rolling

By Ryan Jones, DPT

Pictured in clockwise order from top left = ITB/TFL, quads, gluts, hamstrings, calves, thoracic spine

You know that long, round piece of foam you've seen in the corner of gym? That torture device you've seen people roll on while contorting into all kinds of terrible-looking faces of pain and agony? Well, I'm here to tell you that the foam roller is your friend, not your enemy.  Such a simple piece of equipment can both help you loosen up before a workout and boost recovery after a training session. In fact, proper warm up and cool down with a foam roller can significantly enhance the benefits of your exercise routine by decreasing your risk for injury and minimizing the soreness that often follows a hard workout. 

In layman's terms, the foam roller is a way of giving you a nice deep tissue massage; almost like treating yourself to a trip to the spa! 

Here's how it works: place a certain muscle group on the foam roller and then proceed to roll back and forth along the length of the specified muscle. In doing so, the roller will dig into your muscles just as a massage therapist would with his or her hands. With the foam roller you can control how much pressure you apply so if it is really uncomfortable you can dial it back as needed.If you find a muscle that is particularly painful, it's a sign that the particular muscle is too tight and needs to be worked on. Therefore, don't ignore it simply because it hurts. Instead, focus more attention on that area. 

If you have good extensibility and flexibility in a muscle group, foam rolling should be a mild discomfort at worst. Note that you will likely find tender spots, called trigger points, when foam rolling and these areas should be given some extra attention to help break them up.

While the foam roller can be used on essentially all of the large muscle groups, you would be well served to focus on the most critical -- those areas that typically need more attention to prevent injury, as well as those areas most prone to tightness. In adults, these muscles are typically the ITB/TFL, glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves and thoracic spine decompression.

The keys to foam rolling muscles are:

  • Roll at a steady pace along the full muscle length and not over any protruding joints or bones
  • Spend 60-90 seconds on each muscle group with pauses and deep breaths taken when rolling over trigger points
  • Control the pressure so that it is a mild discomfort and not too painful; work your way up in pressure and don't try to kill yourself the first time. 

So don't be scared of that foam roller anymore! Foam rolling can relieve muscle tension, correct imbalances, increase flexibility and restore proper pain-free movement patterns in order to ultimately enhance your overall performance. A foam roller should be an essential part of your exercise toolkit.