The Beginner's Guide to Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is like having a personal massage therapist at home—for free. But if you’ve never used a foam roller before, it might seem more like a torture device than a useful recovery tool. 

Here’s why it’s worth it, though: Working out hard creates slight tears in your muscles, explains Stephanie Shane, D.P.T., a physical therapist in New York City. As the muscle heals and becomes stronger, adhesions—commonly known as knots—sometimes form between your muscle and your fascia (the layer of connective tissue that sits between your muscle and your skin).

Normally, muscle and fascia glide across each other when you move, but if you have adhesions, the muscle doesn’t contract like it normally would. “That’s what foam rolling helps correct,” says Shane. Foam rolling can:

  • Boost your workouts. Getting rid of adhesions helps you move more naturally by improving your range of motion, mobility, and posture when you sit, stand, and move, says Julie Bobek, certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor in New York City. As a result, your muscles will function better when you’re exercising, says Shane. 
  • Reduce soreness. When you work out, your body produces lactic acid that makes you sore later if it sits in your muscles. But foam rolling after a grueling workout brings blood to your muscles, flushing out lactic acid and helping your muscles repair, Shane explains.
  • Prevent injuries. If you work out a lot and experience hip or knee pain, Shane suggests foam rolling your quads before working out. “When you foam roll an injured or overused muscle before a workout, you tell the muscle to calm down, don’t overwork,” says Shane. You’ll use overworked muscles less and work the weaker muscles more, balancing out your workout and cutting your injury risk.  

One thing foam rolling can’t do: Make your muscles look longer and leaner. “A big misconception is that you’re changing muscle length,” says Shane. “But what you’re really doing is giving input into the muscle to help it relax, similar to a deep-tissue massage.”


What's The Best Way To Do It

Start with a 36” soft foam roller. As you roll, always engage your core, keep breathing, and try to relax. Two to three minutes on each muscle group is usually all you need, say Shane. Roll out large muscles like your quads in thirds: Spend 30 seconds massaging just the top third, then focus on the middle for 30 seconds, then roll out the lower quad for 30 seconds. Focus on areas with the most adhesions. “When you run a hand down your muscle and you feel a bump, that’s an adhesion you want to roll out,” says Shane. You can pause for a second, but focus more on rolling and releasing like a massage therapist would, says Bobek.

Contrary to popular opinion, foam rolling shouldn’t hurt, says Shane. “When you get a deep-tissue massage, it hurts so good, but it’s never painful, as in ‘I can’t wait for this to be over’ kind of sharp pain.” If it is, readjust yourself to find a position that’s intense but not painful.

If you’re a runner, cyclist, or do lots of high-intensity workouts, it’s a good idea to roll out your quads before your workouts as part of your warmup, suggests Shane. For almost everyone else, however, foam rolling twice a week after a workout is usually enough.

A few don’ts: Avoid rolling directly over your bones, joints, neck, and lower back between your hips and rib cage (it’s a sensitive area with lots of organs on both sides of your spine). And don’t roll instead of seeking medical treatment for an injury. If you have persistent knee or hip pain and have tried rolling for a few workouts without any improvement, it’s time to seek out advice from a pro, says Shane.

3 Foam Rolling Moves For Beginners

Ready to roll? The following moves are a good place to start:

Quads: If you’re hunched over a desk all day, your quads don’t extend to their full length; rolling helps to release them. And if you work out a lot, rolling your quads before a high-intensity workout helps release overworked muscles and prevent injuries.

How to: Position yourself in a forearm plank, with the roller placed at the top of your thighs. Roll down both thighs at same time, working in thirds. Stop one inch above your knee.

Side quads: Rolling out your is overrated—it’s ineffective and painful. Instead, focus on the muscles on the sides of your thighs (a.k.a your side quads), which can get knots, especially if you work out a lot. “Rolling your side quads relieves the pressure on the IT band,” says Shane.

How to: Start in a forearm side plank, with the foam roller at the top of your thigh. (You’ll know you’re accidentally on your IT band if it hurts a lot.) Roll out in thirds, being sure to stop one inch above your knee.

Shoulders and spine: This exercise is great if you work a desk job, as it decompresses your spine and helps open up your chest and shoulders.

How to: Lie with the foam roller positioned dirctly along the line of your spine. Keep your knees bent and your feet on the ground. Spread your arms wide, palms facing up. Move your arms up and down like snow angel. Stop when you find a spot where your arms feel like they want to drop. Relax and breathe for a couple of minutes, allowing your shoulders and chest to stretch.


This article was originally published on Women’s Health US.

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