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Workout Wednesday: Are You Foam Rolling Correctly?


Foam rollers—those foam sticks that look a little like the noddles your kids play with in the swimming pool—are just about everywhere these days. I’ve seen them at the gym and at the doctor’s office.

I know a few people that even keep one or two at home, but many people have the same questions: What is a foam roller and what is it used for?

What is Foam Rolling?

Photo Credit: Rachel Kramer Bussel
Photo Credit: Rachel Kramer Bussel

Foam rolling has been on the scene for a while now, and if you think it sounds interesting, you’re right. Done with a simple elongated cylinder of foam (such as the one seen in the picture to the left), foam rolling is a form of self-massage. For example, if you want to massage your back (or relieve pain), you lie down with the roller under your back and roll up and down.

While referred to as a form of self-massage, foam rolling also offers a number of other benefits when it comes to exercise recovery and general health as well.

What are some of the other benefits?

Perhaps the most popular use of a foam roller is self-massage (it is more wallet-friendly and efficient, after all), but there are a number of other great benefits as well (Source/Source).

  • It helps break up scar tissue, relieves pain and supports a better state of overall health
  • Foam rolling supports a release of tension in your muscles, which can improve your range of motion and your flexibility
  • It may help you avoid injuries in the future by helping to lower stress and keep your muscle loose
  • Foam rolling may help release knots and tension, and help relieve sore spots, helping you to feel less stressed overall
  • It can help you save money over the long-term by offering hours of self-massage so you don’t have to break the bank to book a masseuse
  • Foam rolling is also great for improving overall circulation, but also helps to remove toxins by stimulating your lymphatic system

Foam Rolling the Correct Way

While it’s true that foam rollers seem to be everywhere now, that doesn’t mean that everyone is using them correctly. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE):

“Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release that is designed to work out the knots in your muscles. Fascia is a form of connective tissue that wraps and bundles muscles together. Myofascial adhesions can develop through stress, training, overuse, underuse, movement imbalances and injuries. They are essentially points of constant tension and addressing them can have a positive effect on your workouts. Ignoring them can lead to further dysfunction and may perpetuate and/or cause injury” (Source).

Form and technique are just as important when foam rolling as they are with any other type of exercise. Just like those other exercises, there’s a wrong way and a right way of foam rolling.

Common Mistakes

Foam rolling may look easy enough, and when it comes down to it, it really is. However, there are a number of things that many people are doing incorrectly, and all of these things have an effect on how beneficial foam rolling can be.

  1. Rolling directly where pain is felt. According to Dr. Mercola, “A painful area may be the result of tension imbalances elsewhere in your body. It’s often best to roll just a few inches away from a highly sensitive area first, then use bigger sweeping motions to cover the whole area” (Source).
  2. Rolling too quickly. You might think it feels better to roll at a quicker pace, but, in reality, when you do so, you’re not actually getting rid of adhesions. Your brain has to have the time to tell your muscles to relax, and foam rolling too fast doesn’t allow for that.
  3. Rolling with bad posture and form. You might not think posture is a big deal, but it is. Your body has to be held in certain positions over the foam roller. For example, when you roll your quads, your body is in much the same position as if you were holding a plank. Posture is important. Without it, you could be risking injury.
  4. Spending too much time on one spot. If you have a knot, it’s only normal to want to focus on getting rid of it. Many people spend up to 10 minutes do so, but that’s never a good idea. According to the MyFitnessPal blog, “if you place sustained pressure on one body part, you might actually hit a nerve or damage the tissue, which can cause bruising” (Source).

Foam Rolling & Your Lower Back

As I mentioned above, foam rolling is never a good idea when it comes to your lower back. Using a roller on your back may cause your spinal muscles to contract to keep your spine protected.

Rather than risking this, you may want to try rolling nearby spots. According to Monica Vazquez, a NASM-certified personal trainer, you should “try rolling the muscles that connect to it [your lower back], including your piriforms, hip flexors, and rectus femoris” (Source).

If your lower back is a problem, Men’s Health recommends the following:

“Start seated on the foam roller, feet flat on the floor, knees bent, and your hands on the floor behind you. Cross your right leg over your left, forming a figure 4 with your legs. Rotate your hips to the right until you find a spot in that hip or glute that feels tight … Move your hips forward and back to massage any tight areas. Repeat on your left side” (Source).

Is foam rolling a regular part of your fitness routine? How often do you do it? Let us know by leaving a comment below!