If you experience stress or regularly exercise, your muscles will thank you mightily if you use a foam roller. “Foam rolling is a great way to increase circulation, improve mobility and tissue extensibility, decrease pain, and speed up the healing and recovery time of muscles after a workout,” says physical therapist Alison McGinnis at Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York City.
But that’s not all. “Foam rolling addresses muscle adaptations from poor posture, repetitive activities, dysfunctional movement patterns, and exercise. It has effects on both your musculoskeletal system and nervous system to address inflammation, muscle spasms, and muscular adhesions,” she says. If that laundry list of body benefits sounds good to you, read on.
What Does a Foam Roller Do?
By placing your body weight on a cylindrical-shaped roller, you “create a pressure gradient along the tissue you’re rolling,” says McGinnis. This pressure works twofold: It moves fluid out of the muscle so that new blood can enter the tissues, hydrating the muscles and increasing functionality. If done long enough, it stimulates the neural receptors in the skin and muscles that McGinnis says creates an inhibitory response in the muscle to reduce trigger-point activity, decrease pain, and allow muscle fibers to relax and realign.
Certainly if you exercise regularly, you’ll want to acquaint your body with a foam roller. But even if you’re not actively burning calories, McGinnis says that daily tasks — walking around the house, carrying a purse, sitting for prolonged periods, squatting and lifting items, etc. — all take a toll on your body, and rolling out your muscles will keep you healthy and limber, especially later in life. “As we age, our connective tissues stiffen and our day-to-day activities tend to require less mobility than when we were kids, so we slowly begin to lose access to the end ranges of some of our joints,” McGinnis explains. “Foam rolling is a great way to maintain supple muscles as we age.”
The Best Time to Use a Foam Roller
Feeling stiff when you first wake up? Take out that foam roller first thing in the morning and give your muscles a massage that will help you limber up for the day. Stiff from sitting all day at work or having issues falling asleep? McGinnis says that foam rolling prior to bed can help alleviate pain. “If you’re trying to add it to your workout, foam rolling before exercise is a great warm-up, as it increases blood flow to the tissues and releases any knots or tension in the muscles, and can be used after exercise to flush out toxins that have built up in the muscles and can help reduce soreness,” she adds.
Is There a Proper Way to Foam Roll?
Slow and steady wins the foam rolling race, according to McGinnis. Additionally, foam rolling, though uncomfortable if you’re particularly tight, shouldn’t be so painful that your body tenses up. If this happens, McGinnis recommends, “taking some deep breaths and relaxing into the roller, allowing the roller to sink into the muscle as deeply as it can.” Still too tense? Decrease the intensity by balancing less of your body weight on the roller. Or simply skip that spot for the day and work on the surrounding tissues.
For spot-specific rolling on long muscles, such as the quads, McGinnis suggests starting at one end and moving in a 2-to-1-inch pattern toward the other end: “Move away 2 inches then return back 1 inch, then repeat until you reached the other end of the muscle,” she says. When rolling smaller regions, no pattern is required; just cover the entire muscle region to get the knots out.
Finally, use those core muscles! Yes, you should “always keep your core engaged and use good form when you’re rolling, especially when laying on your stomach to roll the front of your thighs,” says McGinnis. However, avoid bracing your core and holding your breath; this causes tension.
If you have a taut muscle that needs attention, how long should you roll? “This depends on the size of the area or muscle that you’re rolling, so I tend to recommend one to two full passes in each direction, moving as slowly as possible instead of a time duration,” McGinnis says, though she does allow that this should take around a minute per muscle.
Is There a Wrong Way to Use a Foam Roller?
If a spot is beyond sore, it’s best to avoid it, especially if it’s a small, pinpoint area in a muscle that had been causing you pain before you got on the roller, McGinnis says. Instead, roll the surrounding areas that aren’t in pain.
McGinnis also advises that foam rolling is for soft tissues only. “Stay off of bones and joints,” she says.