The 5 Best Foam Roller Back Exercises

When you're dealing with low back pain, these mobility exercises and stretches with a foam roller can make a serious difference.

Foam Roller For Back
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Whether it's from an intense doubles tennis match or simply sitting at your desk for a few too many hours, back pain is seriously irritating (and unfortunately common — 80 percent of individuals will experience it at some point in their lifetime, according to Medical Clinics of North America). At times, the sheer annoyance of dealing with low back pain may have you searching high and low for an old heating pad buried in a closet or a last-minute massage appointment.

However, you can help ease your back pain with one simple, versatile tool: the foam roller. Foam rollers may help boost recovery and relieve soreness, whether that soreness is due to a workout or a sedentary lifestyle. As a form of self-massage, foam rolling your back may help you take some time to relax and perform some much-needed self care.

"The back is a part of your body like anything else and requires the same level of care you would give, say, your legs after leg day," explains Bethany Cook, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and the founder and owner of Be Free MIAMI. "For those who work office jobs, foam rolling your back can really help reverse poor posture and improve mobility that would otherwise be lost by working in the same hunched-over position for hours every day," she adds.

Here, learn more about the benefits of using a foam roller for back pain, what causes back pain in the first place, and the five best foam roller back exercises.

Benefits of Using a Foam Roller for Back Pain

While the scientific research on foam rolling for performance, flexibility, mobility, and recovery is mixed, there are potential benefits to be gained with few drawbacks.

Taking care of the musculature of the back should be a top priority, according to Cook. "As a physical therapist, I see a lot of injuries that are compounded by poor posture, weak back muscles, and a lack of thoracic mobility," she says, referring to the upper and middle part of your spine.

"Incorporating pulling strength exercises and spinal mobility into your weekly routine can really make a huge difference in the quality of life, especially as you age and gravity starts to take a toll on your bodies," she adds. Something as simple as lying on a foam roller for five minutes in a chest opener stretch can really go a long way in reversing the effect of sitting at a desk all day which includes rounded shoulders, tight chest muscles, and neck soreness.

"The primary way foam rolling works is via communication with the nervous system," says Cook. "Essentially, you're communicating with the brain to relax muscles in that specific area, which in turn can release tension, improve mobility, reduce pain and soreness, and decrease recovery time after workouts." Since most everyone deals with tightness, tension, and stress in their lives, anyone can benefit from foam rolling the back.

Another benefit of foam rolling is proprioception, or understanding more about where your body is in space, according to Maggie Umberger, a certified personal trainer and mobility specialist. "Typically, I like to use foam rolling to bring more awareness into my body about how I'm feeling," she says. "I like to follow up foam rolling with breathing drills and some kind of muscle activation exercise to make use of that temporary new available space and awareness." Using a foam roller in this way pre-workout can help set you up for a more productive workout by encouraging a better mind-muscle connection.

What Causes Sore Back Muscles?

Sore back muscles are a common complaint, especially for those who sit for much of the day (read: almost anyone who works an office or WFH job). Other culprits include your workouts, poor posture, sitting or standing in the same position for a prolonged period of time, and your sleep position, as well as mattresses that do not provide adequate support, according to Cook.

Strengthening your back muscles is the best way to combat soreness, but workouts themselves can lead to delayed-onset-muscle soreness (DOMS), something that foam rolling may be able to help alleviate.

The Best Foam Rolling Exercises for the Back

As you follow these foam roller for back exercises (as demonstrated by Umberger), use your breath as a guide. "If you find a spot that feels so intense that you can't take natural, deep breaths through your nose, that spot might be too much to spend time on," says Umberger. "See if you can adjust the roller slightly to find a spot that might still give you some sensation but is still a place you can work with and breathe into."

According to Umberger, the goal isn't how much surface area can you cover, it's more about finding those small adjustments or micro-movements with the roller that help you apply pressure in a unique and individualized way that will be most helpful for you. "Remember that foam 'rolling' can actually mean moving a tool into a fixed spot, then staying, holding, and breathing deeply," she says. With each exercise below, try out a few of the bigger movements with the roller that help you find where you want to focus, then find stillness and take long, slow, steady inhales into the spot on the roller you feel sensation, and relax your body over the roller even more as you exhale.

How to add these best foam roller for back exercises to your workouts: Foam rolling is a great way to warm up and prep soft tissue, according to Cook. "It's also a great way to cool down after workouts, decrease DOMS, and improve recovery time," she adds. Spending 30 to 90 seconds on an area is all you really need to reap the benefits.

1. Thoracic Spine Roll and Extension

Why it works: Using a foam roller for this portion of your back will help you bring awareness to the area and provide you the opportunity to breathe into this space, according to Umberger. "When you're working out, keep that awareness and continue to breathe into your back here in order to maintain proper breathing mechanics that will help you move most efficiently and safely."

A. Place the foam roller perpendicular to spine along the bottom of shoulder blades. Rest hips and glutes on the floor with knees bent and feet flat. Support the head by lightly holding back of head, elbows out wide.

B. Engage abs by tilting pelvis up toward ceiling and slowly move spine along the roller while focusing on breath.

C. Wherever you feel a portion of back that gives you more sensation, pause and take a longer inhale through nose and slowly exhale through nose or mouth. Moving back and forth will give you a sense of where to pause and spend more time.

D. If a spot feels particularly tense, stay there and move spine into flexion and extension over the roller (as shown below) by tilting chest up and down while keeping abs engaged in order to prevent excessive arching of lumbar spine (lower back).

2. Lats and Posterior Rotator Cuff Roll

Why it works: "Even though foam rolling will only temporarily grant you more flexibility, this area of your body may feel pretty tight if you are an active individual," says Umberger. Foam rolling your lats and posterior rotator cuff (rear shoulder and back muscles that work to stabilize your shoulder), and your thoracic spine may improve your overhead range of motion temporarily. Follow up using a foam roller for back muscles with light activation (such as a light banded lat pull-down) to use that range of motion before overhead pressing movements such as the shoulder press.

A. Place the foam roller perpendicular to spine along the bottom of shoulder blades. Rotate so that right side of torso is on the foam roller, placing right elbow on the ground and left hand on top of the foam roller as needed for support. Right leg extends long and left leg is bent with left foot on floor.

B. Rock gently right to left over the top of the roller, leaning backward and forward slightly to find tight muscles. Start underneath right armpit and gradually move to roll behind the armpit and back of rotator cuff (as shown below).

3. Quadratus Lumborum (QL) Roll

Why it works: "In addition to breathing in your back along the area of your thoracic spine, it's important to breathe lower down into your back and side body, too," says Umberger. Foam rolling around your quadratus lumborum, which is the muscle on the lower back and side, and especially pairing your rolling exercises with the breath, will help you feel what it's like to breathe into that space and to continue to do so while you're working out, according to Umberger.

A. Place the foam roller perpendicular to spine along lower back. Rotate so that right side of torso is on the foam roller, placing right elbow on the ground and left hand on top of the foam roller as needed for support. Right leg extends long and left leg is bent with left foot on floor.

B. Rock gently right to left over the top of the roller, leaning backward and forward slightly to find tight muscles. As you place weight on top of the roller, pause to breathe and try to relax body.

C. Add more intensity by placing left leg in front for more downward pressure or gently push left foot into the ground to move body gently up and down.

4. Glute Roll

Why it works: "In addition to temporarily giving you more range of motion (which you can then use to create more space in the back of your hip socket through some light activation and stretching), breathing while foam rolling your glutes can help you relax," explains Umberger. A common area for tension is your hips, which leads to clenched glutes (the next time you're just standing around, notice if you're clenching your glutes without realizing it!), but foam rolling can help you bring more awareness to this area and help you remember to let go if you've been clenching, according to Umberger.

A. Place the foam roller perpendicular to spine along tops of hips and glutes. Rotate so that right glute is on the foam roller, placing right hand on the ground for support. Both knees are bent with feet flat on floor.

B. Move gently up and down or side to side at the top of glutes and just over the top of the back of pelvis, pausing anywhere that you feel sensation for an extra long, slow, deep breath.

5. Chest Expansion

Why it works: If you spend a lot of time on computers or your phone for many hours a day, that position can lead to a forward-leaning or hunched-over posture. "If you are consistently in this posture, the tissues on the front side of your chest can become overly shortened," explains Umberger. "Positioning your spine on the roller will give you awareness of breathing into your back, as stated before (which is super important!), and this position, in particular, will also give you the opportunity to breathe into your back and your chest at the same time." Chest expansion will help you notice compensation by arching your back to breathe. "If it's hard to get a good breath in, this may be a position you want to spend more time in daily so you can work on using your breath to help you regain an open chest and improve your posture overall," says Umberger.

A. Place the roller so that it lines up with spine, and lie on the roller so that head and hips are supported.

B. Keep ribs anchored down on the roller and bring arms out to a goal post position, with elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Pause and breathe for 5 breaths.

C. With arms still in goal post position, slide arms up and down any amount, only moving arms up as far as you can while keeping hands and forearms anchored on the ground. Focus on breathing into back and moving from the bottom of shoulder blades.

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