7 Common Foam Rolling Mistakes You're Probably Making

Muscle recovery is crucial to your performance, but could you be doing more harm than good when rolling out muscles with a foam roller?

two people in a gym using foam rollers and rolling out muscles
Photo: Alvarez / Getty Images.

After you get through that brutal HIIT class or long run, your muscles are most likely going to be sore. Those hardworking muscles were broken down during exercise and need rest to repair themselves, so if you don't give your body some TLC and sufficient time to recover, you'll increase your risk of an overuse injury. One solution? That trusty foam roller.

It's become super popular to use a foam roller after working out, as you're able to really hit those trigger points and soothe aching muscles from all different angles. Foam rolling is a way to target fascia — aka the connective tissue that surrounds your bones, muscles, and joints — which can get tight. In fact, some gyms and trainers even offer specific foam rolling recovery class workouts dedicated to the practice of rolling out muscles.

It seems too simple to mess up, right? Turns out, in some cases, you can actually be doing more harm than good: There are specific moves and techniques to foam roll the right way so that you're boosting recovery and healing muscles without causing any additional pain — or just wasting your time.

Common Foam Rolling Mistakes

If you're using a foam roller, your muscles are probably already feeling sore — so you're going to want to avoid common mistakes and stick to recommended best practices. Here, experts weigh in on the common foam rolling mistakes you might be making and what to do when you're rolling out muscles instead.

Using the Wrong Pressure

When it comes to foam rolling, there's a sweet spot in terms of pressure. It's common to either use too much or too little — but either way, you won't be able to repair damaged muscle tissue appropriately.

"It may take a while for the muscle you're working on to relax," says Chris Aronsen, a NASM-certified senior fitness specialist and ACE-certified personal trainer in New York City. "I prefer a slower to medium speed, as I find it's more effective at releasing tension without causing excess strain," he adds.

Also, not all areas of the body are equal: Some muscles have trigger points or get tighter than others. Using the same pressure for every spot isn't smart, says Aronsen. "Some areas you work on may not have much tension, while other areas might have a lot. Apply your pressure accordingly, and remember: Your body will tell you what it needs," he explains.

It's tough to know what pressure is best. It shouldn't feel comfortable when you're rolling out muscles, especially when hitting trigger points. If you feel no discomfort, your pressure is probably too light. But if you start to feel excruciating pain, you'll want to pull back. Mild discomfort, with steady pressure, is to be expected, says Aronsen. You'll also want to avoid rolling too fast over each section, as there's usually not enough pressure provided.

Spending Too Long On Specific Areas

Although some areas are tenser than others, you don't want to overdo it by staying too long on a given spot. "Recommended times on any area would be 30 seconds to a minute," says Susie Lemmer, a NASM-certified personal trainer and running coach in Chicago. "For 30 seconds, hold the muscle over the roller and apply consistent pressure, then spend another 30 seconds to one minute of dynamic pressure, exploring the fascia," she explains. Dynamic pressure means you'll be moving the foam roller, as opposed to static pressure where you'd hold it in one place. "Start with static, then go to dynamic," advises Lemmer.

A great way to explore the fascia and foam roll effectively is to keep the roller in one place as you twist side to side and then move your body across it up and down the length of the muscle — you move as it moves, says Lemmer.

Foam Rolling a Cold Muscle

When you spend too long on one spot, you risk bruising and injury, especially when you do it before a workout on a "cold" muscle (aka a muscle that hasn't been warmed up through activity), says Lemmer. However, "you can foam roll a 'cold' muscle much more safely than static or dynamic stretching a cold muscle," she says. "In fact, self-myofascial release (foam rolling) is a recommended first step in your warm-up," she notes.

The risks of rolling out muscles improperly are on par with getting too severe a massage — bruising, most of all. If you get bruised from foam rolling, you'll probably want to ice it. "And any sort of swelling or loss of function, range of motion, or strength — see a doctor immediately," says Lemmer.

When rolling a cold muscle, you'll want to ease into it with a softer pressure at first to avoid further damaging the fascia and causing inflammation. Also, if you're moving the foam roller too aggressively over a cold muscle specifically, it can damage muscle tissue and make aches even worse. Instead, you'll want to keep the roller still and shift your body gently to allow the body to generate heat and warm up a bit to loosen tense points.

Rolling In Only One Direction

"Fascia run in all directions, so you want to make sure that you cover all of them," says Lemmer. First, start by keeping the roller stationary, and twist your limb side to side (like a screwdriver). Then roll the length of the muscle, recommends Lemmer.

Attacking Knots Head-On

"You often hear about people 'rolling out their knots,' but you should think of the fascia as bands held in tension between two poles," says Lemmer. "If you can get the fascia above and below the knots to loosen up first, you will have a much easier go at loosening the knot, and, in fact, may be able to then just do a light rolling over the place of discomfort," she explains.

And you want to be careful when digging deep into trigger points. "Trigger points are generally places where knots can form, or that cause acute pain because they hold a great amount of tension," says Lemmer. They can also be a place where a lot of nerves come together. In these cases, foam rolling can either work wonders or be completely useless or harmful if done incorrectly, she says.

"Remember, you are desensitizing the overactive area of muscle with foam rolling," says James Shapiro, a NASM-certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist based in Los Angeles. "You may experience tingling, pulsing, or limbs 'falling asleep.' That's when you should move your location or change position. It indicates you're pressuring nerves improperly or limiting blood flow," he advises.

Rolling the Wrong Areas

Most muscles are fair game; however, there are a few body parts you shouldn't touch," says Lemmer. The biggest mistake? Rolling your IT band. For one, it literally cannot be loosened. "The IT band is actually a thick band of ligament that cannot be expressed or loosened," says Lemmer. "If you have 'tight IT bands,' instead focus on glute rolling, quadriceps, and around the knee. Then do direct strengthening and physical therapy designed to strengthen the glutes to take the pressure off of the IT band and decrease the likelihood of IT band syndrome," she says.

Other areas to steer clear of include the low back, neck, and pubis region. "There simply isn't enough dense muscle tissue in those areas for rolling to be safe and effective," says Shapiro. "For example, low-back issues are more related to your mid-thoracic region and hips rather than the low back," and exacerbated with poor posture, he says.

"By rolling the pec muscles out, and hips and quads, it can help refresh your body from poor posture," says Jennifer McCamish, a certified Pilates instructor and the owner of Shape Method Pilates. "Lie on your belly and place one arm over the roller at the armpit area. Lean some body weight into the pec and gently roll into the torso and out toward the biceps area," she explains.

Another safe option for rolling out muscles in the lower back is to use a tennis ball instead of a foam roller, which can help avoid injury. "Some people enjoy using a tennis ball to get deeper into more specific smaller areas. I like to recommend placing two tennis balls in a sock to keep the tennis balls in place on either side of the spine in the muscle [so] as to not damage or press the vertebrae," says McCamish.

Starting In the Wrong Place

In general, you should work from a place of comfort toward discomfort, says Lemmer. Likewise, "you wouldn't start a workout by sprinting without warming up your muscles," she says.

So pick areas with the least tightness to start with, then move your way to the tensest. As you go from one place to the next, don't move too quickly from one muscle group to the next. "People who roll too fast are simply doing it wrong," says McCamish.

When beginning to roll a specific area, "start at the origin of the muscle and slowly roll to the insertion of the muscle to release fascia most comfortably and effectively," says McCamish. A good general rule for understanding origin-to-insertion is to start closest to the core, or center of the body, such as the shoulder or pelvic girdle, she says. For example, to roll out your quads or hamstrings, "start around the pelvis in the meaty part of the muscle (not the joint itself) and slowly roll away from the pelvis until you get to the top of the knee," she advises.

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