How to Use a Foam Roller In Your Workout Routine (and the Benefits of Foam Rolling)

Roll your way to reducing muscle soreness, recovering faster, and enjoying more of the benefits of foam rolling.

Guide to Foam Rolling
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You're probably aware that you should stretch regularly — especially after exercise — to help your body decompress, avoid excessive soreness, and improve your range of motion. But there's another recovery-focused practice that's just as important to keep in rotation: foam rolling.

Foam rollers are cylinder-shaped objects made of — you guessed it — foam. They can be used to apply targeted pressure to your muscles pre- or post-workout, and they can make a major difference in recovery and flexibility. Research also shows foam rollers can speed up recovery and enhance overall muscular performance, as Shape previously reported. "If you are living an active lifestyle where you work out regularly, you should also be foam rolling regularly," says Hannah Corbin, a Peloton instructor who teaches foam rolling classes on the platform.

Here, learn about what foam rolling is and why it's a crucial part of any well-rounded fitness routine. Plus, learn what kind of foam roller to start with and how to perform a few key foam roller exercises.

What Is Foam Rolling?

"Literally, foam rolling involves rolling an area of the body on top of a firm foam roller to apply a deep, diffused pressure to the underlying muscle and fascia," says Elizabeth C. Gardner, M.D., orthopedic sports medicine surgeon, associate professor of clinical orthopedics at Yale School of Medicine, and head team orthopedic surgeon for Yale Athletics. ICDYK, fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds your bones, muscles, and joints, and it can get tight and decrease your range of motion, as Shape previously reported.

"There are many different ways to 'roll' and some ways will target the layers of fascia more directly and more deeply than others," explains Maggie Umberger, certified FRC mobility specialist and NASM-certified personal trainer. "In addition to rolling your body on top of or against the roller, which is a bit more surface level in terms of the way it targets facial layers, you can also find a spot that is giving you sensation, and simply breathe into that space (holding still)." In addition to rolling, you can apply targeted pressure to an especially tender spot, she adds. "For example, when foam rolling your calf, you can roll your calf on top of the roller up and down and back and forth (called cross-graining)," she explains. "Or you can let your leg rest on top of the roller and even place your other leg on top for more intensity and pressure, and you can keep your calf pinned down on the roller while flexing your foot and relaxing. "

The goal of foam rolling is to alleviate tension and soreness in your muscles. So, for example, if you've had a long run or just crushed leg day, it's a good idea to foam roll to ensure you can still get up and down the stairs without that second-day post-workout wince.

The practice has been touted as a self-myofascial release, explains Dr. Gardner. Here's how self-myofascial release works: By simulating pressure using the foam roller, your muscle and fascia's morphology changes, reducing thickness, tension, and adhesions or knots, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Self-myofascial release is meant to reduce soreness, correct muscle imbalances, improve the range of motion in the joints, reduce the impact of stress on the human movement system, relax muscles, and more, according to NASM. While the benefits of foam rolling haven't yet been proven in a significant number of studies, the current research is promising and the practice itself is relatively low-risk — so you can feel confident making foam roller exercises a part of your movement routine.

And while it's plausible that foam rolling could have that self-myofascial release-like effect, it hasn't yet been proven in a significant number of scientific studies, adds Dr. Gardner. However, the benefits of foam rolling are compelling and the practice itself is relatively low-risk, so you can feel confident adding it to your movement routine.

Foam Rolling Equipment

If you're a newbie, there are several different kinds of foam rollers and myofascial release devices on the market. From smooth to textured and short to long and roller to foam-covered balls or sticks there are plenty of options to help meet your needs. Some offer a design meant for more intense pressure, some can provide targeted pressure, and other types of foam rollers can be for general use.

Start your foam rolling journey with a smooth roller, advises Dr. Gardner. Smooth foam rollers are often less expensive and, when used, apply lighter pressure than their textured counterparts. Textured foam rollers, which often have ridges or edges, can be helpful when hoping to massage deeper knots.

"I like (a) pretty basic one," says Corbin. "I personally have every type of foam roller because my house is a glorified PT studio at this point," adding that she uses a softer, more basic foam roller for everyday foam rolling. 

The question Corbin is asked most often is whether to get a longer or shorter foam roller, and she advises going with the longer option. Longer foam rollers (around 36 inches) offer more diffused pressure and make balancing easier, while shorter foam rollers (think: 24 inches or less) can offer more targeted pressure and are more portable if you plan to travel with your roller.

The Benefits of Foam Rolling

Foam rolling can help you in a number of ways, from easing muscle pain to improving your flexibility and mobility to improving posture.

Eases muscle pain and prevents soreness

Research has shown that foam rolling immediately after exercise can help with preventing and treating soreness. In one study, pain measurements taken right after exercise and then again at 24- and 48-hour time marks showed a decreased intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (that is, when you feel sore the day or two after a tough workout). So whether you've just completed your first workout in several weeks, tried a new group fitness class, or just hit your PR on the deadlift, adding a little foam rolling afterward can help prevent future soreness.

Improves flexibility and mobility

Foam rolling doesn't just relieve tight muscles, says Corbin. "It can also help you become a better athlete because rolling increases range of motion, and it helps correct muscle imbalances from repetitive or dysfunctional movements." And research backs this up: One meta-analysis found a moderate effect of foam-rolling training on range of motion increases in the experimental compared to the control group.

Muscle imbalances are caused by stress, poor posture, repetitive movements, or injury, according to NASM. Foam rolling can help to correct those imbalances.

Efficient human movement and function require a balance of muscle length and muscle strength around a joint. If muscles are not balanced, then the associated joint is directly affected, says NASM. Take, for example, a tight pectoralis minor muscle (the thin, triangular muscle at the front of your chest, FYI). That tightness can cause a muscle imbalance in your shoulder by pulling or shifting the shoulder forward into a rounded position. And when those patterns of dysfunction aren't addressed, muscle imbalances lead to muscles on one side of a joint becoming chronically shortened and those on the other becoming chronically lengthened.

When your muscles are "stuck" (that is, tight and tense), you might begin to restrict how you move and begin to compensate. "In cycling, for example, the front of the hips, quads, and hamstrings can get tight," says Corbin. "When your hips are tight, you might start to walk in a funny manner, and then as you start to walk funny, you start to sit funny. It's like a domino effect for body fatigue."

And while studies show conflicting results, in practice, some people have reported feeling more flexible after foam rolling, at least in the short term (read: immediately after foam rolling and for the next several hours), according to Dr. Gardner. So if improving your flexibility is on your list of goals, consider adding a little foam rolling to your dynamic warm-up before your workout and perhaps your cool-down, too.

Improves posture

According to a 2019 national survey, 47 percent of people say they are concerned about their posture and its impact on their health, as Shape previously reported. And poor posture "can cause certain muscles to weaken while causing others to become overused leading to muscle imbalances," Franco Calabrese, P.T., D.P.T., clinical director at React Physical Therapy, previously told Shape. Consistent foam rolling — especially of the back, legs, and chest — can be helpful to improve posture. Foam rolling on a regular basis decreases the kind of muscle tension that can lead to poor posture, says Dr. Gardner. 

The Best Foam Rolling Exercises

Foam rolling should be the first step in your warm-up routine (even before static and dynamic stretching), and foam roller exercises can also be done after working out during your cool down, says NASM. In both circumstances, foam rolling can help increase the blood flow to your muscles; before a workout, increased blood flow helps deliver more oxygenated blood to your working muscles, and after a workout, increased blood flow carries metabolic waste (such as lactic acid, which contributes to soreness) away from the muscles and back to the kidneys, where it's then able to be removed from the body.

And when foam rolling, it's important to keep in mind what you need out of the practice. "The best foam rolling exercises are ones that target wherever you're most tight or sore," says Dr. Gardner. "Treat the body in sections, working one area at a time."

It's important to focus on your breathing while rolling back and forth over an area, adds Dr. Gardner. If you're new to foam rolling, start with just 10 seconds per area. Then, once you're more accustomed to it, you can build up to 20 or 30 seconds.

You might also consider the kind of workouts you've been doing to help determine what areas to roll, suggests Corbin. If you're a runner, for example, prioritize calf and hamstring rolling, while boxing aficionados will benefit most from focusing on shoulders and lats. Regardless of what kind of workouts you're looking to recover from or prepare for, keeping up a consistent foam rolling practice is the most important part, says Corbin.

"I think more important than the specific area [you foam roll] is the frequency," says Corbin. You'd be doing yourself a disservice if you wait too long to start, she adds.

If you're foam rolling for the first time, try these recommended exercises, demonstrated by Umberger, to start:

To roll calves:

A. Place foam roller perpendicular to legs and put right calf on top of the foam roller.

B. Cross left ankle over top of right ankle to add pressure. Roll right calf to left and right until you find a tender area. Hold there between 30 and 90 seconds.

C. Roll up slightly so foam roller moves higher on right calf and repeat.

To roll tensor fascia latae (the outer muscle of thigh): 

A. Lie on left side, placing the foam roller perpendicular to and just below left hip with left knee bent and left shin and foot on the floor. Right leg extends long with right foot on the ground.

B. Roll forward and backward on left tensor fascia latae until you find a tender area. Hold there between 30 and 90 seconds.

C. Roll down slightly so foam roller moves lower on left hip and repeat.

To roll upper back (thoracic spine): 

A. Place foam roller perpendicular to spine and lie with upper back on the roller and arms crossed over front upper body or at back of head.

B. Bend knees and put feet on the floor. Curl torso up and slowly lower back and head toward floor to arch upper back slightly. Next, roll left and right to find a tender spot. Hold there between 30 and 90 seconds.

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