By Justin Gibson, BS, CSCS
Foam rolling is the raw broccoli of the fitness world. It’s not fun or exciting, most people hate it, and I, personally, would give it up forever without a second thought if I didn’t know that it was good for me. See this guy?
His smile is a lie. He’s laying a big, dense muscle on a small surface area, and it hurts. It’s like falling on your keys, if you then had to slide your keys down your leg and back up eight to twelve times. My guess is the photographer snapped the picture while saying, “You can stop now. You never have to do it again.”
Unfortunately for me (and almost all of my clients), foam rolling works. Even more unfortunately, it works really well, causing immediate improvements with relatively short doses. It increases mobility and flexibility by loosening up the soft tissue surrounding and pulling on joints, and can therefore -quite paradoxically, in my opinion- help to relieve pain in said joints. The reason I highlight the pain aspect is not to turn you off to the idea, but to emphasize that the benefits are so vast they make the pain worth it.
If you’ve never heard of foam rolling, think of it as a poor man’s massage therapy. You’re using this giant, firm foam cylinder (or a lacrosse ball, or a golf ball, or two tennis balls taped together; really anything you’re willing to put weight on) to mash into your muscles to make them relax a bit and change how they pull on your joints. In particular, you’re looking for “trigger points”; small areas in the tissue that are knotted up like a wrinkle in a shirt. You can think of foam rolling as “ironing out your muscles”.
How is foam rolling different than stretching?
To mix my metaphors a bit, think of your muscles as an elastic band. Stretching the band with enough intensity and regularity will cause it to rest at a longer length. That’s how stretching works: you’re not actually making the muscle longer, you’re just getting it to relax into a different position.
Now imagine that someone tied knots in that elastic band. The knotted area wouldn’t stretch very well, or even contract very well, and it would affect how the band performs. Foam rolling “unravels the knots”, and gets the band to work better.
Full disclosure:, this isn’t a perfect metaphor, because foam rolling actually affects the fascia that surrounds the muscle rather than the muscle itself. But the purposes of this introductory article, let’s just leave it at that, shall we?
How do I use a foam roller?
To a certain extent, it really is as simple as getting down on the ground and mashing the area you want to get at against the roller. There are, however, a few guidelines:
-Don’t roll a flexed muscle. The goal is relaxation, and flexing a muscle works in the exact opposite direction of that goal.
-Yes, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. If you don’t feel anything, you’re either not applying enough pressure to the area or that area isn’t in need of rolling.
-No, it’s not supposed to feel like hot liquid death. The point of rolling is to get the area to relax, and if you have to bite down on a stick like a civil war soldier getting his leg amputated, it’s too much pressure to be doing you any good. Ease off.
-The firmer the implement, the more intense the massage. Rollers vary in firmness from dish sponge to lead pipe, so use one that suits your level of tension.
-The more weight you have on the implement, the more pressure it applies to the area. I know, duh, but that means you can make a roll more or less intense by positioning yourself differently on the roller. You can even roll against the wall rather than on the floor, but I get to call you a weenie.
-Roll slowly. You’re not trying to sand off the area, you’re trying to get it to relax.
-Breathe deeply and slowly through every roll. You’re trying to — have I said “relax” a bunch already? It feels like I have, but you get the point.
Most importantly, the effects should be immediately apparent. After sixty seconds -maximum- of rolling, the area should feel looser, and the affected joint should feel better. For example, if your knee bugs you when you squat, try rolling your IT band on the outside of your leg. After you’re done, get up and bend your knee a few times. Do the same motion that bugged your knee prior to rolling. If it feels better, getting your IT band to chill out will be beneficial for your knees, and you should make it a habit. If it doesn’t, and you’re totally sure you rolled correctly, then your IT band probably isn’t the issue. Don’t put yourself through the pain if it’s not going to do you any good.
What areas should I roll, and how?
Now isn’t that a can of worms. There’s a whole assessment process to determine what areas on a given individual need release, and it can get pretty complex. Like, “you need to step on a golf ball 2.4 inches below the 4th toe on your left foot to relieve the pain on the outside of your right elbow” levels of complex.
Luckily for you, I’m not that smart, and I need simple, straightforward rolls to address common problems. Here are problem areas I most often encounter with my clients, and the rolls that seem to help them:
Issue: Achy Feet
-for those with plantar fasciitis, shin splints, or just tight ankles
1. Ball of Foot
-Great for the end of long day or the start of a long workout. Relax your toes, and apply pressure up and down the arch of your foot
-Mandatory for runners. Seriously, don’t question me. Focus on the meaty part of your lower leg. Be sure to rotate your calf to get the inside and outside parts as well.
-Also mandatory for runners, as these guys are your “brakes”. The outside of your lower leg is where most people feel shin splints, so show them some love.
Issue: Creaky Knees
-for general pain in the front of the knee
1. Quadriceps (front of thigh)
-my fellow squat-lovers often need this guy to calm down a bit. Relax the quads, and roll from the top of your knee to your hip
2. IT Band (Outside of Thigh)
-Short for Iliotibial band, this thick, fibrous band goes from your iliac crest (your hip) to your tibia (your lower leg) and it affects how your kneecap tracks when you bend your knee. Tilt slightly toward the front of your thigh, about 15 degrees past the outside seam of your pants
3. Adductor (Inside of Thigh)
-you’ll get some weird looks for this one, but this guy can pull your lower leg into a bad angle if he’s angry. Focus on the area just above your knee,turn your hip in about 15 degrees toward the front, and please don’t hate me.
Issue: Cranky Shoulders
-for high mileage shoulders that need to keep going.
1. Upper Back (between the shoulder blades)
-Okay, it’s not right on the shoulder, but if your shoulder blades are glued together your shoulder mobility will be shot. Free up your upper back, and your shoulders will thank you. Give yourself a nice hug to pull your shoulder blades apart to get to the tissue underneath.
2. Armpit (The front of your shoulder around to the back)
-This one basically gets everything that might be tight underneath your shoulder. Use the roller to mash the front of your shoulder, then roll back to get the pec, the top of the lat, and the rear delt, making small up-and-down rolls on any spots that jump out at you.
3. Front of Shoulder
-put your hand behind your back, and use the fingers on the other hand to dig around for a spot at the top of that shoulder. It should be just south of the bony part up top, and you’ll know when you find it. If your fingers get tired, use a lacrosse ball and mash that area against a wall, making very small circles over that spot.
There are a ton of ways to use a foam roller that I didn’t list here, but these are some of the rolls I use most often in my sessions. It’s also important to know that paint rarely falls neatly into categories like the ones I’ve laid out above. Sometimes a tight ankle is what’s causing knee pain, and sometimes stiff shoulders are paving the way for back problems. Fortunately, as I’ve said before, foam rolling doesn’t take a “wait and see” approach to effectiveness; either you relax the tissue that was contributing to the pain and it feels better, or you don’t. Some further research and experimentation will help you find what works best for you. And, of course, it’s never a bad idea to consult a qualified Physical Therapist or Personal Trainer, perhaps one at a reputable medical fitness facility.
As miserable as soft tissue work can be, there is a reason I put myself and all of my clients through the pain. Foam rolling can be a quick, inexpensive way to get out of pain and pave the way for an epic training session. The next time you go to the gym, go to where you thought they were keeping those huge pool noodles and see if you can’t start dealing with some old injuries. You’ll hate me for the very idea at first, and then you’ll reluctantly start to agree.
Justin is a personal trainer at Body Structure Medical Fitness in Lexington, Kentucky