When it comes to staying fighting fit and gym-ready, it’s vital that your recovery as seriously as you take dumbbell exercises or mastering the latest clean variation. We’re not talking about a cursory calf stretch at the start or end of a session, either. To properly improve flexibility, reduce joint stress and speed up muscle recovery through improved circulation, you need invest in a foam roller. And no that’s not something you’ll find in your local hardware store.
“A foam roller is a padded piece of equipment that aids in the application of pressure to your fascia, a connective tissue that layers your muscles,” explains Leo Savage, a trainer at London’s Third Space gym. “By rolling out, you’ll loosen the fascia, subsequently increasing your circulation and improving your mobility. Regularly rolling out aids with injury prevention as you eliminate scar tissue and release trigger points that would ultimately restrict movement and increase your injury risk.”
In other words, if you want to keep training, you have to take care of your biomechanics. Which is true for both the amateur athlete whose body might not be ready for the strains of exercise, and the seasoned pro, who hits the gym one too many times each week.
It’s not just the PTs who back foam rolling, either. A plethora of recent studies have backed up the call to include one in your gym bag. Research from the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation found that just two minutes of foam rolling can improve knee range of movement by 12.7%, as well as lessening the impact of delayed onset muscle soreness. Other studies show that regular foam rolling can improve long-term flexibility, as well as improving strength and speed. It’s time to roll out the benefits.
How To Use a Foam Roller
As with any gym equipment technique is everything, and a bad workman blames his tools. “A tool is as good as its user,” says Ricky Warren, head coach at Body Weight Gurus. “Most commonly, a foam roller’s large surface area makes it ideal for use on the back and legs. It should be used daily to keep the body supple.”
After a heavy sweat it’s tempting to just bash out a few minutes with the foam roller before calling it a day. But, as with almost anything in life, you’ll benefit from a more relaxed and considered approach: you get out what you put in.
“The most common mistakes people make [with a foam roller] are going too fast and rushing past the hard or painful bits,” says Warren. No pain, no gain and all that. “Also, rolling too much aggravates the tissue: better to hold the roller in one place, let your nervous system relax, then start moving with super slow motion.”
Savage agrees that slow and steady wins the race. “Start by only putting half of your body weight on the roller, using your hands on the floor to adjust, then slowly work into full bodyweight. Start off gentle and slow. Some areas may be more sensitive or tighter than others. Pause briefly as you roll over these spots as you want to release tension and increase blood flow to these areas.”
Luke Worthington, a trainer and expert in human movement and elite performance, has a more detailed prescription. “I would suggest 30-40 seconds per body part, with around 12-15 rolls. A little discomfort is okay, but don’t push so hard as to cause bruising. I get my clients to use it before every training session, which amounts to rolling 3-4 times per week.”
Crucially, Worthington warns that you should never use a foam roller over genuinely torn or damaged tissue. Training aches and pains are there to be dealt with, but long-term injuries – or something that’s causing you real pain – should be looked at by a physiotherapist, or sports physician.
“The foam roller is not a magic bullet for injury recovery,” says Worthington. “It’s a way to get tight muscles to relax for a while so you can train more effectively.” Work a foam rolling session into the beginning or end of every training session as a supplement to your usual mobility regime and you’ll feel like a lithe leopard of a man in no time.
The Best Foam Roller Brands
The average gym will have a few foam rollers to hand. But if you want to practice your mobility at home, you might want to invest in your own equipment. As a bonus, it won’t be soaked in the sweat of strangers, either. Here, Ricky Warren breaks down his favourites.
Trigger Point Performance
Trigger Point Performance produces a range of mobility products, from hand-held massage kits to a variety of foam rollers. Its extremely solid rollers are best for dealing with superficial complaints, while the hollow rollers are better suited to attacking deeper, longer lasting muscle complaints.
Simple, but effective, and not technically a foam roller, Warren recommends Peak Supps’ green silicone ball for specific muscle release. Use it on tight forearms, lats, hamstrings, shoulder blades and more for targeted relief and prevention.
Gaiam produces foam rollers in a range of colours and patterns. Some are smooth cylinders, while others are ridged for a deeper massage. One thing they have in common, though, is their slightly softer material, making them ideal for the older gym user.
The Rumble Roller range features larger spikes and modulated surfaces for an increased pressure range – meaning you can press deeper to get to the root of and musculature sticking points. What’s more, they also comes endorsed by mobility guru Kelly Starrett.
Taking the idea of the foam roller one step further, the Vyper series from Hyperice uses vibrations to encourage muscle penetration – think of it as a thousand mini massages. The 2.0 model features three speed settings, focused on warming up, muscle activation and recovery respectively.
5 Essential Foam Rolling Exercises
As mentioned, foam rolling is a fantastic way to relieve injuries and biomechanical sticking points. It loosens up joints, improving blood flow which in turn carries the material required to fix injuries, and helps wash away toxins and inflammation-causing chemicals. To help you stay supple, Luke Grahame from Roar Fitness talks us through the moves that will keep you agile and in the game.
1. Calf Roll-Out
Best for Dynamic Movement
Tight calves can restrict proper movement of the foot, which can in turn negatively affect everything from your running gait to squat and lunge technique.
To stretch them out, sit down with one leg extended in front. Place the roller under the calf of the outstretched leg and roll heavily along the length of the calf muscle. Roll one calf at a time and pay equal attention to the inside and outside edges of the muscle. Two minutes per leg should do it.
Best for: running and dynamic movement
2. IT Band Burnout
The nemesis of committed runners, tight IT bands can cause serious knee and hip pain if left unaddressed. Be warned, this is not for the faint hearted as the IT band is one of the most painful spots to foam roll. Your knee health is worth it though, so grit your teeth and get it done.
The IT band runs down the outside of the leg between the knee and the hip. Place the roller on the floor, and lie on your side with the roller underneath the outside of the bottom leg, pressing heavily into the IT Band. Use your supporting arm to move yourself heavily over the roller, massaging the full length of the IT band. Use your free arm to muffle the inevitable screams when you first try this.
Best for: loosening your hips
3. Glute Massage
Tight glutes can contribute to lower back pain, and even sciatica due to inflamed soft tissue compressing the sciatic nerve. The correct trigger point can be tricky to find initially but (much like the IT band) once you find it, you certainly know about it.
Sit on top of the foam roller with your weight shifted onto the side of the glute. Once you’ve identified the painful hotspot, use small rocking motions to massage the area as any large movements will upset your position.
Best for: back pain
4. Lateral Level Up
The Latissimus Dorsi (the ‘pulling’ muscles in your back) also function as internal rotators of the shoulder, meaning that short, tight lats result in hunched shoulders and chimp-like posture.
To correct this, lie on your side with the roller under your armpit, pushing into the meat of your lats. As well as rolling the length of the muscle (armpit to hip), rocking from front to back over the roller is also an effective way to release this notoriously tight muscle group.
Best for: desk shoulders
5. Thoracic Spine Back Up
Rolling the thoracic spine differs slightly from the other spots as you are not necessarily releasing soft tissue but instead helping a restricted spine move in order to improve your posture.
Lie on your back with the foam roller running along the length of your spine. The top end should be just underneath your shoulder blades. Raise your glutes up off the floor in order to put maximum weight on the roller. Start moving up and down the length of the spine (limiting the movement to a few inches each way). Relax your shoulders as you roll to increase the effectiveness of this technique.
Best for: Good posture