Anyone who has ever done a high-intensity workout knows the aches and pains that can follow. Although stretching helps to prevent and ease soreness to some extent, it does nothing to relieve the muscle knots that sometimes form from repetitive action when we’ve been pushing ourselves hard.
What Causes Muscle Soreness?
When we push our bodies by doing an intense workout, it causes tiny, microscopic tears in our muscle fibers. This leads to the soreness that we feel a day or so after our workout, and is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. This is a crucial part of the process of becoming fitter because as our muscles heal, they become bigger and stronger. However, DOMS can be very painful.
In our article about post-workout massage, we explain more about what DOMS is and how massage can help our bodies recover faster.
Another source of muscle soreness is what are known as myofascial trigger points, which are hyper-irritable knots in our muscles that are often caused by muscle overuse and poor posture. Massage can help to ease out those knots and muscle tightness.
However, not everyone has access to a masseuse or a willing and able friend to give a massage after every workout. Thankfully, there is another option.
What is a Foam Roller?
Once only used by elite athletes and physical therapists, foam rollers have gone mainstream in a big way, and you can see them being used in the vast majority of gyms.
A foam roller is a short, thick cylinder. The first kind were typically made of polyethylene foam, hence their name, but designers and inventors are now experimenting with other types of foam material which give different grades of firmness.
When you roll part of your body over a foam roller, the pressure generated by your body weight produces the same effect as a deep-penetrating massage. The formal name for this action is self-myofascial release, which means self-massage that targets areas of muscle tightness.
As you move your aching muscles up and down along the foam roller, the action will work out the tightness and kinks in your muscles, meaning a quicker recovery from soreness. When used long-term, foam rollers can also help to prevent injury and give you better athletic performance.
Studies have shown that foam rollers also have beneficial effects in alleviating the pain of DOMS. The tiny tears in the muscle fiber that form as a result of a hard workout are part of the process of improving our fitness, but the pain can be intense enough to hinder our fitness routine. In a similar way to massage, using a foam roller can quicken muscle recovery and alleviate the pain associated with DOMS.
Foam rollers are not just for post-workout use. Some fitness experts advise using a foam roller before exercise in addition to stretching. There is some evidence to show that using a foam roller before a workout may actually help increase flexibility and improve performance.
In addition to their use before and after exercise, foam rollers can also help alleviate the muscle strain caused by poor posture in those among us who spend the whole day hunched in front of a computer screen.
See the exercises below on “Foam rolling your upper back” for how to ease muscle knots caused by prolonged bad posture.
Types of Foam Rollers
Foam rollers come in a huge variety of sizes, textures, and density. These variations mean that some may be more suitable for your needs than others.
The bigger the foam roller, the larger the body area it will cover. A longer foam roller is good for working on your back, if you have broad shoulders or if you want to roll both legs at the same time. However, a smaller foam roller will be more portable, meaning you can take it with you to the gym, for example, or on vacation.
Hand-held foam-rollers are good for smaller muscle groups and allow you to reach parts of the body which can be hard to get to otherwise. They also have the added benefit of allowing you more control over the pressure of the rolling.
A soft foam roller will give you a gentler massage than a hard, dense one. It might be tempting to always stick with a softer roller, but a firmer, more penetrating massage may sometimes be more beneficial for your muscles. It’s advisable to start off with a softer roller and, if that goes well, try out a firmer one to test whether it’s more effective for you.
Foam rollers can be smooth or ridged. Ridged or textured rollers may be able to help you pinpoint hard-to-reach areas. The ridges are designed to imitate the sensation of fingers massaging the muscles. Some foam rollers have large, blunt spikes, which enable them to get right into the muscles.
Vibrating Foam Rollers
Fans and developers of vibrating foam rollers believe that they are more effective at targeting trouble spots, reducing pain, and increasing relaxation. Vibration, when used in whole body vibration machines, has been proved effective in reducing the discomfort of DOMS. It is possible, although yet proven, that these effects translate across when vibration is incorporated into the targeted action of foam rollers.
Many gyms will have a variety of foam rollers, and you can try different levels of firmness, texture, and sizes to decide which will suit you best.
However, why not buy your own? With your own foam roller, you’ll be able to self-massage every time you exercise and not be restricted to gym days.
Amazon has a wide selection, sold at several different price points, most of which are far cheaper than the cost of hiring a professional masseuse after every workout.
How Do You Use a Foam Roller?
To use a foam roller, you need to roll your targeted muscle group slowly over the roller, applying moderate pressure. When you hit a tight or knotted spot, you’ll know it because of the pain. Relax and hold still over the sore spot for a few seconds, then roll slowly up and down with as much pressure as you can bear. Carry on until the muscle soreness eases up. This should take about 60 seconds.
If the tender spot is very painful, do not force yourself to roll over it directly. Try instead to apply pressure to the area surrounding it and ease the knot in that way.
There are a huge number of foam rolling exercises that you can do. Below are a just a few that target some of the major muscle groups.
Foam rolling your quads
- Kneel down on a soft surface such as an exercise mat. Place the foam roller in front of your knees. Lower yourself onto your elbows, with your thighs resting on the foam roller. Your arms should be flat in front of you, and your body held straight.
- Roll slowly up and down along the length of your thighs from your pelvis to just above your knees. If you hit a tender spot, hold your position for a few seconds, as mentioned above.
Foam rolling your glutes
- Sit on the roller with bent legs, and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Rest one hand on the floor to help support you.
- Turn towards the glute you’ll be working on, and roll slowly back and forth.
- Switch over, crossing the other leg, and work on your other glute.
Foam rolling your upper back
- Lie on your back, with the foam roller underneath your upper back.
- Fold your arms behind your head to support your neck and lift your hips off the floor.
- Roll up and down along your shoulders and upper back. You should not roll all the way down to your lower back.
Foam rolling your calves
- Sit on the floor with your foam roller under your calves.
- Raise your hips off the floor, supporting yourself with your hands.
- Roll your calves up and down over the foam roller.
Key Foam Rolling Mistakes to Avoid
If you’re convinced to go ahead and begin foam rolling, there are a few mistakes that you need to look out for if you want to be sure to gain the full benefit of foam rolling and avoid injuring yourself.
Rolling Too Fast
In order for it to work, you need to take your time while foam rolling. Moving too quickly does not allow the foam rolling action to penetrate the muscles and release knots or adhesions.
Rolling Directly Over Trouble Spots
When you come across a really painful muscle knot, do not approach it head-on. Instead, roll around it first before you roll over it. This is a more effective way of easing the knot.
The opposite problem is avoiding foam rolling altogether in areas where it hurts. When done properly at a trigger point or muscle knot, foam rolling will cause some discomfort while it releases the tension. When you hit a muscle knot, do not skip foam rolling, but roll over the areas around it in order to ease the tension.
Rolling Your Lower Back and Other Vulnerable Areas
One area of your body you should never use a foam roller on is the lower back. This is because the pressure of a foam roller directly on the spine can cause damage and injury. Foam rolling your upper back is fine because up there, the shoulder blades and muscles protect the spine. In addition to your lower back, you should never use the foam roller on your neck, kneecaps, or pubic area.
Only Foam Rolling Muscles Used Directly in Your Sport
If you are, for example, a runner, you may be tempted to use a foam roller only on those areas which you think are involved in your particular physical activity. However, because of the way our bodies work, you will be using many more muscle groups than you think. It’s important to use a foam roller over your whole body to ensure that you’re not leaving anything out.
Not Consulting Your Physician
If you have existing damage or injury to your back or spine, you need to speak to your physician before using a foam roller. This is to ensure that you do not cause yourself further harm. If you have any sort of injury or debilitating condition is also a good idea to have a physical therapist or a trainer show you how to use a foam roller correctly.
Spending Too Long On Trouble Spots
You should not spend more than 90 seconds foam rolling any muscle group. Foam rolling for too long on a trouble spot may actually worsen the problem, causing muscle damage or irritating a nerve.
Using a Foam Roller That’s Too Hard
If you’re new to foam rolling, it’s a good idea to start off with a softer roller, possibly even one without ridges. Firmer and ridged rollers give your muscles more intense pressure and, if you’ve never done this before, it is wiser to ease into it. As you make sure you’ve got the right technique and that your muscles can tolerate more pressure, you can try out a firmer roller or one with ridges.
Not Foam Rolling Before Your Workout
Along with stretching, foam rolling before your workout helps to lengthen your muscles, meaning you will perform better and have a better chance at avoiding injury. After your workout, you need to foam roll your muscles again.
Not Having A Clue Why You’re Foam Rolling
You’ve seen people at your gym using a foam roller and so, after your workout, without knowing why, you decide to have a go on it as well. Bad idea. You need to be intentional and know what muscles you’re targeting and how to target them when you’re foam rolling.
Using a foam roller without this knowledge is, at best, not beneficial and, at worst, can lead to injury. If you don’t know what you’re doing, hopefully this article has been a good place to start.
You may also want to speak to a personal trainer or a physical therapist to give you more advice.