Everything You Wanted to Know About Foam Rolling

Foam rolling has become a popular treatment option for many muscle aches and pains. The foam roller targets muscles and fascia to decrease pain and improve flexibility. This article will discuss what foam rolling can help with and which body areas you should focus on (and which to avoid). 

Benefits of Foam Rolling

Using a foam roller for your muscles and fascia has many benefits. A systematic review of the research found that foam rolling: (1) improves joint range of motion, (2) enhances muscle recovery post-exercise, and (3) reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This means that foam rolling can be used as a warm up to improve joint movement and also as a cool down to improve muscle recovery. 

The study also found that foam rolling, when combined with static stretching, might improve range of motion more than foam rolling alone. So if the goal is to improve range of motion, consider adding a static stretch after you foam roll. 

Unfortunately, the study was not able to conclude how much and how often you should be foam rolling. The most common recommendation was to foam roll for 30-60 seconds. How frequently you foam roll will most likely depend on how active you are. The more active or the higher intensity exercisers may need to foam roll more frequently than the casual exercisers. 

In short, this means that foam rolling before and after exercise for 30-60 seconds is beneficial for increasing range of motion and improving muscle recovery. Whatever your activity level, foam rolling can be a beneficial supplement to your workouts. 

Body Areas to Foam Roll 

1. Glute Foam Rolling

To perform: sit on the foam roller at a 45º angle with one leg of the glute on the foam roller crossed over the other. Slowly roll towards the belt line down towards the top of the hamstring. You can also rotate side-to-side to focus on different portions of the glute.
Helpful for: lower back pain, sciatica, piriformis syndrome
Exercise recovery: squats, deadlifts

2. Quadriceps Foam Rolling

TO PERFORM: Begin lying face down with the quads on the foam roller. Slowly roll up towards the hip and down towards the knee (but not on the knee). To increase the pressure, switch to a single quad on the foam roller.
HELPFUL FOR: Quadriceps strain, patellar tendinopathy, patellar tracking disorder (patellofemoral arthralgia)
EXERCISE RECOVERY: Squats, lunges, running

3. Calf Foam Rolling

TO PERFORM: Start with the calves on the foam roller then lift your hips off of the ground. Slowly roll from above the achilles tendon to just below the back of the knee. To increase the pressure, switch to a single calf on the foam roller.
HELPFUL FOR: Calf strain, achilles tendinopathy, ankle dorsiflexion
EXERCISE RECOVERY: Running, sprinting, jumping

4. Thoracic Spine Foam Rolling

TO PERFORM: Begin lying face up on the foam roller with your arms crossed across your chest. Roll from the base of the neck down to the bottom of the ribcage. If your neck gets tired, interlace your fingers behind your head for support.
HELPFUL FOR: Mid-back pain, postural syndrome
EXERCISE RECOVERY: Overhead squats, overhead presses, rows

Body Areas to Avoid Foam Rolling

  1. Iliotibial Band
    While a popular target for those suffering from iliotibial band syndrome, the iliotibial band is a band of thick fascia. It therefore doesn’t stretch or contract very much. Instead, foam rolling the IT band compresses it against the bone which is usually uncomfortable. For a better outcome, try to foam roll the glutes.

  2. Achilles and Patellar Tendons
    Tendons typically do not respond well to prolonged compression when irritated. For Achilles or patellar tendinopathy, it is better to foam roll the calf and quad muscles, respectively. Isometric exercises are generally the better option for treating tendon pain anyways. 
  3. Directly on Bones and Joints
    Bones have a thin layer of tissue surrounding it, called the periosteum. The periosteum contains blood vessels and nerves which can become irritated and painful with compression (this is why getting kicked in the shin hurts so much). For this reason, it is not advised to foam roll directly on bones or joints. 

In Summary 

Foam rolling is a beneficial pre- and post-workout treatment option to increase range of motion and improve post-workout muscle recovery. There is no specific frequency or duration of foam rolling someone should perform, but the current recommendation is 30-60 seconds a couple of times per week. Of course, this recommendation varies depending on the person’s activity level.