how to use a foam roller properly?

We all know muscles need to recover in order to grow and become stronger but whether it is because of your daily busy life style or being lazy in general!, we usually are careless about our recovery process and only focus on training.

We also know the benefit of massage and how it can speed up the process of developing muscle size and strength. Although massage and foam rolling are 2 different things, they share a lot of shared benefits when it comes to health and fitness. Massage can be costly sometimes because it really is hard to perform on yourself but a foam roller is easy to use and convenient but it can also wreck havoc on you if you perform it carelessly.


What is a Foam Roller?

Simply put, a foam roller is a convenient and inexpensive tool to help maintain healthy muscle tissue and increase mobility. Its ever growing popularity means there is one to be seen in every gym and because of its therapeutic simplicity; there should be one in every home too.

Fortunately, the outdated perception of rollers only being used for athletes is long gone. It was quickly realised that armed with just a basic grasp of the fundamentals anyone could pick up a roller and reap the rewards. They may differ in shape and size but their purpose remains the same; to relieve muscular aches and pains and increase our soft tissue quality. As a conditioning coach my training methods will vary according to the clients’ skill or ability but what will always remain consistent is the recommended use of a foam roller.

What are the benefits?

We all know that a good massage therapist can help alleviate muscular tension and release stubborn knots through physical manipulation of the tissue. Well, a foam roller uses a similar principle but instead of the pressure being applied by a therapist it’s your own body weight that does the job. Its simple cylindrical design allows for a smooth back and forth motion along the intended muscle and your positioning on the roller is determined by which area you’re targeting.

During these long strokes the flow of blood and lymph to the muscle increases, bringing with them a healthy supply of oxygen and nutrients. This enriched blood flow triggers a pretty comprehensive list of benefits:

  • Improve joint mobility
  • Increase muscle flexibility
  • Decrease risk of injuries
  • Decrease recovery times
  • Improve posture

And let’s not forget the economic benefits of a roller too. They’re compact, convenient and with their reputable durability they’re also an excellent investment. Foam rolling can never fully replace the accuracy and skill of a perceptive therapist but rest assured the more time you spend on a roller the less time you’ll spend down the clinic.

After exercise you may be familiar with that stiff, achy feeling in the muscles that creeps up on you after a day or two post workout. This is referred to as DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness). Not only can it inhibit our ability to exercise the next day but it can interfere with simple daily tasks. It often occurs following a particularly intense workout but more likely it’s the result of introducing a new exercise or movement to your routine. So you’re excused for barely being able to walk after trying your friends’ aerobics class for the first time. The soreness you then feel is actually minute tears in the muscle fibre followed by an inflammatory response and chemical reaction. This reaction can cause stiffness for up to a week unless treated with long strokes from a massage therapist or, yes you’ve guessed it, a foam roller. The increase in circulation helps to remove these waste products from the tissue allowing your muscles to move uninhibited again, therefore decreasing your recovery time.

Throughout the day it’s easy to become complacent and lose your postural awareness; whether it’s stressing over a laptop at work, slouching on the sofa in the evenings or going for your 1 rep max at the gym. Over time, repeating these positions will slowly begin to lengthen certain muscles and shorten others beyond their optimal resting range resulting in postural obliquity. The simplest example of this is the classic rounding of the back and shoulders through daily desk work. As our heads naturally migrate towards the computer screen throughout the day so will our shoulders, causing the muscles across our chest to tighten. This is turn will lengthen the opposing muscle group – which in this case are the rhomboids and trapezius of the upper-back – deviating us from our optimal mechanical position. And it wouldn’t just stop there. This deviation sends a wave of compensation up and down the body as we naturally adjust into our now altered centre of gravity. Using a foam roller will not only help to lengthen these shortened muscles, improving your mobility but also, through specific positions, it’s possible to directly oppose those daily dysfunctional conditions, therefore improving your posture. One of my favourite corrective positions will be explained later on in detail.

There are over 600 muscles in the human body, each with their own individual roles and attachments. Think of them like a dynamic, complex and very crowded circuit board. Now, unlike a regular circuit board this one moves, contracts, lengthens and even grows from day to day. So it will come as no surprise to hear that this architectural wonder needs regular maintenance to function correctly and efficiently. Without it we can develop physical problems from the minor to the debilitating. Fortunately, there are plenty of therapies available to us to help tackle these problems, few of which are as pleasingly simple as foam rolling. 

The precise biological process behind foam rolling is, interestingly, still debated, but the direct effects cannot be challenged. Below are the two most visceral and intuitive explanations as to what’s exactly going on in the body when we roll.

By releasing “knots” or “trigger points”

These knots (as they’re most commonly referred to) are localised adhesions of discomfort built up in the muscle tissue. Clearly your muscles cannot physically tie themselves in knots but the reason they’re called this is because that’s exactly what they feel like – a buzzing, aching knot of muscle that not only causes localised pain but can also result in compensatory discomfort elsewhere.

Knots can form as a result of dehydration but are more commonly caused by sustained (or occasionally sudden) changes in length to the muscle. This means that any compromised exercise at the gym, stressed positions playing sport or more commonly, prolonged positions of poor posture at the office can result in adhesions. The most congested and complex parts of our musculature are where these knots will most commonly occur. It’s these areas that are called trigger points.

By positioning yourself appropriately on the roller and applying pressure to the trigger point it’s possible to remove these knots and regain function. Given that many of these trigger points are in confined areas of the body the use of smaller therapy equipment, such as a “therapy ball” or “duo-ball”, are recommended for more accuracy.

By manipulating the fascia

Without getting too complicated, the anatomical process that takes place when rolling occurs not only in the muscle tissue mentioned above but also in the fascia that surrounds it. Think of fascia as a continuous network of fabric that envelopes not only the muscles in our body but our bones and organs too in one long unbroken structure. For it to function correctly it needs to be able to glide freely over the soft tissue that it surrounds. Again, when we undergo excessive positions of postural or mechanical stress the fascia can literally get stuck and adhere to itself or to other nearby tissue. By slowly rolling back and forth on a foam roller it’s possible to release these fibrous adhesions restoring the function of this essential infrastructure.

When and how to use it?

Considering its multitude of effects, rolling has a variety of different techniques (not to mention different types of rollers themselves) to elicit the desired response. Knowing the basic principles of when and how to use them will give you the skills to explore more techniques on your own and more importantly give you the confidence to practice them safely.

How often?

The simple answer is: as much as you can. Realistically if I have a client who uses their roller once or twice a day I’m very happy. Try squeezing in a 5 to 10 minute rollout into your daily routine by incorporating it into your downtime. Whilst watching TV for example. Remember rolling isn’t a chore, it’s therapy. And like with all new therapy routines consistency is key, so keep your roller where you can see it. Out of sight and out of mind certainly applies here so leave it by the sofa or in the bedroom, wherever you’re likely to use it most.


For how long?

For general maintenance, each muscle (or muscle group) should be focused on for up to two minutes at a time. Now for those astute readers who remember that there are over 600 muscles in the human body, don’t panic, you’re not required to roll them all. I list a few of my favourite techniques later in the article that are arguably the most valued and advantageous to your general wellbeing.

Just moving around on the roller and discovering those tight spots is a win in my book, but for maximum efficiency it’s important to know which technique to utilise and at what time;

It’s a good idea to begin with fluid, gliding strokes forwards and backwards along the muscle to stimulate a healthy circulation and identify any knots and adhesions on the way. With larger muscles, like the quadriceps, this can typically take 2 or 3 seconds in each direction but feel free to slow it down further if desired. Again, listen to your body and respond accordingly. After a minute or so of rolling return to any now detected trigger points (positioning the roller directly over the affected site) and pause for 10-20 seconds. Breathe deeply, as you’ll certainly be feeling a degree of discomfort at this point and ensure that you can maintain your position safely and without compromise. After the hold go back to a few longer rolls before repeating if necessary. Alternatively, if the hold doesn’t suffice, try rolling back and forth in small concentrated movements for 10 seconds at a time, for those particularly stubborn knots.


Outside of your workout there are no strict therapy times to adhere to, simply listen to your body and either respond or pre-empt. Rolling for general mobility maintenance and injury prevention can be exercised at any time of day. But if you’ve returned home broken from a long day at work try and resist the urge to collapse on the sofa. Being slouched over certainly won’t help your already aching muscles. Instead, 10 minutes of static release on a roller or therapy ball is a far more beneficial alternative. Your good nights sleep will thank you for it.

When exercising, a foam roller should be used both before and after training for best results. During your warm up the purpose of rolling is to prepare both body and mind for the workout ahead. As well as becoming more mentally alert and invigorated the increase in oxygenated blood to the muscles physically animates them into a state of readiness. Think of it like riding a bike. You could jump straight on and cycle adequately enough, perhaps suffering a few clicks and clunks from the gears along the way or you can spend 5 minutes on some pre-ride checks, pump up the tyres and oil the chain for a much smoother (and faster) ride.

At the end of your workout (after your cool-down) feel free to spend as long as you’d like with the foam roller. Its sole purpose here is some R&R; relax and recover. Breathe deeply, loosen up and use deep fluid rolls along the muscles to help flush out those destructive by-products that have accumulated during exercise.

I know a number of you are reading this and thinking that your training schedule is tight enough as it is without having to add another 5 minutes at each end. Well, for those of you who do blitz a 40 minute workout at lunch I urge you to reconsider skipping the rollout. As a result of the benefits mentioned above your warmups will typically be shorter due to the efficiency of micro-circulation (blood flow within the soft tissue), you’re less likely to suffer an injury, you’ll recover faster and your chance of adding that extra couple of kilos to your squat has just shot up.

After your first foam roller experience you may well feel a little battered and even lightheaded – after all you are essentially becoming closely acquainted with a giant colourful rolling pin – but these sensations are quite normal. Your body is responding to a change in circulation of blood and lymph so ensure you are plenty hydrated, especially if rolling before or after your workout.

Which one should I choose?

With an exhausting array of colours, shapes and sizes to choose from a good place to start would be with a high density EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) foam roller. These no-nonsense all-rounders are made from a dense and durable vinyl, the same stuff used for flooring in the weights room, which means they shouldn’t warp from regular use anytime soon. The foot long, fully round variant is the most common, due to its portable size, diverse usage and good value for money. But the longer 90cm variety is also very useful for the more advanced and dynamic back rolls.

The old fashioned, (usually white) porous looking foam rollers, are the cheapest option by far – but arguably, for good reason. They will, sooner or later, lose their shape and warp from consistent use. However if you’re looking to equip all 20 clients in your circuit class with a foam roller then these definitely tick the right box. But if, like most, you’re curiosity has brought you here in search of your very first roller then my advise is this; buy once and buy quality. Given the enormity of health benefits foam rolling offers, the initial cost is a very small price to pay.

If you’re searching for a top quality roller with the longest shelf-life available then look no further than a hollow roller with a rigid inner core. This simple modification arms the roller with the durability to withstand daily punishment for many years. Personally, I’ve been using the same hollow roller for six years now and despite being a fraction softer than it once was, it’s still going strong. You’ll also benefit from their undulating surface which concentrates the depth as you roll, stimulating greater feedback.


“Can I use therapy balls?”

Absolutely! But I would only advise their use if you’ve a basic grasp on anatomy or if you’re shown how and where to use one by your trainer or therapist. These are a great addition to your weaponry in the war against adhesions. Their compact size means you can target knots, tendons and specific muscles much more effectively than a roller, but sacrificing those long sweeping movements the roller offers. So my advice would be to have both. 

“I’ve seen an aggressively bumpy looking roller Steve, surely this is the one to get, yes?”

No. The theory is great, but in practice, having a few dozen stiff, rubber peaks randomly targeting different parts of the muscle (or in fact bone) is a hindrance rather than an aid. If a massage therapist blindly probed in the same manner I doubt you’d return to them any time soon. You’re much better off starting with a roller, then using a ball for isolation if necessary.


A few points of caution

Generally speaking you’ll have a tough job doing yourself any damage on a foam roller. But there are a few safety points and tips to consider;

It will hurt. Let me make that perfectly clear. Especially if it’s your first time using one. But no more than you would expect at the clinic with a massage therapist, or whilst being manipulated on by your physio. The more you use a roller, however, the less discomfort you begin to experience. This is due to the improvements made in tissue quality and repeated signals of tolerance from the brain. Some areas of the body will be more tender than others, depending on your activities, posture and lifestyle so the key is to always be aware when you roll. Switch-on and listen to your body, try not to blindly go through the motions. You’ll get much more out of it when you learn how to hunt down and release those tight spots more efficiently.

It will hurt…but it shouldn’t be unbearable. If deep breaths and peaceful thoughts don’t get you through the exercise then stop, there could be an underlying problem or injury you’re unaware of. Similarly, if you’re experiencing some referral pain elsewhere (due to a compromised position perhaps) then stop and rethink your approach. The most common of which is attempting to roll the lower back in the same manner as you’d roll your upper-back (horizontally with only your feet on the floor). Having such a low fulcrum means there’s too much unsupported body weight. I’ll explain this more thoroughly in the “Muscles and Movements” section later. Fortunately, there are ways of progressing most rolling positions to suit your threshold. As a general rule, the more of your body you have in contact with the floor the less weight you’re likely to be applying on the roller, therefore, decreasing the intensity. And the same can be said with the opposite: if you’re current position doesn’t evoke that oddly satisfying discomfort you crave then look for a safe way to increase the downward force over the roller.


How to use a foam roller?

Below is a list of some of the most beneficial foam rolling movements for general muscle maintenance. Each with an example on how to progress or alter the exercise and a list of sports or injuries they’re most synonymous with. Please consider the fact that all activities will utilise countless different muscles and the sports that are listed are merely there as an example and are in no way exclusive to that particular roll. The intention is to help you craft a better understanding into the bodies’ mechanical patterns within exercise, giving you the confidence to forge your own self-diagnosis.


Calf Roll

Good for:

  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Aerobics and circuits
  • Plyometric Exercises

Your calf is made up of more muscles than you may think but a good place to find a common trigger point is at the larger fleshy muscle towards the knee called, Gastrocnemius. Try starting with long smooth rolls from ankle to Gastroc followed by short repetitive rolls on the trigger points.


Sit upright on the floor with the roller positioned under the right calf.  The left leg should be bent with foot on the floor for support. Position both hands on the floor behind you and lift the hips off the floor.  Slowly roll back and forth along the calf from the ankle to the knee (making sure not to pass over it).  Repeat on the other leg.



increase the intensity cross the supporting leg on top of the working leg.


Not feeling much? – Experiment by rotating the hip internally and externally to target the surrounding muscles of your lower leg.

If you find suspending your weight difficult, place two books or blocks under the palms to help make raising your body a little easier. 


Back Roll

Good for:

  • Deadlifts
  • Rugby
  • Golf
  • Loss of spinal extension

The thoracic spine (T-spine) is made up of 12 vertebrae, equating to the largest portion of our spine. Releasing the muscles around the T-spine will help to improve thoracic extension, which is paramount for successful weightlifting and combatting poor posture.


Slowly lie back on the roller until it’s positioned width-ways across the upper back. Brace the core and elevate the hips to form a horizontal line to your shoulders. Hands can either be crossed over your chest or behind your head for support. Slowly roll from your shoulder blades to mid back and back up again. Remember to visualise the movement and be aware of any adhesions along the way.



This progression requires a fairly good range of movement. If in doubt, start with either a half roller or ask your trainer or therapist to run you through it. After the initial roll, pause with the roller crossing the lower portion of the shoulder blades and slowly begin to sink your head and hips towards the floor. Pause for sets of 10-20 seconds and breathe deeply.



The reason for avoiding the lower (lumbar) spine is due to the fulcrum being too close to your centre, creating a very stressful hold for your core. If you wish to roll the lower back, sit upright instead and place your hands behind you. The position of your arms can help to determine which muscles of the upper-back are targeted. Keeping them behind your head will focus on the trapezius, whereas hugging your arms across the chest may help reach the deeper rhomboids, adjacent to the spine.




Chest (pec) Roll

Good for:

  • Racket sports
  • Cricket
  • Swimming
  • Protracted (rounded) shoulders

Anyone who is seated for long periods of time on a daily basis will greatly benefit from this pec release; helping you to free up the shoulders to retract (draw back) the shoulder blades once again.


Lie face down with the roller positioned under the right pectoral (near the armpit). Raise the right arm diagonally out to the side at just above head height with arm extended. To adjust for intensity; use your left arm to distribute your weight onto, or away from, the roller. Gently rock back and forth to discover the tightest spot. 


If you’re struggling to hit that hotspot, some people prefer extending their arm directly overhead, rather than out to the side. This is because there are two separate muscles on each side of the sternum: pectoralis minor and pectoralis major. Given their different attachment points, try experimenting with the position of your arm to help determine which muscle is the tightest.


Avid weightlifters will also find affinity with this movement. With every bench-press and push-up, we’re slowly encouraging our shoulders to round and chest to close. Include this movement on your next “chest day” at the gym and be prepared for a painful (and much needed) release.





Quadriceps Roll

Good for:

  • Cycling
  • Front squats
  • Hiking
  • Pain from “Runners Knee”

The quads are hardworking muscles that have the rather repetitive role of extending (straightening) the knee and flexing the hip. If you’ve never experienced fascial release on your quads before, be prepared for a fresh perspective into pleasure and pain. 


Lie face down propped on your forearms in a “plank” position with the roller positioned under one thigh just above the knee. With your core braced and hips elevated begin to extend both arms, causing the roller to travel up the thigh towards the hip. Repeat the motion forwards and back for two minutes before changing legs.



Considering there are four separate muscles to the quadriceps, rotate your hip internally and externally as you roll to help target all four. 


Remember to distribute your weight accordingly for your own level of tolerance. The less of your body in contact with the floor, the higher the intensity. 





Hamstring Roll

Good for:

  • Football
  • Track events
  • Powerlifting
  • Gymnastics

Given the hamstrings combined width, I often find that a roller doesn’t quite give me the depth that I need. When this is the case, I’ll use something with a smaller surface-area like a tennis ball or duo-ball.


Sit upright, with one leg extended straight. Position the roller high up under the hamstrings so it’s just touching the glute. Lift your weight so that only your hands and foot are in contact with the floor and slowly glide back and forth along the thigh; stopping just before the fold in the back of your knee. 


For added intensity, cross your supporting ankle over the thigh, to increase the downward force on the roller.


There are three long muscles that make up the hamstrings (and plenty of others alongside them too) so remember to rotate your leg at the hip as you roll to target each one. 




Adductor (inner thigh) Roll

Good for:

  • Tennis
  • Basketball
  • Squash
  • Valgus knee (falling inwards)

An often neglected and all too important set of muscles are the adductors. Keeping these muscles healthy can help improve your balance on one leg and more importantly, keep you clear of some hip and groin injuries too.


Similar to the quad roll, begin face down in a bent arm plank position but this time raise your right leg to the side, flexed to 90 degrees. Place the roller under the inner thigh of the flexed leg, near the knee and brace the core. Suspend your weight so that only your left foot and forearms are in contact with the floor, then glide laterally to your right, moving the roller towards and into the groin before returning, slowly, back to the starting position. Repeat for up to two minutes before changing legs. 


If you find this position to be too intense, you can instead; lie on your side with top leg extended and place a roller under the inner thigh. This will provide far less bodyweight over the roller. Stick to this position for a week or two before returning to the ‘plank’ hold.

Inversely, if the original movement is not sufficient, perhaps reassess your position on the roller. Try turning your body into the roller as you roll to apply more pressure to the muscles.


There are many muscles that adduct (draw towards) the hips, all of which vary in length; so ensure you roll the entirety of your inner thigh, from knee to groin, to help release them all.




ITB – Iliotibial Band (outer thigh) Roll 

Good for:

  • Running
  • Endurance events
  • Any repetitive hip & knee flexion
  • Weak hip abductors (Gluteals)

The ITB is a strong piece of connective tissue that runs from the hip to the knee and is arguably the most sensitive body part to roll. Its job, as a very important knee stabiliser, means that if overlooked, can lead to specific hip and knee injuries.


Lie on your side with the roller positioned underneath the outer-thigh, near the knee. Place your other foot on the floor for support and keep your upper body propped up by your arm, straight or flexed at the elbow. Using the shoulder for movement, glide up and down along the roller, making sure to cover the entirety of the ITB, from knee to hip. Breathe deeply and try to let go of the tension.


For the veteran foam rollers out there; stack both legs one on top of the other for maximum intensity.


Due to the acuteness of the roll, two to three minutes on the ITB will feel like a lifetime. Aim for just 45-60 seconds to begin with and gradually increase the duration over time. This is one of the few times where having a worn out old roller may just be a blessing.

Try not to be too concerned with your hand and foot positions. As long as the roller is targeting the outer-thigh, adopt the most comfortable stance you can.




Gluteals Roll 

Good for:

  • Weighlifting
  • Powerlifting
  • Plyometric exercises
  • Martial Arts

The gluteals (or glutes, for short) consist of three separate muscles, which attach around the hip and pelvis. The largest of them, gluteus maximus, is also in fact the largest muscle in the human body, supplying us with the power we need to jump high, lift heavy and run fast. 


Sit upright with one leg out straight and hands on the floor behind you. Position the roller under the glute of the straight leg and drop your hip laterally to the side. Perform the roll in separated sections, to help isolate the glutes individually. Start at the very top of the hip near the lower back and work your way down, slowly (back and forth) towards the hamstrings.


It’s possible to adjust the length and exposure of the glutes (and other hip rotators) whilst rolling, by crossing the legs. This altered position may move a previously obstructed muscle into focus. So now is a good time to remind you to be present and visualise the movement when you roll. The greater your awareness, the greater the benefit.  


You’ll find yourself repeatedly adjusting your hand placement and upper body position – and you should, that’s a good thing. Get in the habit of being dynamic when you roll, as this will encourage presence of mind and reactive mobility.

Given the glutes’ intricate involvement with hip mobilisation, it’s definitely worth dedicating some time to their release. I find it to be one of the most directly rewarding muscle groups to work on. After all, you wouldn’t want to hinder their potential power gains and athletic qualities.  





Tibialis Anterior Roll (shins)

Good for:

  • Running
  • Ankle mobility
  • Shin splints
  • Repetitive ground impact

Shin pain is a common complaint among long distance runners and anyone who’s recently changed their running duration. The tibialis anterior sits laterally to the shin bone (tibia) and doesn’t have an awful lot of space to expand when inflamed. This means it will respond very well to regular release on a foam roller.


From hands and knees, position the roller under both ankles, suspend the knees and brace the core. Roll towards the knees by extending the legs, before returning to the starting position and repeating. After a half-dozen rolls or so you may need to readjust your hand placement as the roller tends to work its way south.



Bear in mind, the tibialis anterior runs down the outside of the shin bone. For more pressure, shift your weight from one side to the other to direct weight onto the muscle and away from the bone.


For a satisfying quad stretch, place both hands behind you and gently lower your weight back onto the heels.



Source: steve lewis