Solving the Mystery of the Foam Roller

By Jeff Howard

Photos by Jillian Clark

At the gym, we have all seen the circular solid cylinder that looks like a noodle on steroids, and wondered what it is. These are foam rollers, and they are one of the biggest trends in fitness at the moment.

I reached out to my friend Irene Lewis-McCormick, M.S., C.S.C.S., who has done tons of research on this topic and even conducts foam roller certifications throughout the United States, to ask some questions about this popular fitness trend.

What are the benefits?

“The reported benefits include increased circulation, nervous system activation, warmth, improved tensile strength and increased length of fascia,” she said. “Foam rollers are used to perform self-myofascial release, a safe and effective technique for applying mild, slow sustained pressure into the fascia, the band of connective tissue beneath the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses and separates muscle. When the fascia is tight, muscles are unable to perform as they should and injuries rates are increased.”

Why does it feel painful the first time?

“It would be like picking up a really heavy weight if you don’t strength train,” Lewis-McCormick said. “The density of the foam matters just like the weight of the dumbbell matters. Many people try foam rolling on rollers that are too dense and they have a really uncomfortable response. If the muscles are not specifically overloaded with a roller of that particular density in a gradual progression, it will hurt. On a 1-10 pain scale, a participant should not experience more than a six. Otherwise, change roller densities or change the rolling technique. Different brands of foam rolling products offer several rolling techniques.”

What are its long-term effects?

“Ideally, foam rolling should help keep muscles supple, eliminate pain and tightness and restore greater mobility,” she affirmed.

Who are foam rollers made for?

“Athletes, recreational athletes, inactive (people), older (people), youths – anyone,” said Lewis-McCormick.

Should you foam roll before or after exercise?

“I am a huge fan of using a foam roller before workouts,” she stated. “In some instances, athletes take longer to prepare their bodies for training in their warm-up than the length of the actual workout. Using a foam roller pre-workout is ideal for prepping the body for energized engagement.”

So, next time you see a foam roller, give it a try. These are some of the most popular and effective foam rolling exercises that target the muscles and joints that tend to be the tightest in most people. This could be a trend that is here to stay.

Calf

Sit on the floor with the foam roller underneath the upper part of the ankles.

Lift your hips off the floor and move your body down toward the roller (so the roller is rolling towards the knee).

Move so that the roller is about an inch nearer to the knee, and then rock side-to-side for 15-30 seconds. Repeat inch by inch up towards the knee.

If the pressure isn’t hard enough, try it with one leg only.

Quads

With the foam roller on the floor, face the floor with the foam roller just above your knees on the quads.

Move so that the roller is about an inch nearer to the hip, and then rock back and forth for 15-30 seconds. Repeat inch by inch up towards the hip.

If the pressure isn’t hard enough, try lifting one leg up and doing it with one leg at a time.

IT Band

Lie on your side with the foam roller resting just up from the knee on the side of the leg.

Move until the roller is about an inch nearer to the hip, and then rock side to side for 15-30 seconds. Repeat inch by inch, moving towards the hip.

If the pressure is too much, put more weight into your arms to decrease the pressure on your leg.

Repeat with the other leg.

Gluteus

Sit on the roller so that the roller is underneath the butt.

Bring one leg across until the ankle rests on the opposite knee/thigh.

Using your arms for support behind the roller, move the roller up and down and side to side.

Once you find a particularly tender spot, hold the pressure on that spot for 15-30 seconds.