Foam Rolling – All Your Questions Answered

Foam Rolling

You may have noticed gym-goers using a weird foam looking tube at the gym and wondered; what for? You may have seen perfectly positioned images online with models smiling away whilst using them and wondered; why can’t I look that happy whilst rolling? Or you may have simply been prescribed foam rolling as an exercise from your physiotherapist and wondered; how does this actually benefit me?

Fear not, we are here to answer all of your queries. And with what better timing- there is a dire need for self-release techniques during the current climate of encouraged hands off therapy.

Firstly, what is foam rolling?

Foam rolling, also known as Self-Myofascial Release, is a coming of age technique used commonly to release muscle tension, ease muscle pain and potentially increase flexibility.

Typically, succeeding exercise, participants often feel tense, tight and somewhat achy. Traditional methods of massage and ice bathing are suggested to combat these post exercise tensions. In the last decade, foam rolling has been introduced as a further method of easing said discomforts.

To foam roll, a patient must place their bodyweight onto a roller over the required muscle and roll forward and backward repeatedly for a given amount of time. This experience is not generally comfortable.

How does it work?

There are multiple theories behind its benefits. We’ve summarised the two most important:

– One theory suggests that by isolating and rolling over a specific area of tension, one is able to generate friction between the muscle and the roller. This innervates the muscle (rather, the fascia which surrounds it) with blood and allows it to stretch at the same time; much like that during a sport massage.  Blood flow to a fatigued muscle allows for waste removal and oxygen replenishment.

-A second theory proposes that when used prior to exercise, foam rolling acts as a warm-up. By supporting one’s own body weight, an isometric sustained exercise is upheld; much like a plank, and hence generates increased skin and muscle temperature alongside increased blood flow.

 Is it safe?

Yes, is the short answer. Providing you undertake the exercise in the correct direction and do not overdo it (i.e. roll for hours on end), then foam rolling is generally considered safe.

However, if you have an injury, are uncertain on how to use a roller, or you feel there is too much pain whilst completing it, then you should contact your physiotherapist to discuss these in more detail.

There are so many types of rollers, which one should I use?

Rollers come in many shapes and sizes. They are usually cylindrical, however can be in many different colours, density’s and surfaces. Often it will require trial and error to find the correct roller for you- the one you feel is most comfortable and beneficial. Generally:

-Smooth rollers are best for those new to rolling and tend to be less expensive. These are slightly less uncomfortable and are your ‘bog standard’ rollers.

-Textured rollers have ridges, bumps, spikes or knobs on/in them. These allow deeper work into muscles to target stubborn bouts of tension. These tend to cause more discomfort than smooth rollers and are often used on bigger muscle groups such as those in the legs.

-Massage balls tend to be hand size balls covered in foam which can be used to target small specific muscle areas. These are often used for foot arches or muscles in the back.

Am I doing it right? :

Below we have provided 5 examples of the most commonly rolled areas to get you started. Give the below positions a go for 2 sets of 40-60 seconds per muscle group, to gain a feel for foam rolling.

As demonstrated by Nick, to foam roll the calves, place the roller underneath the desired leg and place the opposite leg on top to apply extra pressure. Whilst using the hands for balance, lift your legs and hips off the floor and roll forwards and backwards.

Lucy demonstrates that to foam roll the hamstrings, you must cross one leg over the other whilst placing the roller beneath the desired leg. Lift yourself up onto your hands and roll forward and backwards along the hamstring muscle, being cautious not to roll onto the back of your knee

To foam roll the buttocks, Jonathon models that you must use your arms to support your upper body whilst moving your buttock forwards and backwards over the roller. Pressure to the gluteals can be varied by changing how much weight you put through your hand.

In the above image, Jen demonstrates pinpointing the rhomboids (a ‘niggly’ muscle in the back of the shoulder) by placing a massage ball between the shoulder blade and spine. Cross the same side arm across your body and roll up and down against a wall to target the muscle.

Jonny demonstrates foam rolling the quadriceps by lying on his front with the roller beneath his thigh. His opposite leg is bent outward to the side to act as a lever. To roll the leg, move forward and backward, ensuring you do not roll over the knee.

Happy Rolling

From all of us at Jonathan Clark Physiotherapy