Foam Rolling. how, why and what you can expect.

Foam Rolling has become a well known aspect of self massage and body maintenance; every gym has a foam roller floating around in it but how many people know how to use one?

Just like stretching we all know we could benefit to adding some to our training but many people don’t. As with many things a lot of peoples reticence can be put down to not knowing how or why.
So here is an overview of my approach to foam rolling.

I will lay out below the foam rolling routine I go through two or three times a week, describe the method I go through and what you can expect to feel as work through these positions over time.
After that I’ll give a brief description of what the potential benefits are.

Where to begin?

I almost always start from the bottom up, I will always do this after a warm up. when I am at home it will typically be a warm up along the lines of the one I have in another post utilising various joint mobilising exercises to warm up.

Rolling the calves. I start begin by rolling both calves at once. This gives me a chance to warm the muscles into being rolled.
With both calves on the roller I will roll from the ankle to the knee with my weight in my hands, It’s also possible to slide your bum on the floor to avoid having to put so much weight through your shoulders or into the calf.
In this position you may be able to feel blocks of tension which you will be able to target in more detail with the next position.

I then move on to rolling one calf at a time. As you can see below I will put one foot to the side allowing me to spread my weight between my calf on the roller and three points of contact with the floor.
In this position its possible to vary how much weight you put through the calf and vary the intensity of the rolling.
When I’m teaching this to people who have never used a foam roller before they typically feel the biggest block of tension to be very central about half way down the calf.
Once they had some practice this section tends to ease off and the end up feeling the lines of tension seperate a little allowing for some more play in terms of body position.

When working with the foam roller you need to twist the leg to either side. So as well as having your toes pointing up and rolling down the centre of the leg you need to twist the whole leg so that the toes will point to either side, this allows you to target different areas of the muscle group.

Below is the more advanced position which allows for more intensity, by putting your leg on top of the other and keeping your bum off the floor you will be increase the weight onto the foam roller offering more intensity.
You can advance all of the following positions in this manner but I’ve not added pictures for all of them.

Next up are the hamstrings along the back of the thigh.
Once again I start by rolling both legs to warm the muscles into the treatment. Make the effort to observe any areas of tension to target later or any other feelings that occur, for example where my groin muscles are tight, as I roll the hamstrings I can feel the tension of the groin across the upper inner part of my knee.

Moving onto one leg at a time you can either have the three point of contact with the floor or put the other leg on top of the one your currently rolling.
The area that typically stands out in the hamstrings is about half way up the thigh and central to the muscle group where all three muscles in the group begin overlapping.

While I’m working on each hamstring I will roll onto my side to roll my groin as well. For me the groin is one of my less well conditioned muscle groups. Since making foam rolling a regular practice I have gone from them being very painful to foam roll and a limiting aspect of my hip flexibility, hindering my high kicks, to having only the general discomfort of foam rolling through the muscle group and a significant improvement in the flexibility of hips.

When rolling the groin I start from the knee and work my way up, I generally find the most discomfort is along the narrower aspect of the muscle group close to the knee.

I’ll then move onto my quads.
I go through the same process of warming on both legs then move onto individual legs.
Again you can either put the other foot on the floor or put the leg on top of the one your rolling.
Rolling the quads can be very beneficial! It is typical for people to have a lot of tension through their quads. Common movement dysfunction leaves many people with inactive glutes and hamstrings resulting in a quad dominance, meaning that they will habitually hold all of the weight that should be spread between three large muscle groups primarily in the Quads alone.
One of the muscles within the quads muscle group is also considered part of the hip flexor group which is often responsible for low back pain when tight. So rolling here will contribute to an improvement in the condition of the hip flexors, which will allow for a more mobile low back reducing one of the most common causes contributing to low back pain.

Typically when foam rolling the quads the most apparent point of tension is about 45 degrees of centre as you twist towards the outside of the leg. This is the border between two of the muscles in the group and in my experience as a sports massage therapist is consistently an area of significant tension.

While I’m rolling each quad I will also give my IT band a roll.
This is a typically very sore area to foam roll. The IT band is a thick section of connective tissue, basically a very long tendon, that crosses the knee and runs up the side of the thigh to join with muscles around your hip including the glutes.
I’ve read various things for and against the value of foam rolling this area. I was advised to foam roll this area to help release tension in my glutes and I definitely feel it helped.
So I’d encourage you to work with the discomfort to loosen the area, if you take as much of the weight as possible through your three points of contact on the floor you can reduce the discomfort and gradually build it up to the point where you can put the other leg on top.

The last muscle group I’m including in this post is the glutes. You can use the foam roller here but I tend to find the size and shape pretty much ineffective.

So I use a medicine ball. Usually a 2k med ball as I feel the size of it fits well but any will do. I will also use a tennis ball but that is for more targeted work.
With the med ball you can only do one side at a time, I will do this in two different positions, as below, with a straight leg and with a foot on the knee of the supporting leg.
This allows for slightly different angles of attack on the muscle group so you can target different parts.
I usually start by working closer to the top of the pelvis and work my way through the muscle group until I’m putting the weight through the gap between the top of my femur(bone in upper leg) and my tail bone.

There are two place that typically get the most response from myself and clients on the foam roller. The first one is up towards the top of the pelvis and around 45 degrees towards the outside of the hip. This muscle when tight will contribute to some of the tension in your lower back and.
The second place is the infamous piriformis; this muscle lays between the top of the femur and the tailbone. Its a small muscle that typically get very tight and due to its proximity to the sciatic nerve can and will often be a strong contributor to pain in the low back and will also contribute to sciatica down the leg. The piriformis has the potential to be very intense, so be careful and take it slowly. If working with a tennis ball its very easy to just pop from one side of the muscle to the other like plucking a guitar strings and that hurts a lot! I’ve had many funny a look due the noises this has caused me to make.

As for the amount of time to foam roll each muscle group you’ve got a bit of room to play.
In a personal training session I will time 30 second intervals (with 10 second change overs) doing both calfs, individual calfs and then stretch each calf.
Making just over 3 minutes to go through the one muscle group. I mainly time this in sessions with clients because its easy for time to get carried away with you when foam rolling.
At home I’ll spend 10 minutes doing the warm up available here.
I’ll then go through all of the above taking 15-20 minutes, I’ll often follow this with the stretches from one of my other blog posts.

What are the benefits of Foam Rolling?

This is a slightly contentious area. If you trawl around online you’ll find anything from foam rolling as a miracle cure to physios saying it has no benefit whatsoever.

I know from personal experience that it is possible to improve the condition of muscle in the short term, helping with flexibility for exercises like squats and deadlift.
In my experience I’ve also had the benefit of improved conditioning of muscle over a longer period with consistent foam rolling.
Admittedly I’ve always done a combination of foam rolling and stretching so its hard to say for sure that foam rolling alone can get these benefits. That being said maintenance of the body for the purpose of avoiding aches and pains or improving flexibility its worth utilising different approaches to get the different response from the muscles as well as avoiding the feeling of repeating yourself and potentially getting tired of continuing your maintenance exercises.

At the bare minimum foam rolling will act similarly to massage and encourage blood flow through the muscle. This alone will help improve the condition of the muscle as flushing muscles with blood is essentially cleaning them.
Releasing tension in the muscle with foam rolling will also improve overall blood flow which means the muscle will continue to work better and will stiffen up less.

Other aspects to consider is the softening of the connective tissue making the muscle better condition and more flexible, though the potential for this aspect is very limited compared to a sports massage it will still contribute to improvement over time.
The effect that foam rolling has on the nervous system is also part of the benefits. Similar to trigger pointing techniques in massage putting pressure on the tougher sections of muscle will tell aspects of the nervous system to turn that part of the muscle off, allowing it to relax.

In conclusion, I’d recommend going through a system like the one above 2 or 3 times a week. This will hopefully improve the muscle condition reduction tension and leading to aches and pains becoming less problematic.
Combining this with regular stretching help improve overall flexibility and joint mobility once again helping make aches and pains less problematic.

Last thought on this. If you work consistently over time, possibly combined with some massages, its possible to get on top of your aches and pains.
At that point its fairly common for people to think they can get lazy about doing their maintenance exercises.
Unfortunately thats not how the body works.
Everything will revert.
If you have muscles with knots in them or a tendency for excessive tension.
If you’ve had a back spasm or had any sprains and strains the muscles will always revert back to the state of tension.
So once these problems start to show themselves you will need to make a habit of some sort of maintenance to keep on top of it.

 

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