Before the days of bright multicoloured foam rollers being available in nearly every sports shop, I remember using an improvised tool for rolling my IT band (on the outside of your thigh) to help me with a running injury. The improvised roller was also called a wine bottle! It was agony and not something I’d recommend unless you drank the wine beforehand to numb the discomfort. It did the trick though and managed to keep me running at the time.
Thankfully foam rollers are a lot more forgiving and can be used in other parts of the body to ease pain and improve flexibility. I think they’re a useful tool to keep at home to work out the niggles and are especially useful for the legs and upper to middle back where most of us feel tight.
I remember hearing old school thai fighters would use a kind of rolling pin along their shins to smooth out the bumps from kicking and general training. But the foam rollers we’re familiar with and see in most sports shops or pilates studios seem to have leapt forward in popularity in the last 15 years or so.
Many physical therapists also use it for various core and stability exercises. For the purpose of this article I want you to get the most from a standard foam roller to improve flexibility, range of motion and reduce pain.
What does a foam roller do?
The good thing; I later learned through trial, error and education, is that using a foam roller doesn’t have to be painful to be effective. A little discomfort will always be there in some areas because of the nature of the therapy. You’re pretty much squishing your soft tissue (muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and fascia) between the force of the foam roller and the force of your bodyweight going down. The iliotibial band can be the most uncomfortable because their is less soft tissue compared to other areas and you’re pressing it directly against a long bone in your thigh called your femur. But more pain, doesn’t mean it will be more effective. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word ‘rolling’ I think about rolling out pizza dough. While the action is ‘rolling’, only part of the effect is purely mechanical like rolling out the pizza dough.
Are you rolling out your muscles? Well yes, you can’t avoid that, and that’s part of the pain source when rolling. But that’s not really going to give you most of your gains in flexibility or improved range of motion. Muscles will respond more to tension and best lengthened through a variety of stretches, especially methods that involve contraction (but that’s for another article).
When it comes to foam rolling, our gains in flexibility and improved range in motion are actually most likely to be due to a changes made in the nervous system and fascia. Fascia is the white connective tissue you see in your steak before you cook it. It’s very tough and helps hold the muscles together in functional compartments and gives support to the body’s framework.
It goes all throughout the body, and as well as giving support, it can also limit flexibility and range of motion. When we’re rolling on our IT band, we’re not physically directly rolling the fascia out like the pizza dough. It’s a tough material that would need more pressure than we can apply ourselves. The pressure and slight tension from the roll will make changes to something called the ground substance (which affects tissue texture), and to mechanoreceptors (part of the nervous system). Basically the changes are more to do with the physiology and nervous system rather than directly rolling your muscles into a margarita base. The take home message; like some other things in life, how you do it, is more important than how hard you do it!
Another thing I like about foam rolling, is you’re able to work out tight areas that may be painful or difficult to get into a stretch, for example the outer thigh or IT band. It can be awkward to get the ITB stretch correctly and flexing the knee to stretch the quads can be painful for some people when they have an acute problem in the knee. The foam roller is a cheap effective way of targeting these areas and avoiding these issues.
The mechanical aspect is part of the picture. Some theories on stretching now think the gains in flexibility from stretching are mainly due to our perception. There’s no doubt a mind-body connection and interrelationship being affected in any physical activity and the foam roller wouldn’t be an exception to this.
Foam roller exercises for the back:
Consider the foam roller as a tool with two functions. One as a roller to work on the muscles, and two, as a pivot to mobilise joints.
It is possible to foam roll pretty much the whole spine if you’re healthy and have some coordination to control the amount of weight you apply. That takes experience and some guidance to get it right. I wouldn’t recommend rolling your lower back if you’re new to it, have injuries and generally don’t know what you’re doing. Most people however are very restricted through their thoracic spine (middle/upper back) and you can get a combination of fascial release and improved mobility through gentle extension work.
When using the roller to improve joint mobility, less is more! Small quality movements are better than large and potentially dangerous movements. The joints themselves individually only move millimetres so you don’t need to bend all the way backwards. Use the roller to be specific on a segment or two and do small movements back and forth in a comfortable motion.
Don’t go hard. You’re not aiming for pain, just slow, comfortable, repetitive movements to improve the quality and range of the thoracic joints.
How to use a foam roller for legs:
Legs, including the notorious IT band are often people’s first experience of foam rolling. It’s important to realise why your leg got tight and painful in the first place. People with IT band problems might have other issues in the biomechanical chain that is putting more stress on one side than the other. Rather than continually ‘patching up the problem’ by constantly rolling, get it checked out, or start becoming aware yourself if there are any weaknesses or imbalances in your muscle development. Foam rolling is just one part of the picture in getting you out of pain and discomfort.
The front of the thigh, the quadriceps, as the name implies, has 4 muscles. There’s also another thin strap like muscle that goes over the top, but to keep it simple lets divide the it into inner, middle and outer front thigh. You can roll each area separately by slightly changing the angle of your body.
The inner thigh can be a little tricky but worthwhile. Just don’t go right down to the knee – you don’t want to be rolling the ligaments on the inside.
The middle thigh can be rolled from just above the knee cap (never go directly onto it of course!) up to the top of the front hip. There’s a bony part of the front hip where one of your quad muscle attaches so feel where that is and make sure you stop a few finger widths below that.
The calf can be rolled and at the same time slowly bending your foot up and down. Slightly bending the knee will allow you to reach deeper muscles of the calf.
Hamstrings and glutes are pretty self explanatory here. Get a feel for the muscle you’re working on and take your time. Make sure you support yourself well and don’t put any stress on your shoulders or back.
Other foam rolling techniques:
You could probably roll everywhere if you wanted, but some areas are just awkward, ineffective or may put pressure on delicate areas. You could try rolling the lats. Because the latissimus dorsi attaches to the front of the shoulder, include arm movements to direct the roll and stretch as desired – include flexion and internal and external rotation of the arm.
Triceps might be worth doing as some people struggle to stretch these without putting too much strain on the back of the shoulder.
Tibialis anterior – sometimes a culprit in shin pain and general anterior compartment tension. It’s really difficult to stretch completely because the ankle joint mobility can limit you before the full stretch comes on, so foam rolling can be a great supplement.
Is foam rolling the complete answer to all your aches and pains?
Well…no. However; it’s an incredibly useful tool and something everyone can afford to help relieve aches and pains, improving mobility in areas that are normally tough to stretch directly.
Remember if you find yourself constantly rolling the same areas week-in week-out you need to consider factors that may be maintaining your tightness and pain. For example this may be related to your posture or a muscular imbalance; and that imbalance could include strength, endurance, flexibility or coordination issues. If you’re unsure see a professional who can assess you and work out a treatment or training plan for you to work on these imbalances.