Foam Rollers: Your Questions Answered About What They Are

Foam Rollers: Your Questions Answered About What They Are, How They are Used, and Why They Hurt

Stretching out sore muscles, workout recovery, and warming up to exercise has never been easier when you apply the use of a foam roller. These simple, yet effective tools are a must have for anyone who weight lifts, runs, practices yoga, or otherwise challenges their bodies physically and mentally.

A foam roller can also be a great aid for anyone recovering from injury, or who simply needs a new way to stretch and work their muscles for tension release. If you have wondered about what a foam roller is, how it can be used, and why it might hurt to use, this is the article for you.

Benefits of Self Massage

Woman using a foam roller after a workout

Self-massage, otherwise known as self-myofascial release (SMR), is a practice anyone can take advantage of to help aid in muscle recovery and normal function assist. This encourages elastic and healthy muscle performance that is less likely to be injured. In particular, the benefits of this practice can help with much of the following:

  • Release of tight muscles and trigger points
  • Provides precise pressure points
  • Influences greater flexibility
  • Warms up muscles prior to a workout
  • Helps release tensions after a workout
  • Increases blood flow
  • Increase of circulation supports healthy organ function
  • Provides relaxation and release of tension
  • Speeds up injury recovery
  • Reduces stress and anxiety through body relaxation

What is a Foam Roller?

A foam roller is an exercise device used in massage and fitness. Long and cylindrical in shape, they can come in various sizes, textures, and hardness levels to works against various trigger points on your body. They are an excellent tool for anyone who feels they need to loosen muscle tension.

How Do I Use a Foam Roller?

man exercising using foam roller

Although the use of these products may seem awkward at first, with continued use the ease with which you apply pressure to various points on your body will become easier. To understand how to use a roller device, follow these simple steps:

  1. Locate sore or tight muscle areas.
  2. Lower the area of tenderness over the roller (don’t just ‘plop’ down on it).
  3. Gently place your weight against the roller until you begin to feel discomfort, but not pain.
  4. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
  5. Roll gently back and forth to further stimulate the area and increase blood flow.
  6. Remember to breathe deeply as you apply this technique.

As you become more comfortable you will be better able to determine where and how to best use it to loosen areas of tightness. Areas of tension that are often hard to find relief from benefit most from these techniques. In particular, you may want to focus on calves, Quadriceps ,Hamstrings, Adductor, Aluts, and all along your upper back and Lats.

Pros and Cons of Their Use

Sport. Beautiful girl in the gym

Other than the SMR benefits mentioned above, there are a few other pros you might want to consider. For one, they are inexpensive. You can purchase basic rollers for less than $10, with more advanced, textured versions costing more. They are lightweight and easy to transport, plus their varying sizes allows you to choose what works best for travel. They are incredibly effective and very easy to use.

There are a few things you may want to consider, however. For example, you may be a bit limited on the muscle groups it can be used upon. Most broad surface muscles or those that are superficial get the most benefits, while others may be left out- such as biceps and trapezius.

Although easy to use, they aren’t often used as efficiently as they could be by beginners, and it’s often best to learn by being shown how to make them effective. They also can hurt when used, and if not used correctly could cause injury.

Types of Foam Rollers & What is Best For You

The three main considerations to keep in mind when determining which foam roller is best for you is:

3 foam rollers in white background

Density

How firm a roller feels is an important consideration to help determine which is best for your needs. The more dense the foam, the harder the surface will feel. This will create a greater tension against your muscle when in use.

When you first start to use a roller you may want to start with a softer version to help ease you into their use. Although softer rollers won’t last as long as more dense versions, they are a great way to learn technique from.

Surface Texture

Many rollers have a smooth surface to apply an even pressure, but others have bumps and ridges to work with your rolling efforts to help further loosen hard to treat trigger points. The varying pressure applied through their use should be approached with a gentle roll and firm pressure to avoid injury.

Shape and Size

The overall width and length of the roller can also dictate how and where you use it. Those who like to pack theirs in a gym bag might prefer a smaller size as well to make it easier to travel with. There also are modified shapes that can be used for specific pressure points.

yellow green Foam roller in white background

Length

Long rollers can measure up to 36 inches in length and are perfect for your back or other large muscle masses. They provide stability and even pressure to those areas. Short lengths, up to 24 inches are perfect for arm and calve target areas, while even shorter choices exists (4-12 inches) for portability, or where space is limited.

Diameter

Most rollers fall into two categories of diameter: 5-6 inch range, or 3-4 inch range. The larger size is more common and widely used, but the smaller sizes are used for more targeted, deeper massages.

Half Round Rollers

Although these do not actually roll, they are used mainly for leg and foot stretches and can be extremely helpful for anyone suffering from plantar fasciitis.

Foam Covered Sticks

Gray foam roller in white background

Similar to a rolling pin, these work in a precise manner on legs and the upper back. They can be smooth or textured for various needs.

Balls

These balls allow for precise targeting and pressure control to work in curved areas of the body. The lumbar region in particular can benefit from this shape.

The Science Behind Their Use

Myofascial release is specific to the release of fascia, a specialized system in the body that provides a web-like covering in one continuous structure over all your muscles, bones, nerves, arteries, and organs. This web can contract and create pressure whenever it senses damage, such as from inflammation or surgery.

Fitness. Woman during pilates workout

Part of how our body protects itself, this tension can create pain and/or restrictions in motion over time as we overcompensate for its response. Releasing fascia tensions can help your body better recognize range of motion and recover more quickly.

You might wonder how applying even more pressure to an area that is working to protect itself can work. Science highlights that excessive tension applied to an area overrides nervous system signals to trigger a relaxing effect. This process is called autogenic inhibition and is a natural body response to avoid soft tissue damage. Hence, when you feel those ‘knots’ bound up in your muscles, by applying a force against them you are allowing them to relax to avoid creating an injury.

What Do I Do If the Foam Roller Hurts?

I won’t lie, foam rollers are not supposed to be a feel good experience while you are using them. At best it is the ‘good’ hurt that you may feel as tension and knots loosen, but you definitely want to feel the pressure that helps define the work it is doing to release trigger points.

Trainer working with woman on exercise mat in fitness studio

On that note, you don’t want to be experiencing lingering pain. If you are incredibly uncomfortable you may find that you are putting too much pressure on one area and may need to ease up on the amount of weight you are applying against the muscle.

There is a science behind this pain, however, as explained above. And as your muscles react to this process are better able to adjust and recover. Regular use of the practice will increase proper movement patterns, pain free use, and enhance the performance of your mobility and strength.

Foam Roller Do’s and Don’ts

There are a few things to keep in mind when you are using a foam roller to avoid injury and get the most out of its use.

Teenage girl working out in her gym with a foam roller

  • DO use a roller you are comfortable with and works with your specific needs. If you are new to the practice start with a softer surface to get used to the feel and learn how to apply meaningful pressure. Research your best choices in advance.
  • DO expect pain when you are using your roller. It should be a bearable, loosening pain rather than sharp or bad enough to cause you to tense up. If you find yourself gritting your teeth or tensing then you are negating the practice and need to ease up or stop.
  • DO ask a more experienced user to show you techniques to help get you started safely.
  • DON’T roll on a joint or bone. These are designed for soft tissue and are not made to cushion unyielding surfaces.
  • DON’T roll against your lower back with a long length. Rather use a ball or other shape designed for the curves of your body.
  • DO roll slowly, about 1 inch every second. Going to fast will negate its use and may cause you to tense up. Spend no more that 20-30 seconds on each area.

Fitness. Woman during pilates workout

  • DO wait 24 to 48 hours between each session to allow body recovery.
  • DON’T roll until you feel sore. Instead you should feel a release. If you create more soreness and tissue inflammation your recovery time will be longer.
  • DO consider using a soft surface to rest upon when practicing, such as a yoga mat.

Conclusion

If you have been considering the use of a foam roller for workout and muscle recovery, the relief of pain and tension, or to ease anxiety – there is nothing stopping you. Foam rollers are affordable and easy to find in order to get started with SMR practices and increased body relaxation.

As with anything new that you begin to apply, you should start slowly and feel out what pressure works best for you- plus, never hesitate to ask for help. The pain you feel is a great way to allow tension to release, but never push yourself to feel pain or try and withstand being uncomfortable.

We’d love to hear what foam rolling has done for you, and, as always, please share!

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