The Definitive Guide to Foam Rollers
Subheader: This detailed guide offers everything you need to know about how foam rollers work, their benefits, and how to choose the one that’s right for you.
In the past couple of decades, foam rollers have become popular tools for fitness, comfort, and rehabilitation. However, if you’ve never used one before, you may feel baffled by the phenomenon.
This article will explain what foam rollers are, and how they work to benefit the muscles of the body. It will outline the different types of foam rollers and how they are used by various practitioners.
The article will also discuss which exercises you can do with foam rollers, best practices for using them, and what to look for in a foam roller when you decide to purchase one.
What is a foam roller?
A foam roller is a device that allows you to give your own muscles a deep tissue massage. The roller is often a rod of some sort covered in foam, but many larger rollers are made entirely of foam. The most common length is about 30 centimeters. The foam can be quite soft or fairly hard, depending on the roller. Beginners tend to use softer foam because their muscles are not used of the technique. The smaller foam rollers can be held in your hands as you use them, while the larger ones rely on movement from the body to be effective.
Why foam rolling works
Fascia is a sturdy and thin connective tissue that wraps around the muscles (and many other structures) in the body. When this tissue becomes restricted, pain, muscle stiffness, and inflexibility result.
Foam rolling is based on the theory of myofascial release. As the roller massages the tissue, it works out knots and brings more oxygenated blood to target areas. When used in specific ways and positions, the roller helps relax contracted muscles and stretch them. It promotes growth in underused muscles and flexibility in overused muscles.
There are many myofascial techniques that can be effective, however, most of them can not be performed unassisted. The foam roller is the rare option that lets the practitioner do the work on their own. This contributes to the popularity of foam rollers: they are convenient and easy to master without outside aid.
What are the different types of foam rollers?
1.The Low density foam roller
A low density foam roller is the lightest roller on the market. It’s the least likely to cause pain when you use it, although any roller will probably provide slight discomfort when you first begin working with it. Low density rollers are perfect for those who are just starting out with this practice. They come in a variety of sizes. They are often white in color, but you should always double check the listing or packaging of the roller to make sure it’s the right density, no matter the color.
2.Medium / standard density foam roller
The medium density roller falls between hard and soft. It’s particularly useful for aerobics practitioners because it’s great for core stabilization. Medium rollers offer a medium-level of tissue massage, which means they may be more painful for newcomers. These rollers are often color coded blue or green.
3. Firm foam roller
A firm foam roller is much smoother and denser than a light or medium roller. Typically, it is color-coded black or some other dark color. These rollers are more durable than their medium and low counterparts, but they are also much harder to use. For many, starting with a firm foam roller can be painful, whereas for others, it is just the right choice.
4. Short foam roller
Short foam rollers come in two main subtypes. A standard short foam roller is both shorter in diameter and in width. It looks a bit like a foam roller that has been cut in half along its length and its diameter.
There are also short foam rollers that are small enough to be wielded with a handle. These tend to target smaller muscle groups but can be used for larger ones as well. They are highly convenient, because they are slightly easier to use on yourself for massage, and they are much easier to transport. You can pack one into your suitcase for a vacation, or take one along with you to the gym without any hassle.
5. Textured foam roller
Textured foam rollers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are especially effective for self-massage. This is because their bumpy textures allow them to hit more trigger points on the muscles. Many textured foam rollers are also short rollers, but there are some larger ones as well, often used to work on the back. For more information on textured foam rollers, see What to Look for in a Foam Roller.
The benefits of foam rolling
There are several primary benefits to foam rolling. One is to relieve pains and aches, and the other is to help build stronger, more flexible muscles. Within these two primary benefits are many other sub benefits.
Foam rolling to relieve pain
Foam rolling is a powerful tool to relieve, reduce, and even eliminate pain. At first, this might seem counterintuitive. This is because foam rolling is often a little discomforting at first. It’s important to remember that you should be shooting for a “it hurts so good” type feeling, like you might have with a deep tissue massage. If you are experience heavy and continued pain, you should switch to a lower density foam roller.
Often, lower-back pain is caused by stiffness or inflexibility in the hips. So if you are suffering aches above your pelvis, foam rolling your hips can be a huge help. When your hips are too tight, your body will bend more often at the waist instead of the hips. Doing this type of bending movement frequently can put a heavy toll on your lower back, causing significant pain.
Knee pain is another issue caused not only by the joint itself, but also by the muscles around it. Often, hip instability can put strain on the IT band, leading to strained knees. This pain manifests itself as both inflammation and ache. To address knee pain, use the foam roller against the inside of your thighs, rather than directly on your knee. Reducing the inflammation there means the muscles around the knee don’t need to work as hard. This helps address the root of the problem, so you’ll see returns faster than you would if you spent hours on your knees instead.
Your shoulder has a ball and socket joint, allowing for maximum flexibility. Unfortunately, it also makes the shoulder the most unstable joint in your entire body. This is why shoulder injuries and shoulder pain are so common; it is very easy to strain this joint. The problem is compounded when you frequently work your deltoids. If you’re not also working the stabilizing muscles near them, you’ll experience a painful sense of imbalance. You can use your foam roller on both the back and front of your shoulder to alleviate this pain. It may hurt a bit at first, but ultimately the sensations you feel should be relaxing and beneficial.
Upper back pain
Upper back pain is particularly common for those who work at a desk all day. You might also find you have upper back pain after a long trip in the car. This is because staying in one place encourages your upper back muscles to stiffen, which in turn generates pain when they need to “wake up” again. The best way to address this pain is to literally roll on your foam roller. Lie down on your back and place it beneath you with your knees lifted. Then roll back and forth to get the roller to start relaxing your muscles.
Certain high impact sports can damage the band that runs across the sole of your foot and attaches at your heel. If you find yourself constantly rubbing your heels after you run or every time you play a tennis match, you may have injured this band. Getting this spot can be difficult with a traditional foam roller. Instead, you may want to try standing on one leg while the injured foot rolls against a tennis ball. This will help create a similar effect on the muscles. You can also sit down and use a hand-held roller on the base of your foot.
Foam rolling to strengthen muscles
Foam rolling may seem to many to be more about reducing tightness or relieving pain. And well these are essential benefits, foam rolling can also aid in the process of building muscle. If you incorporate foam rolling into your workout warmup, then your muscles will be more ready to work intensively.
These warmer, pre-prepped muscles help you generate more force when you lift weights. This means you can progress more quickly and build more strength, all while reducing your chance of injury.
Foam rolling to reduce tightness
Even if you aren’t experiencing a lot of direct muscle pain, a foam roller can also help with tightness and stiffness. If you are struggling each morning to get out of bed, starting a foam rolling routine can be a big aid. Once your muscles feel looser, you’ll find you don’t need to get up so slowly or sleep in the exact right position. If you are having trouble touching your toes or lifting your arms high above your head, foam rolling can smooth out knots in your fascia, leaving your muscles smoother and stretchier.
Foam rolling to reduce cellulite
Foam rolling can have aesthetic benefits as well. Because of the myofascial release foam rolling offers, it can give the skin an overall smoother appearance. Many people use foam rolling to address target areas, much as they might use deep tissue massage. However, it should be noted that foam rolling can not permanently eliminate cellulite on its own, though it can help with its appearance.
Because it helps warm up and stretch the muscles, foam rolling can reduce the risk of injury when you are doing other exercises, or simply when you’re lifting heavy objects. Try foam rolling before doing other intensive exercise, like running, skiing, or weightlifting. Avoiding injuries not only saves you pain and health costs, it means you won’t interrupt the progress of your fitness goals.
Foam rolling for specific sports
Foam rolling can aid any athlete in sharpening their skills and improving their game. Two of the most common types of foam roller aficionados are runners, and practitioners of pilates and yoga. Here are the types of rollers we recommend if you are looking for these specific reasons.
The best foam roller for runners
Many runners use foam rollers to strengthen and stretch muscles, as well as to alleviate aches caused by frequent running. Foam rolling is a great way to address issues in the calves, knees, hamstrings, and the IT band.
If you are already running regularly, than you have probably built up a fair amount of lean muscle tone. For this reason, you might consider starting with a medium density roller, and then moving onto a firm roller if this does not provide enough pressure.
Many runners also like using textured rollers because they can hit trigger points more effectively. Textured rollers are not the right choice for everyone, but if you are used to working your muscles vigorously, you should consider one.
The best foam roller for pilates
When foam rolling for pilates or even yoga, most users will want a long and gentle roller. The longer length enables you to maintain your pilates position while you work with the roller. The lower density means that you can focus on stretching out your muscles, rather than putting your efforts into digging through difficult knots or building intensive muscle tone.
Exercises to do with your foam roller
There are hundreds of different exercises you can do with a foam roller. Some are gentle and can even be soothing, whereas others are highly intense. How much work you put on your muscles depends on how long you roll, what kind of roller you use, and the specific type of exercise you are doing. The following is a list of exercises that you can do to address specific areas of your body. Each exercise can be done using any type of long roller, with any texture and firmness. However, not all the exercises below will work with a short or half-size roller.
Foam roller exercises for the lower body
Working with the lower body is essential for runners, skiers, surfers, and many players of team sports. You’ll find that you can isolate specific problems by using your roller on the right part of your legs and trunk.
Foam rolling for your calves
This exercise requires balance and upper body strength. Sit on the floor with your legs extended and your hands stretched a little bit behind you. Place the roller under your calves. Then use your hands and shoulders to lift your pelvis off the floor. Most of your weight should be on your hands and shoulders, not balanced on your calves. From this position, you can roll the roller back and forth across the surface of your calves, all while you are getting a great upper body workout.
Foam rolling for your shins
This exercise requires some balance. Begin by placing your upper shins on the roller. Put your hands out in front of you and face the floor, so that you are in a “push-up” position. Use your arms to maneuver your body so that you roll the roller gently across the surface on your shins, pushing your shoulders over your hands as you do so. Be careful not to roll too far and go over your knees—keep the movement between your upper shins and your ankles.
Foam rolling for your IT band
The IT band is a thick band of fibers that extends from below the pelvis to the shin. If you experience tightness and pain in your knees, you might have IT band syndrome. However, you don’t want to stretch the band out directly at the knee. Instead, come onto a position on your right side. Place the roller under your right hip and keep your right leg extended. Cross your left leg over your right leg, letting it bend. You can keep your hands on the ground to better balance in this position. Then, use them to help maneuver as your roll the roller back and forth across your outer right hip and outer thigh, making sure not to roll across your knee. When you’re ready, do the same thing on the opposite side.
Foam rolling for your hamstrings
This exercise is very similar to the one we suggest for your calves. As with your calves, you sit on the floor with the roller under your legs, but this time place the roller under your thighs instead. Use your hands and shoulders to lift your pelvis, and then roll back and forth across your thighs, stopping just before the knee. Stretching out the areas above your hamstrings will put less pressure on them in the long run.
Foam rolling for your quads
This exercise requires upper body strength. Start by lying down on your stomach. Place the roller under your thighs, and then come up onto your elbows. Tighten your core muscles as your roll the roller back and forth across the surface of your thighs, using your arms to help you find the movement.
Foam rolling for your inner thighs
Lie on your stomach, using your forearms to prop up your head and shoulders. Place the foam roller under your inner thigh on one side of your body. Keep the knee of that leg slightly bent to allow for movement. Then roll the roller across the surface of your inner thigh, coming to just above the knee. When you are ready, switch sides.
Foam rolling for your hips
Lie down on your stomach, using your forearms to prop up your head and shoulders. This time, bend the opposite knee, tucking your ankle near your pelvis. Place the foam roller under the hip of your extended leg. Roll gently back and forth across the surface of the hip flexor, and then switch sides.
Foam rolling for your glutes
This exercise requires balance and core strength. Rest the foam roller under your backside and use your arms to prop up your upper body. Then twist slightly to one side so that one cheek is resting primarily on the roller. Keep the leg on the same side straight, and bend your opposite leg. Use your arms to help you roll the roller across the surface of your glute. This will only be a handful of inches. After several rounds on one side, switch to the opposite cheek.
Foam roller exercises for the upper body
Foam rolling your upper body is a nice way to address a variety of issues. You might be an office worker experience the dreaded desk-job shoulder stiffness, or a weightlifter wanting to up your flexibility. Either way, foam rolling can help.
Foam rolling for your upper back
This exercise requires core strength and balance. With your head facing up, place the foam roller under your shoulder blades. Keep your knees bent and your feet on the floor, so that you are in a reverse tabletop position. Then, use your legs to help you roll the roller across the surface of your upper back.
Foam rolling for your lats
Lie down on your side, with one arm extended. Place the roller in the armpit area of your extended arm. You can use your opposite arm to help stabilize you. Then roll over your lats and towards your natural waist. After a few reps, switch to the other side.
Foam rolling for your neck
Using a foam roller on your neck is a little different than the standard foam rolling exercises. You should be extra careful here, as this area is highly sensitive. You should also make sure your foam roller is not too big for you to comfortably attempt this exercise.
To start, lie down on the floor with the foam roller under your neck, and your head lifted. Then, slowly start to lift your hips until you feel pressure from the roller against your neck. Rather than moving back and forth, stay in this position for around 30 seconds (no longer than a minute), letting the pressure gradually increase as you lift your hips a little more. When you are finished, move the roller just above or below the previous spot, and repeat the exercise.
Safety and general tips for foam rollers
In general, foam rollers are very safe to use. You do not need any supervision when working with a roller, and most of the exercises you will do are simple and straightforward movements. However, you should still adhere to good safety principles and make sure you are taking care of your body. The following tips can assist you in doing just that. They can also ensure that you have an effective workout with your roller, and that you are promoting myofascial release properly.
Don’t roll where it hurts most
If you are suffering from back pain, this doesn’t mean you can’t use a foam roller on your back. Instead, this means that if you have a specific injury, you should be careful about focusing your roll directly in that area. Typically, it is actually the muscles nearby are the ones you need to target in the first place.
Don’t move too fast
You may be tempted when working with your foam roller to move back and forth very quickly. You’ll probably feel less discomfort, and you might also feel like you are getting more done in a short amount of time. However, by moving too quickly, you are actually reducing the effectiveness of your roller. If you don’t get into that genuine “massage-like” rhythm, then you won’t hit your trigger points or release your fascia. This means you won’t see yields in flexibility, or recover any faster from your injuries.
Don’t stay in one place for too long
On the flip side, you shouldn’t stay in one spot forever. You might be doing just a gentle movement, but it should be still be a movement. Brief pauses in a spot or two are fine, but try to keep them shorter than a couple seconds. In general, you want to capture a feeling of a slow, continuous movement.
Don’t foam roll your lower back
Unless you are under direct instruction from your physical therapist, you shouldn’t roll out your lower back directly. This area is quite bony, and you can do damage to your spine by rolling here.
Don’t roll your knees directly
Foam rolling can help a lot with your knee pain. However, you shouldn’t use the roller directly over your knee cap. Not only is this less effective at combating your knee pain, it’s also potentially dangerous. Like rolling your lower back, it can make injuries worse, not better. You could even crush some of the bones in your knee cap by rolling over it.
Don’t roll for no reason
It’s not a great idea to pick up foam rolling with no purpose in mind at all. Some people figure, “hey this is a healthy thing to do, right?” and go to it without getting informed on the type of roller they need or the exercises they should be doing. Foam rolling to up your running performance is very different than foam rolling to relieve a shoulder injury.
Be mindful of your posture
Rolling in a hunched position will affect your posture negatively over time. Try it keep your spine, neck, and head in relative alignment. Different foam rolling exercises require different positions, so make sure you follow guidelines carefully instead of unnecessarily contorting your body.
Don’t roll for two long
You don’t need to use your foam roller for hours each day to see results. In fact, this will usually do more harm than good. Keep your rolling sessions around 20 minutes or less to ensure that you are not overstretching your muscles.
What should you look for in a foam roller?
As you decide to purchase a foam roller, there are several factors you should consider. These are some of the primary factors you should weigh in your mind.
Foam rollers are not particularly expensive. A high-quality roller can run as little as $25. Cheaper rollers can be found for under $10, but they may not be as durable. The most expensive rollers are usually around $70-$80. These are typically high density rollers that also have unusual shapes or textures.
Foam rollers are all made of some kind of foam or foam/plastic combination, but the types of material differ. Here are a few of the most common types:
- EVA foam: This is a soft foam typically used to make low density rollers. It is often found in lighter colors, such as white or pale blue. It is the least durable, but the softest against the muscles. EVA foam rollers tend to wear out after a few months of use, but they are less expensive and easier for brand new beginners to use.
- EPP foam: This is a high density foam that’s typically found in darker colors. It’s longer-lasting than EVA foam, but can still wear out after a while.
- EVE foam: This is another high density foam that tends to be a little higher quality and more durable than EPP.
- Other blends: Many foam rollers are made with combination blends. Some are high quality, whereas others are quite flimsy. There are even some “foam” rollers made from rope blends and other unusual materials.
Foam rollers can come in many different textures. These textures are designed to hit trigger points: knots and adhesions in your muscles that could use some assistance in being smoothed out. The biggest thing to remember about different textures is how they will affect your endurance. Small, even bumps are going to be a lot easier for beginners to manage than hard plastic spikes. Here are a few popular textures:
- Deep, spaced out grooves: these are great for self-massage and injury recovery
- Spiny spikes and knobs: these are great for trigger points that are difficult to hit with a regular roller
- Tiny, evenly spaced bumps all over: these help your body more easily grip your foam roller as you work with it
Purchasing a foam roller
Purchasing your own foam roller is an inexpensive way to invest in your health and your athletic future. The numerous advantages of foam rolling include greater flexibility, strength, and the elimination of intense and recurring pain.
It’s our hope that searching through this guide has helped you know which is the best roller for you and your needs. The right foam roller will vary depending on your situation, fitness goals and history, and pain tolerance. However, if you’re unsure what foam roller is right for you, we personally recommend a long, medium density roller. This type of roller will not wear out easily, and is suitable for a wide variety of exercises.
About our foam roller
Our deluxe, trigger point foam roller is fantastic for both injury recovery and general tightness issues. It’s a medium density roller that won’t cause too much pain, but will give you that stretching sensation you’re looking for. It’s also a particularly convenient roller: lightweight, portable, and easy to clean.
If you are having a hard time reaching your trigger points, you might also consider our trigger pin roller. The patented “double-bubble” roller can actually be more effective than many types of foam at getting those hard to reach knots and adhesions. Weighing it at only 2.2 pounds, it’s made from the best-quality materials. The layers of sturdy, but gentle polypropylene rope are wrapped in a moisture-resistant sleeve. If you are foam rolling for injury recovery or physical therapy, it’s a great solution.