Foam rolling has received a lot of attention in fitness centers, movement therapy clinics, pilates and yoga studios, and for good reason. Using it helps to improve movement, allows cool-down from exercise, and decreases the likelihood for injury. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to use a foam roller. It helps to understand how it works in the first place.
Connective tissue known as fascia surrounds the muscle, protecting and connecting it to tendons and joints, allowing for injury free and fluid movement. Repetitive use and micro trauma (small injuries over time) cause damage to the fascia. In response, the body lays down more connective tissue in crisscross patterns over the injured area and in-between it and the working muscle. This is good from a repair standpoint but, not from a movement standpoint – because muscles may become tight, movement becomes restricted, and the body loses muscular balance and function as a result.
The first reaction by most trainers or even athletes is to stretch. Unfortunately, this does not address the connective tissue and can actually lead to further instability and the likelihood for injury. Massage can be a great option for working into the bound-up connective tissue but, it can be difficult and expensive to receive on a consistent basis. This is where the foam roller comes in
The trick is to avoid simply “pressing into” the affected area. Instead, work to not only press but, also provide cross-friction and movement to the area. Once completed, it’s important to get up and move the joint or muscle in order to increase blood flow to the area.
Each foam roller movement should include those 4 components:
1. Press on the affected area with foam roller.
2. Move the roller opposite of the muscle fibers.
3. Roll the roller along the length of the fiber.
4. Move the muscle/body part to increase muscle flow
Below are foam rolling techniques on areas commonly affected by restriction, bound up connective tissue, and pain or injury as a result:
TFL/IT band – foam rolling this area is a common need for runners looking to prevent knee or hip pain. Start at the top/side of the hip and work down toward the side of the knee joint. Avoid rolling too far forward or backward – stay centered onto the side of your thigh. Start with a small amount of pressure and place more bodyweight as tolerated. Roll it out 3-5 times and then walk or move around to increase blood flow.
Quadriceps – foam rolling this area is great for anyone seated at a desk most of the day, or those with weak abdominal muscles and tight low backs. The Quadriceps gets overused when the core and low back are weak. Because the quadriceps has 4 parts to the muscle, start to the outside of thigh (at the knee joint) and work up to the hip. Follow that with moving slightly inward, then working from the center, and finally toward the inside of the thigh (at the knee joint) and working upward. Start with a small amount of pressure and work up to more. Roll out each section of the quads 1 time.
Low Back – specifically QL (quadratus lumborum). Foam rolling for the low back is one of the easiest and painless ways to start foam rolling. Simply start with the roller at your seat (top part of the seat and the lowest part of the low back ideally), and walk your feet forward allowing the rolling to massage through the low back. You can also work up into the mid-back as well. Work the roller down to the starting position and repeat 2-3 times. Follow this foam rolling action up with a twist and a standing stretch for the low back to increase blood flow.
Achilles Tendon/Sartorius - foam rolling the ankle and calf area is perfect for athletes and anyone on their feet all day. This small but often neglected area is important as proper foot/ankle function provides a base to so many movement activities as well as core stability. Start with the Achilles tendon placed onto the foam roller. Cross the opposite foot over the top to apply pressure. Rock your ankle side to side and then forward and back along the roller. Follow this exercise up with standing and walking or jogging as a way to increase blood flow.