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Foam Rolling Correctly

These days, foam rollers are everywhere: the gym, your physical therapist’s office, your living room and even your suitcase. After all, foam rolling has emerged as the darling of the fitness world and the cure-all for many different aches and pains.

Essentially, foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, or self-message, that gets rid of adhesions in your muscles and connective tissue. These adhesions can “create points of weakness or susceptibility in the tissue”. If the muscle isn’t contracting uniformly from end-to-end, it could lead to injury and pain.” Foam rolling also increases blood flow to your muscles and creates better mobility, helping with recovery and improving performance.

foam roller

Fig 1. Foam Roller

Table of Contents

What are Adhesions?

Your Body is covered by Fascia, think of it like the Covering on a Sausage.  Now you have an adhesion (a sticking point), so now the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves can no longer move freely under the fascia.  This can lead to chronic pain and reoccurring injuries.

So what can we do? we can Foam Roll the Area.  Foam Rolling can restore proper blood flow to the affected area.  Sounds great, right? Yes, foam rolling offers tremendous potential to relieve pain and help you move better, if used correctly. If not, you risk irritating, and possibly injuring, your body further.

This is a list of five common mistakes people often make when using a foam roller, and how you can fix them:

Top 5 Mistakes

Mistake #1: Rolling directly where you feel pain, not a good idea.
That would be our first inclination when we feel pain, to massage that spot directly. However, this could be a big mistake. Areas of pain are victims that result from tension imbalances in other areas of the body. So, a sympathetic pain response can occur, causing a host of problems if left unresolved.

For Example:
Let’s take the IT band. Foam rolling is a commonly prescribed remedy for iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS). While religiously rolling out your IT band might feel good, the idea that you are going to relax or release the IT band is a misconception. The phrase roll out your IT band itself makes it sound like you are rolling out a piece of dough, but your IT band is anything but pliable. It’s a remarkably strong piece of connective tissue, and research has shown that it cannot be released or manipulated by manual techniques such as foam rolling. If you iron out areas of inflammation, you can increase inflammation. And if you are in pain, your body will be too stressed to repair itself, and that’s not what you’re looking to achieve.

The fix: Go indirect before direct. If you find a spot that’s sensitive, it’s a cue to ease away from that area by a few inches. Take the time and work a more localized region around areas that feel sore before using larger, sweeping motions.  For the IT band, work on the primary muscles that attach to the IT band first, specifically the gluteus maximus (the largest muscle in the buttocks) and the tensor fasciae latae (a muscle that runs along the outer edge of the hip).

If you are having repeated problems with your IT-band, you most likely have a Weakness of the Gluteus Medius, and that’s causing your pain.

Mistake #2: You’re rolling way too fast
Remember this isn’t a Race, so slow down guys!  While it might feel great to roll back and forth on a foam roller quickly, you’re not actually eliminating any adhesions that way. You need to give your brain enough time to tell your muscles to relax.

The fix: Go slower, so that the superficial layers and muscles have time to adapt and manage the compression. Feel where the tender spots are with the roller, and use short, slow rolls over that spot. There’s no reason to beat up the whole muscle if there are only a few sensitive areas.  You’re defeating the purpose if you do that.

Mistake #3: You’re spending too much time in one spot on those knots.
Taking too much time on one spot is counter-productive.  We’re often told that if you feel a knot, spend time working that spot with the foam roller. However, some people will spend five to 10 minutes or more on the same area and attempt to place their entire body weight onto the foam roller. If you place sustained pressure on one body part, you might actually hit a nerve or damage the tissue, which can cause bruising, and more pain.

Believe me when I say, you don’t want to ever hit a nerve.  It may Spasm and cause pain for hours on end.
The fix: Spend 20 seconds on each tender spot then move on. You can also manage how much body weight you use. For example, when working your IT band, plant the foot of your leg on the floor to take some of the weight off the roller.

Mistake #4: You have bad posture
Remember your Parents and Teachers telling you to sit up straight.  There was a point to them incessantly repeating that.   What does your posture have to do with foam rolling? A lot. You have to hold your body in certain positions over the roller, and that requires a lot of strength. When rolling out the IT band, you’re supporting your upper body weight with one arm. When you roll out the quads, you’re essentially holding a plank position. If you don’t pay attention to your form or posture, you may exacerbate pre-existing postural deviations and cause more harm than good.

The fix: Work with an experienced personal trainer, physical therapist or coach who can show you proper form and technique. Or, consider setting up your Smartphone to videotape yourself while foam rolling.  That way, you can see what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong, like sagging in the hips or contorting the spine.

Mistake #5: Using a foam roller on your lower back.
Ouch, I’m cringing just thinking of that. You should never ever do that. Your spine will spasm and all the spinal muscles will contract to protect the spine.

The fix: Use the foam roller on your upper back because the shoulder blades and muscles protect the spine. Once you hit the end of the rib cage, stop. If you want to release your lower back, try child’s pose or foam roll the muscles that connect to your lower back — the piriformis (a muscle located deep within the glutes), hip flexors and rectus femoris (one of the main muscles in your quads).  The Child’s Pose is a Yoga Movement that can be done either with or without a Roller.


Using the Proper Method for Foam Rolling can save you from a whole lot of discomfort and pain.
No matter what type of Roller you use, use it wisely.

Most importantly, understand what the origin of your pain is before you start. Know what you are trying to achieve through foam rolling and how to do it properly. And don’t forget to stick with it. To get the benefits of self-massage, it’s repeated exposure that’s most important. You have to show up and put in the work.

foam rolling exercises

Fig 2. Foam Rolling Exercises

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