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Foam Rolling During Workouts: Are You Doing It Right?

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Whether you’re a professional athlete or an infrequent gym-goer, you’ve probably noticed foam rollers lying around the gym, in sporting goods stores, and even on supermarket shelves. Foam rollers are wonderful recovery and rehabilitation tools, but as with all tools, there is a right way and a wrong way to use them.

Here are some tips and advice about how best to use a foam roller, with input from physical therapists Brian Riddle and Andrew Stanley from the UAB Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.

What are Foam Rollers?

Foam rollers are most frequently used to massage out and loosen up tight muscles and improve range of motion. Many people use these therapy tools to aid their recovery after workouts, prevent future injuries, and decrease pain at trigger point areas on the body.

Researchers suggest that foam rollers may create neurological changes within muscles or facilitate helpful muscle changes by separating tight muscle fibers and restoring the integrity of muscle tissue. Using a foam roller before a workout can help warm up muscles and increase range of motion to help you move better and prevent injuries. Meanwhile, using a form roller post-workout can speed up recovery time and help you feel less sore after exercising. However, medical research is limited with regard to the effects of foam rolling, so it is not entirely clear how beneficial they really are for improving muscle performance, flexibility, and balance.

Riddle and Stanley recommend foam rollers to patients who have muscle-related issues. This is most effective for a person who has a trigger point or an area of hyper-inflamed tissue that won’t relax even during periods of rest, as these spots can be painful and limit the normal range of motion.

“Foam rolling has been shown to help these areas and is a great self-treatment that can be performed at home as part of your daily routine or as an adjunct to physical therapy,” Riddle and Stanley say. “Other less common issues foam rollers can be used for include mobilizing stiff joints and improving muscular dynamic stability when used as an unstable surface.”

Using Them Properly

However, foam rollers can be ineffective or even harmful if they are used incorrectly. Riddle and Stanley say that one common mistake people make with these physical therapy devices is not using them consistently enough from one day to the next.

“Rolling just a couple of days will not provide longstanding results,” they say. “Tight and painful muscles probably didn’t develop overnight, and they certainly won’t be treated effectively overnight, either.”

Another common mistake people make with foam rollers is giving up on using them when it feels too painful. Try placing a soft barrier between your body and the foam roller, or purchase a softer foam roller if you feel too much pain while using one.

“One other mistake is rolling too fast, as if the person is trying to slingshot across the room,” Riddle and Stanley say. “It’s not a catapult, but the idea is tempting.”

Also, only use a roller on muscles – not on the nearby ligaments and joints. The muscles of your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, lats, and traps all are good candidates for foam rolling. Try rolling sore muscles daily or every other day, and do three sets of 30 seconds on especially tight spots, with 10-second breaks in between each set. Success with foam rolling involves listening to your body and doing what feels right, so experiment with what works for you.

Options

If you’re ready to give foam rolling a try at home, there are many different options available to choose from, as they are sold in many different places. For example, you can shop for foam rollers at sporting goods stores, as well as superstores like Walmart and Target, and discount stores like Marshalls and TJ Maxx. Foam rollers can be found in the fitness sections of these stores and often can be purchased for under $20.

Overall, studies usually evaluate foam rolling on standard, traditional high-density foam. Cheaper foam rollers are hollow in the middle and tend to collapse like a pool noodle. Meanwhile, the centers of other types of foam rollers are removed and replaced with a plastic core to stiffen up the cylinder. However, these tend to be too painful and unforgiving.

“Solid foam tends to be the best, giving the right amount of resistance and tolerance,” Riddle and Stanley say.

Since foam rollers have gained in popularity, you’ll find versions of them popping up with more bells and whistles, such as ridges, knobs, altered foam styles, and surface patterns. However, Riddle and Stanley say that these things tend to boil down to marketing and product differentiation, so if you have a personal preference, just go for it!