If you’ve spent any time in a gym or physical therapy clinic, you’ve probably seen (and used) a foam roller. Foam rollers are one of the more popular tools designed to help you maintain or increase your flexibility. And there are a number of other therapeutic benefits to spending time rolling out and massaging your musculature.
But the big question is – can foam rolling actually help you get more flexible?
Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release (SMFR), which basically means self-massage. Myofascial release is a technique that’s used to restore optimal length of the muscles, decrease pain, and improve function.1
The foam roller is an excellent device that can help alleviate tension on the IT Band, improve spinal extension, and increase hamstring length. It has also been found to enhance pre- and post-exercise muscle performance and improve recovery.2
There are several kinds of foam rollers, but most are approximately 3-feet long and 6-inches in diameter. If you need something more compact and portable, you can also find foam rollers that are about half the size, which can be easier to pack in a backpack or suitcase. Even the smaller rollers can still be used to roll out a variety of body parts.
You can also find foam rollers with different densities – from soft to hard – where harder foam rollers tend to be more aggressive. For a more advanced roller, you can select one that’s designed with knobs that hit your trigger points.
Keep in mind, while the harder and denser foam rollers often last longer, they might be too stiff for some people to use, at least in the immediate term. I recommend starting with a softer foam roller, graduating to a denser one, and then transitioning to one with trigger points.
The answer to this question is not straight forward, since research demonstrating the effects of foam rolling has been mixed. This is in part due to the inconsistent application of foam rollers, and the different body parts being assessed.
One study found that foam rolling combined with static stretching can help increase both hip flexion and hamstring length more than static stretching alone.3 However, another study concluded that foam rolling doesn’t provide any additional benefit to stretching for the anterior thigh and rectus femoris.4
Take note – these studies compared rolling combined with stretching, to stretching by itself. Most people who have incorporated foam rolling into their fitness routine do report feeling looser and more relaxed when they foam roll.
The best way to assess whether this form of myofascial release works for you is to try it out. If you feel better, or find that your movement improves after you foam roll, then it’s worth it.
The following exercises can help address the most common areas that limit proper movement:
The thoracic spine is often stuck in a rounded, kyphotic position. The foam roller can be used in two ways to help correct this:
a) Foam Roller Along The Spine
This position helps stretch the pecs and open up the chest.
Instructions: Lay on the foam roller length-wise so it’s supporting your head, spine and tailbone. With straight arms, allow your shoulders and arms to relax towards the ground by your sides. Keeping them close to the ground, perform the snow angel movement. Attempt to have your hands touching the floor as your arms complete the arc above your head.
b) Foam Roller Perpendicular To The Spine
Here, the focus is on improving your thoracic extension.
Instructions: Sit on the ground, and lay your upper back against the foam roller. Support your head with your hands and keep your butt on the ground as you begin to arch back over the roller. Take deep breaths into your belly as you relax into the stretch. Then bring your head back up to neutral, roll a bit down your spine, and then arch back over the roller.
Rather than quickly moving up and down your spine, try to take at least two full breaths in and out at each segment. This will give your spine time to open up.
The IT Band often gets tight when the hip muscles are weak, and is a common area of tightness in runners.
Instructions: Lay on your side with the foam roller underneath the thigh. You can roll up and down the length of your thigh, but my preference is to focus on the tightest spots by staying there, and then flexing and extending the knee. Your thigh will stay in place, but the IT Band and the quad will slide back and forth over the foam roller.
The posterior shoulder is another area that tends to be tight for a lot of people, often because of prolonged computer and desk work.
Instructions: This exercise is similar to the sleeper stretch, only you’re performing it with the foam roller underneath your shoulder. You can rock in a back-and-forth and up-and-down motion. For a stronger stretch, you can stay on one spot and gently push your hand down towards the floor (as you would in the sleeper stretch).
Although research might be conflicted about the efficacy of foam rolling at improving flexibility, it’s a technique that’s used by physical therapists, professional athletes, and fitness professionals. Self-myofascial release is a fantastic way to relieve stress (both muscular and life stress), improve blood flow, and prepare your body for exercise. The best way to find out whether this technique works for you is to try it out for at least a week, and see how you feel. Do you have less pain? Are you able to move better? Do you recover quicker from your workouts?
If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, then foam rolling is probably adding value to your exercise program.
Do you foam roll? What are your favorite exercises?
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