The Basics of Foam Rolling | Is It Something You Should Be Doing?

My clients have a love-hate relationship with foam rollers. Some embrace it with their whole heart; others want to burn theirs in a bonfire. I completely understand because, I was once a hater. But I have come to embrace the foam roller and all its glory, and here’s why you should, too.

In all honesty, I never tried to use one until I decided to go back to school for Massage Therapy. When I started researching more self-care techniques, the foam roller kept popping up. After speaking with several people about it, I decided to try it. I had started back pretty hard into regular workouts, and I had strained my legs due to a zealous treadmill routine. So I gave it a go. It sucked. I hated it. I was clumsy; I kept falling off the roller and hitting all the wrong places. Foam rolling does take a small amount of balance which apparently I did not have this day. Thankfully, other than two judgmental canines watching me, I was alone at the time. Resolved not to give up, I did try it again a few days later. When I eventually became more comfortable using it, I found it to be very helpful in managing muscle tightness.

Woman using a foam roller after a workout

What Is A Foam Roller?

Let us discuss what exactly a foam roller is. A high-density foam roller is pretty much as the name implies. It’s a cylindrical piece of high-density foam that is presented in varied lengths and diameters – think heavy duty pool noodle. Just by looking at it, it’s not very impressive. What is more impressive are the benefits of using it. When you foam roll, you are implementing a self-care technique that’s similar to what massage therapists would use for a deep tissue massage – long, broad strokes from one end of the muscle to the other. Without getting too technical, the benefits of this form of self-care is that the slow, sustained pressure warms up the muscle tissue and helps to displace fluid in the tissues that are being compressed. The movement also assists in spreading out the fibers in the muscles and can sometimes relieve spasms. Muscles, tendons and ligaments can get shortened and the surrounding tissue can start to stick together causing pain and tenderness whether through misuse, dehydration, or injury. I love the roller to help iron out these areas, so to say. Similarly, when I am tired and just plain achy, out comes the roller to help get me back into working order.

Where Should You Roll?

Rolling works very well for large broad muscles groups such as hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, and sometimes on the back (more on that later). However, with the varied sizes available on the market today, you can pretty much hit every muscle group in the body. With rolling, you use your own body weight and balance to roll the muscle out. It is straight forward in terms of use, depending on how well your balance is. Remember to experiment with pressure. You don’t need to lay all your force into the roller; do what is comfortable. Should you experience any pain (more than just feeling uncomfortable), then stop and stretch. If it continues to hurt while rolling the muscle, then your doctor should be consulted. The pain may be a sign of a more serious issue. Take care to avoid any bony prominences such as the knee or hip joint. Rolling over these can cause pain and bruising if too much pressure is applied.

Now, in regards to rolling the back. There are some who will suggest it, however, most of the time, I am not one of those people. In my opinion, there are too many bony protrusions that can stick out and can cause issues (dependent on how developed your back muscles are). However, if you still want to use a roller on your back, consult with a Physical Therapist, Chiropractor, or a Sports Medicine Physician to get advice on how to do it safely.

What Foam Roller Should I Buy?

Searching online or in the store to find a good foam roller can be a bit overwhelming. There are so many types on the market today. Many of them are flash but no substance. All you really need is a basic smooth roller with no ridges or bumps. Smooth is always best as the ridges can shock the tissue. Do you travel a lot? There’s a roller for that, too. Theraband makes a fantastic portable handheld roller that is great for on the go. You can find it here: Thera-Band Portable Roller Massager


For smaller spaces such as the bottom of the foot or the rhomboid area on the back, you can use a small rubber ball or a tennis ball. These contour well and help break up muscle or fascial adhesions and can help with stopping any trigger points (knots) from forming without exuding too much pressure. My go-to for my feet is always a Lacrosse ball that can easily be found in any sporting supply store. For my rhomboids, I use either a tennis ball or a PINKY Hi- Bounce Ball. Again, whichever type you choose, it is always advisable to go with the smooth ones.

Foam rollers are a good inexpensive way to aid in recovery and to use for self-care. It can take a bit of experimentation to get it just right for your body type, so don’t worry if it doesn’t feel or go exactly as planned the first time you use one. There are several tutorial videos that can be found online to help you along. If you have any sort of blood pressure or vascular issues, please make sure to consult with your physician before you use a roller. When all is said and done, whichever style of rolling you may use, just make sure to always listen to your body, it will always know best.

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Michele Mack
Michele is an Orange County girl transported into an extra ordinary Midwestern world. She loves to be outdoors (when it’s not snowing) as the world’s okayest runner and aspiring dragon boat racer. In her spare time when not trying to educate the world on her profession, she is a hospital based Massage Therapist and Certified Pediatric Massage Therapist in Columbus Ohio. She resides there happily with her Texan husband, a grumpy old German Shepard mutt and a sassy toddler who strives for world domination. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at the links below.

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