American Council on Exercise (ACE):1 states "Foam rolling is also called myofascial release and is designed to work out the "knots" in your muscles. You could compare the practice to self-massage. The technical terms for 'knots' are trigger points or myofascial adhesions. Fascia is a form of connective tissue that wraps and bundles muscles (myo) together. Myofascial adhesions can develop through stress, training, overuse, underuse, movement imbalances and injuries. They are essentially points of constant tension and addressing them can have a positive effect on your workouts. Ignoring them can lead to further dysfunction and may perpetuate and/or cause injury."
Foam rolling benefits are often compared to getting a massage, because as you roll on it, fibrous tissue is broken down and circulation is boosted, helping to relieve tension and pain. Which I would agree with, but then comes the slippery slope of archaic ideas of fascia and what can be accomplished with a foam roller.
I don’t want to just talk about the mistakes, what good does that really accomplish?! Instead, I hope to empower you HOW to properly use the tool you see in your gym, physical therapist’s office, and stuck in the corner of your basement or bedroom.
Here we go!
MISTAKE #1. Rolling Directly Where the Pain Is
Sounds counterproductive but remember, a painful area may be the result of tension imbalances elsewhere in your body. So, rolling a painful, inflamed area might increase inflammation and inhibit healing. It's often best to roll just a few inches away from a highly sensitive area first and then use large, sweeping motions to cover the entire area.
Try this: A good example is the IT band (Iliotibial band), ITBS (iliotibial band syndrome) is a type of knee injury for which foam rolling is often prescribed, but it has been proven, clinically, it's best to roll the muscles that attach to your IT band (your gluteus maximus, lateral hamstrings and quad, TFL (tensor fasciae latae) rather than the IT band itself. Not only may the IT band be inflamed but the IT band in greatly innervated with nerves, so it will always feel tender. I always steer people away from rolling the IT band, EVER, for that very reason. You get better, quicker results by addressing the muscles at attach to the IT band.
MISTAKE #2. Rolling Too Fast
Avoid rolling too quickly; your movements on the foam roller should be slow and concentrated. If you roll too fast, your muscles won't have time to adapt to and manage the compression, and you're not going to eliminate adhesions or address any trigger points. Rolling to fast will actually do the opposite of what you trying to accomplish, it will excite the muscle fibers and create a response that creates tension.
Try this: Slow down, allow your body to process the compression.
MISTAKE #3. Spending Too Much Time on Knots
It's OK to work on your knots using the foam roller, but if you spend five or 10 minutes on the same spot, you could cause damage to the tissue or nerves. This is especially true if you also attempt to place your entire weight on the knot.
Try this: Ideally, you should spend just 20-30 seconds on each tender spot, rest and roll while managing how much pressure you apply. When using a foam roller you should apply enough pressure so that you feel some tension released, either with constant pressure or by making small movements back and forth. A mild amount of discomfort is expected but you shouldn't be in pain. Remember, less is more!
MISTAKE #4. Using Bad Posture
Using a foam roller properly requires you to hold your body in various positions, which requires strength. If you use improper form or bad posture while doing this, it could exacerbate existing postural deviations and cause injury.
Try this: The best way to ensure you're using the proper posture is to work with an experienced personal trainer. If this isn't possible, consider videotaping yourself while foam rolling, and then comparing your form to the proper form. You may be able to spot problems and correct your posture this way.
MISTAKE #5. Using a Foam Roller on Your Lower Back
This is counterproductive because rolling your lower back will cause your spinal muscles to contract to protect your spine. Rolling your lower back is no bueno!
Try this: To release your lower back, try rolling the muscles that connect to it, including your piriformis, hip flexors, and quads.
FYI - It's OK to work your upper back with a foam roller because your shoulder blades and muscles protect your spine, but stop when you get to the end of your rib cage.
Special note about foam rollers: not all foam rollers are created equal!! I particularly like a padded plastic roller called the Trigger Point Performance Foam Roller, as this one doesn't wear out over time; it retains its shape to help you get the benefits and you can get them in a variety of sizes.
Remember, you don't need to wait until a sore spot appears to bring out your foam roller. You can actually use it daily (even if it's for just a few minutes) to help prevent trouble spots in your muscles from occurring. The actual foam rolling should feel mildly uncomfortable but not painful. If you use too much pressure, you can cause your muscles to tense up instead of relax. So start out gradually and lightly, and increase the pressure slowly until your experience only a tolerable level of discomfort.
I would love to hear your comments, feel free to shoot me an email or, better yet, come spend some time on my table!
Remember, as always, it’s your call,
Lisa McNeil M.Ed, CFSS-M
A little from Dr. Dan, a little from Lisa but always a lot of good stuff!