When I get blog comments and tweets like this one, it gets me excited about what I’ve learned firsthand: foam rolling can change your life.
“I gotta tell you Suzanne, I have been using our foam roller on my IT band and it is the BOMB! Over the last 2 weeks or so it has helped with my hip and lower back problems. I believe that it has also improved my posture since the knot between my shoulder blades seems to have lessened also. My small action has been to use it every night before bed. Good post, small actions are easy to put into your routine!”
It may be hard to believe that your aches and pains can disappear as your inflexibility and muscle tightness are resolved. But I have relieved low back, knee, and hip pain with foam rolling (and regular exercise, of course) and have heard many people say the same. Not only that, but there’s plenty of science to back up the benefits of this flexibility technique.
What is Foam Rolling?
Everyone’s wished at some point that they could give themselves a deep tissue massage. You may have felt “knots” in your muscles and known that applying pressure to them feels good. That’s because applying pressure straightens and realigns the bundled muscle fibers. Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release (SMR), improves flexibility and range of motion, relieving pain caused by muscle imbalances.
Traditional foam rollers are firm, six-inch-wide foam logs that you use your own body weight against, but what you buy may depend on your needs and fitness level. Foam rolling can and should be used as a warm up prior to stretching and cardio warm ups as a cool down after exercise. It can be done any time, whether you feel tight muscles or not.
Plenty of variations of the basic foam roller have become popular (see links below), but they all perform the same function. You can even use a tennis ball in a pinch. When I was camping I actually pressed my upper trapezius against a stick using a tree as leverage! Yow…
How Tight Muscles Cause Pain
When people ask me how to strengthen their knees, I know their knees are hurting. While strengthening certain muscles will help prevent pain in many cases, it’s only part of the equation; the other part is flexibility. And you can get this with SMR.
There are so many reasons for tight muscles: stress, posture, lack of core strength, poor form during training, and injury, to name a few. Obviously, it’s important to try to avoid muscle tension in the first place. But everyone gets tight muscles at least some of the time – you have to sit in a meeting all day, you have a stressful day, or you perform the same movements repetitively day after day, for example.
All these situations cause muscle compensations and imbalances. For example, take a look at how sitting all day can cause low-back pain:
Sitting all day à Shortened, tight hip flexors à Low back arch (anteriorly rotated pelvis) when walking, sitting, or during exercise à Low back pain from your erector spinae working overtime.
Obviously, sitting all day can cause upper body muscle compensations as well, such as rounded shoulders and a protruding head as you strain to see a computer screen. This translates to neck and shoulder pain, and the inability to use a full range of motion (i.e., turning your head, reaching for an object up high).
Why is range of motion so important? If your muscles are only moving through a partial range of motion, other muscles have to carry the load. This can cause muscle imbalances – and here we are, back to pain.
Fixing Muscle Imbalances
If there’s no injury to the joints or muscles, you can often fix muscle imbalances by foam rolling the tight muscles and strengthening the weak ones. Yes, if your knees hurt you may need to strengthen the quadriceps as well as become more flexible. But since I’m just covering foam rolling here, know that there are two parts of the equation, not one.
If you have knee or back stiffness or pain, try foam rolling:
- Hip flexor complex – *IT bands and IFL (iliotibial / tensor fascia latae)
- Piriformis (area of glutes)
- Adductors (inner thighs)
If you have upper body stiffness or pain, try foam rolling:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Upper trapezius
*Foam rolling the IT band is a superstar when it comes to relieving many types of pain.
How to Foam Roll
If you’ve never done foam rolling before, you may find it painful at first. But stick with it and it will become something you can’t do without.
Think of foam rolling as you would weight-lifting – you need to use proper form and do specific exercises for each muscle group. When you are in position, roll over the muscle at a rate of one inch per second until you find a tender spot. Then hold on the tender spot for 20-30 seconds, until the tenderness decreases. You heard me right – hold your body weight on the tender spot.
Use SMR in conjunction with other types of flexibility training – static stretching and dynamic stretching, for example, and as a warm up and cool down.
- Watch online demos for best results:
- Treat Yourself: Using Self-Myofascial Release for Aches and Pains
- How to Embrace Flexibility and Reduce Injury
- What to look for when buying a foam roller
- Other tools for self-myofascial release: Rumble Roller, The Stick, Theracane (my favorite), and therapy balls
Note: If you’re having knee or low back pain, you may need to see a doctor. I’m not a doctor and can’t offer medical advice, but if you’d like to try foam rolling to see if it helps the pain, then give foam rolling a try.