Are stairs your enemy after leg day? Or, do you have trouble opening doors when your upper body is in the throes of post-workout pain? We’ve all been there: That terrible and wonderful feeling where the most mundane tasks become difficult because your muscles are too darn sore. If you’re seeking relief after a tough gym session, foam rolling can help ease your discomfort and even speed up recovery.
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Applying pressure to the muscles with a dense foam roller or ball is a type of self-myofascial release, or self-massage. The goal is to boost circulation of blood to the muscles so they have healthy fascia (aka connective tissue), says Michael Conlon, PT, founder and owner of Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York City. “By rolling, you improve tissue mobility and in turn improve performance in whatever event you’re doing,” Conlon says. And with increased mobility, “you’re more prepared for that next round.”
Sore No More: The Benefits of Foam Rolling
Confused why foam rolling differs from simply doing a few toe touches and quad stretches after your run? The answer lies in its potential to remove adhesions in your muscles. These adhesions, which contribute to that tight feeling, restrict your range of motion — sometimes to the point that lifting your arms to brush your teeth can seem near impossible after you upped your weights, reps or sets.
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“If you stretch the muscles but don’t do anything to the connective tissue, the athlete will go back to his or her limited range of motion,” says Carolyn Peters, M.A., A.T.C., C.S.C.S., Head Athletic Trainer and Strength Specialist at San Diego Christian College and board member National Athletic Trainers’ Association. After hopping on the foam rolling bandwagon a few years ago, Peters now believes self-myofascial release using foam rollers and lacrosse (or massage) balls provide the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to recovery. But don’t just flop onto that roller or that ball like dead weight. First, you’ll need a plan — and an understanding of basic technique.
Foam Rolling for Rookies
Luckily, a little can go a long way. “Oftentimes people think they need a whole half-hour for rolling,” says Conlon, who suggests focusing on key areas or muscle groups that have taken a beating during your workout. “If you can spend five or 10 minutes before and after workouts, that would be ideal,” he says. One to two minutes for each muscle groups is typically adequate. Peters agrees, and notes that she’s seen some athletes rolling too much. “People almost abuse the tissue, instead of finding one spot to target.” She recommends finding a tender spot and then moving a joint through a range of motion (example: flexing and extending your ankle while your calf is pressed against a roller) instead of rubbing a muscle to death.
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Ready for some sore muscle TLC, foam roller-style? We asked Peters and Conlon for a few expert tweaks to take your next recovery sesh to the next level. Grab a dense foam roller and a small massage ball (a tennis or lacrosse ball will also work) and follow along with movements and GIFs below. Conlon (pictured below) and Finish Line PT recommend the Trigger Point Performance Roller and the Trigger Point Massage Ball.
5 Foam Roller Moves You Aren’t Doing (But Should)
1. Quad Muscle
How to: Lie facedown on the floor. Place a foam roller perpendicular to your legs, with your right upper thigh resting on the roller and the left leg bent at the hip and knee, resting lightly on the ground to your left. You should be balancing on your forearms with your core engaged. Begin by rolling two inches to the front of the mat and then two inches back (a). While holding the roller still, slowly bring your right heel towards your glute and then lower it to the ground. Repeat two to three times on the right side (b). Perform the same series of movements on the left side.
2. Calf Muscle
How to: Sit on the floor with your left leg bent and your right calf resting on a foam roller. Conlon recommends placing the roller an inch or two above the Achilles tendon. Support yourself by placing your hands on the mat slightly behind you. Shift some of your weight from your resting left leg so you have some pressure on your right calf and roll yourself forward one or two inches so the foam roller gets closer to your knee (a). Slowly move the foam back to the starting position above the Achilles tendon (b). When you find a tight spot, “flex and extend your ankle like your pushing down on a gas pedal,” says Peters (b). Repeat on the left side.
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3. Lateral Calf Muscle (Peroneal Group)
How to: Lie on your right side, supported by your right forearm and your left hand resting on the ground in front of you. Place the foam roller perpendicular to your right leg, roughly two inches above your Achilles heel (a). Shift back two inches so the roller moves up your side calf towards your knee, then roll it back down (b). Feel any tenderness? Conlon recommends rotating your ankle joint in a circle to alleviate soreness (c). Repeat on the left side.
4. Glute Muscle
How to: Sit on the floor and place a lacrosse ball or massage ball under your right glute. Legs should be bent and your feet should be resting lightly on the ground. Your hands should be placed on the floor behind you (a). Start by rolling the massage ball in small circles under you, then reverse directions (b). When you find a tight area, put more of your bodyweight on the ball. Pulse up and down for a few seconds, alternating between more and less pressure (c). To ease tension even more, Conlon recommends moving your right hip through a range of motion, as demonstrated above. Bring your right knee out to the side and lift up your leg. Bring it back into the regular position. Repeat as desired (d). Repeat movements on the left side.
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5. Thoracic Spine
How to: Sit on the floor with your knees bent in front of you. Place the foam roller at the bottom of your ribcage, perpendicular to your spine. (It should be mid-back, not on your lower back.) Place your hands behind your head as you lean on the roller (a). Inhale, and as you exhale, lower your back to the floor so it arches slightly over the roller. Bring your back to the starting position (b). Next, scoot your bottom towards your feet roughly two inches so the roller sits further up your back. Repeat the movements above, keeping your breathing slow and steady (c). Shift your bottom towards your feet again and repeat the back stretch. Continue this two or three more times. Your last stretch should occur when the roller is right above your scapula, or shoulder blades (d).
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Originally published May 2015. Updated January 2016.