How to Use Foam Roller

Foam rollers

Using a foam roller for self-myofascial release is a fancy term for self-massage to relax tight muscles or relieve trigger points. “Foam rolling” release can actually be performed with a foam roller, a lacrosse or tennis ball, a Theracane, or your own fingers. How do you use a foam roller?

Foam rollers are used to break up muscle adhesions and scar tissue, resuming normal blood flow and muscular function. Using a foam roller also appears to give the benefits of static stretching without the associated muscle weakening. See this article about foam roller technique in the Lower Extremity Review.

How to use foam roller

There are three distinct methods of manipulating the tissue with a foam roller:

  1. Roll And Hold – Roll along the length of tissue and find the most tender spots. Hold on those spots 20 to 45 seconds (and breathe) until the muscle relaxes.
  2. Pin And Move – Hold a pressure point and stretch and flex, creating muscular motion over the pressure point. This is more effective than just Roll And Hold since it breaks up more adhesions. It’s also more painful.
  3. Cross-fiber – Massage perpendicular to the direction the muscle tissue runs. Only use this method if you know what you’re doing.

Here’s the basic Roll And Hold technique:

how to use foam roller

  1. Position yourself against the foam with the target muscle in a relaxed position. Slowly (1 centimeter per second) roll along the body part until you hit your first sore spot. Stop there.
  2. Adjust the pressure against the foam so that the discomfort factor is a 6 or 7 on a 1-10 pain scale.
  3. Hang out and relax, with neutral spine. Breathe. Do your best to mentally soften the tissue. Feel free to support your neck with your hands, or make other adjustments to get as comfortable as possible.
  4. In 30-45 seconds, the tissue on the foam should begin to relax and not be so sore. If it doesn’t, you will have to lighten up on the pressure.
  5. After the tissue relaxes a bit, slowly move to the next sore spot. It will probably be right next to where you just were.
  6. Lather, rinse, repeat.
  7. Trigger point therapy protocol recommends a static stretch of 30 seconds after lengthening all sore points on the foam roller. There are more advanced foam roller techniques that involve active stretching on the roller, but this introduction is difficult enough (and painful enough!) for beginners.

 how to use foam roller piriformis

Here’s the Mayo Clinic handout on foam rolling.

Foam rolling (self-myofascial release or SMR) can be of significant help in recovering from your workouts. Massage and rolling move more water and nutrients into the muscle cells. More hydration and more nutrients mean quicker muscular repair and recovery.

Foam rolling evens out your muscle tissues so there are no “backwaters or swamps,” which are areas of stagnation with compromised circulation. Also helpful are light activities like stretching and walking.

Here’s some good published research on foam roller release:

  1. Button DC, Behm DG. Foam rolling: early study findings suggest benefits. LER 2014;6(4):41-44.
  2. MacDonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, et al. An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res 2013;27(3):812-820.
  3. Groner C. Acute stretching debate approaches a consensus. LER 2012;4(8):55-61.
  4. Sullivan KM, Silvey DB, Button DC, Behm DG. Roller-massage application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within 5 to 10 seconds without performance impairments. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2013;8(3):228-236.
  5. Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion. J Sport Rehabil 2014;23(4):296-299.
  6. Bradbury-Squires DJ, Noftall JC, Sullivan KM, et al. Roller-massage application to the quadriceps and knee-joint range of motion and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge. J Athl Train 2015;50(2):133-140.
  7. Edmunds RM, Dettelbach A, Dito J, et al. Effects of foam rolling v. static stretching on recovery of quadriceps and hamstring force. Presented at American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL, May 2014.
  8. Halperin I, Aboodarda SJ, Button DC, et al. Roller massager improves range of motion of plantar flexor muscles without subsequent decreases in force parameters. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2014;9(1):91-102.
  9. Magnusson SP, Simonsen EB, Aagaard P, et al. A mechanism for altered flexibility in human skeletal muscle. J Physiol 1996;497(1):291-298.
  10. MacDonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2014;46(1):131-142.
  11. Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, et al. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train 2015;50(1):5-13.
  12. Junker D, Stoggl T. The foam roll as a tool to improve hamstring flexibility. J Strength Cond Res 2015 May 16. [Epub ahead of print]
  13. Skarabot J, Beardsley C, Stirn I. Comparing the effects of self-myofascial release with static stretching on ankle range-of-motion in adolescent athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2015;10(2):203-212.
  14. Roles K, Lundgren P, Borswer B. Kinematic changes to the landing phase of vertical jump pre-and post-foam rolling. Presented at American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA, May 2015.
  15. Lee E, van Iterson E, Baker S, et al. Foam rolling decreases muscle soreness but has no effect on running performance. Presented at American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA, May 2015.
  16. Felton B, Clapp A, Walker J. The effect of a self-myofascial release intervention on functional movement in healthy adult males. Presented at American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA, May 2015.
  17. Bushell JE, Dawson SM, Webster MM. Clinical relevance of foam rolling on hip extension angle on a functional lunge position. J Strength Cond Res 2015;29(9):2397-2403.