Today we’re diving into how to foam roll and make your own foam roller.
You know those knots, lumps, or aches and pains you sometimes feel between your shoulder blades and calves, or the soreness you may get in the hamstrings or quads after a tough workout?
You may feel those things after a long day on your feet or sitting at your desk after an eight-hour day.
Myofascial release is a technique that is practiced as a way to help relax contracted muscles, improve muscle mobility, and relieve pain. It involves applying varying amounts of force to adhesions (more on this in a second) on the body until release occurs.
You can have someone else perform myofascial release or you can do it yourself by using a foam roller, lacrosse (tennis, racquet, or golf ball), sticks, or your hands and feet. Doing it on your own is known as self-myofascial release (SMR).
It originally was used for rehabilitation but now it seems every gym, Crossfit box, and even homes have a foam roller or other tools that will allow you to do SMR.
It can be done passively (in a relaxed state) like a message, or actively (using resistance) using a foam roller or trigger point therapy.
Trigger point therapy and active release techniques are other names you may have heard referring to SMR.
Table of Contents
WHAT CAUSES THOSE KNOTS, LUMPS, ACHES, AND PAINS?
If you are just starting an exercise program, workout out hard consistently, or are a competitive athlete than you know all about the aches, pains, and the tightness that I’m talking about.
However, even if you’re not exercising you can still develop muscular imbalances, generally tightness, and aches and pains. We’re very susceptible to imbalances because of the way life is evolving.
- Desk jobs
- Long commutes
- Poor posture
All can contribute to tight hips, pecs, lats, neck, rotator cuff, calves, and low back pain. For example, sitting at a desk most of the day on a computer causes the pecks to become tight, shoulders to round forward, and upper back muscle to become overdeveloped (see the picture above).
FASCIA AND YOUR BODY
Fascia is an elastic connective tissue that covers muscle, organs, nerves, and blood vessels. it acts as a support system and helps to protect your muscles. It also allows everything to move without excessive friction. It’s sort of like vaseline or a pig… well, maybe not but I think you get me.
Fascia is a combination of collegian and elastic fibers formed from fibroblasts that are found within the fascia. Fascia is what you’re attacking when you perform SMR.
Exercise, overuse, non-use, stress, trauma, and lifestyle factors can cause certain parts of the body to become over or underdeveloped or tears in the fascia. When these things don’t heal properly they often cause discomfort and even pain and ain’t nobody got time for that!
The poor technique when exercising, inflexibility, poor movement patterns, hydration levels, rest, and stress can also affect the fascia in your body.
WHY USE A FOAM ROLLER OR OTHER FORMS OF SMR?
Some of the reported benefits of SMR include:
- Injury prevention
- Remove knots
- Breakup tightness
- Improve flexibility
- Increase blood flow
- Improves Lymphatic circulation
- Stimulates the stretch reflex
- Helps to relieve muscle soreness
- Faster recovery
On a personal note, I’ve noticed improved recovery, reduced muscle soreness, better flexibility/mobility, and fewer aches and pains when I am performing SMR regularly. In particular, a better range of motion when I squat, and shoulder mobility for exercises like the overhead squat. Even just walking around I feel less tight.
You could always get messages regularly, see a physical therapist, or myofascial release specialist but in order to receive the benefits from it, you would need to be going pretty consistently (almost daily). That can get pretty pricey.
Foam rolling and other forms of SMR allow you to perform daily maintenance on yourself for free. It’s effective, inexpensive, and convenient – You can do it while watching a movie or “New Girl” #zooeydeschanel
SMR will also give you the ability to control the amount of discomfort throughout the process, Yes, it will definitely hurt a bit at first.
Long story short, SMR is important because it may help to prevent problems before they arise – and they will arise whether we like it or not.
HOW DO I FOAM ROLL AND WHAT DO I NEED? FOAM ROLLING FOR BEGINNERS
You can actually perform SMR on yourself with your own two hands, feet, knuckles, and elbows but this makes it difficult to reach some of the major problem areas.
A foam roller will allow you to perform SMR on the majority of your body. It will be difficult to get at smaller muscles like in between the shoulder blades, but for the quads, hamstrings, upper back, glutes, and even chest it’s great.
If you’ve never foam rolled before I would select a low-density foam roller. SMR can be a bit of a painful process at first and getting used to the discomfort might be in your best interest.
Low-density rollers wear out pretty quickly and will lose their shape and firmness. When this occurs or your body becomes adjusted to the density it’s time to upgrade.
Tip: Selecting the right sized foam roller. They usually come in 12”, 18”, and 36” Pick up the 36” if you are just getting into it. It will allow you to roll out your entire back and fit both quads, glutes, calves, and hamstrings on it. This is something that you’ll want because rolling out one quad or one glute at a time is a little more uncomfortable due to the added pressure that is typically applied.
Tennis balls, lacrosse balls, racquetballs, roller hockey balls, and even golf balls can help you release tension and adhesions in those hard to reach spots.
- In between the shoulder blades
- Bottoms of the feet
- Hip flexors
- Muscles surrounding the shins
Each ball will provide different levels of intensity but ultimately you’ll be able to decide how much pressure is right for you.
BEGINNERS USING BALLS
Start with the softest ball possible. Racquet and tennis balls usually have a decent amount of giving to them while lacrosse and roller hockey balls are pretty firms. I recommend only using golf balls for the bottoms of your feet while standing. You can place the ball on the arch of your feet and apply as much press as you’d like, slowly rolling the ball back and forth.
- The stick takes up little space and is great for travel.
- Yoga blocks allow you to apply extra pressure to those areas that may need it. By placing a ball on top of the block and then the body part that needs rolling out on top of the ball.
WHAT CAN I USE INSTEAD OF A FOAM ROLLER
A few of them I already mentioned. Tennis balls, softballs, lacrosse balls. Basically any ball you can get your hands on. But you can also use household items, as well as other random things as a way to get your foam roll on.
- Rolling pins
- Frozen water bottles
- PVC pipe as you’ll see below
FOAM ROLLER, BALL, OR WHATEVER YOU DECIDE TO USE. HERE’S A QUICK START GUIDE.
Figuring out which spots to perform SMR doesn’t have to be overly complicated. In all honesty, the entire body could use a little tender loving SMR. But if you’re pressed for time and just want to focus on your big problem areas you can look for hot spots or trigger points in a couple of ways.
- Having a professional perform a screening on you. Most physical therapists can perform an assessment on you and find muscular imbalances or trigger points that could use a little SMR.
- Conduct a self-evaluation by using your hands, a foam roller, or a tennis ball. Start poking around the body a bit and see if you notice any tight, tender, sore, or lumps. Most people have issues in the IT band, calves, upper back (under shoulder blades), hamstrings, hip, ankles, and quads.
Pretty sure I just named every part of your body.
How to actually do it:
No matter which piece of equipment you decide to use here’s a formula you can follow to maximize your SMR time:
- Find those hot spots by having a professional perform an assessment or by doing so on your own.
- Start slow and steady. Move up and down the entire muscle at a slow and steady pace. Start proximal and work distal. Proximal is where the muscle joins the body and distal is away from the body. So working proximally to distal when rolling out your quads would mean starting where the quad meets the hip flexor and working your way down the leg to the top of the knee.
- Once you’ve found the precise location of discomfort, hot spot, or trigger point rest on that spot for a little. The magic of SMR is actually in the pressure applied and not the process of rolling.
- If you’re using one of the balls this process is going to hurt like all get-up. Just saying
ARE THERE ANY AREAS I SHOULD NOT FOAM ROLL?
Well, definitely not your penis or boobs. Sweet Jesus, I hope you have a sense of humor.
Seriously, avoid rolling out bones or joints. Also, be careful of the lower back and neck. If you have serious issues with these areas it may be in your best interest to meet with a professional.
Physical therapist Tom Myers suggests not rolling out your IT bands. Not because it is dangerous but because you can’t loosen it up. Your IT band supports about half your body weight every time you take a step, so it’s super strong. Trying to loosen it up is a waist time and not very helpful. Instead, focus on your glutes and TFL
The founders of Precision Sports Performance, Meg Furstoss, M.S. and Andrew Borsellino, M.S recommend not rolling out your lower back. Again, not because it is dangerous but because most lower back issues stem from deep inside the back. Foam rolling only targets the top layer. Focusing instead on the glutes and adductors is more helpful.
IS FOAM ROLLING ACTUALLY HELPFUL?
Foam rolling is a helpful tool for relieving tension but there is not enough evidence that it dramatically changes your tissue. Some studies are showing that it can be a helpful short term strategy for improving flexibility without reducing performance (1) (2). But this also could be related to psychological factors.
Other studies show that 10 minutes of foam rolling post-exercise may decrease DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness). But keep in mind that DOMs is the body’s inflammatory response that occurs after training. It is a signal that it needs to improve later. A reduction in this may not be helpful unless you have a competition the following day.
Research is still so new that it is hard to get a clear idea of whether foam rolling is helpful or not. However, if you enjoy it, get benefit from it, and feel good doing it. You should do it.
CAN YOU OVERDO FOAM ROLLING AND OTHER FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1. Is it going to hurt?
To answer that quickly, yes! The good news is you can decide how much pressure you want to apply to your hot spots. Therefore, you get to determine how much discomfort you’re going to experience.
2. How much foam rolling or SMR should I be doing?
In order to experience the benefits, a little should be done every day. 5 to 15 minutes focusing on the quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and upper back is a great place to start.
3. Can you overdo foam rolling?
Keep in mind that tight muscles are very normal. Especially if you’re training. But, it is generally safe to do most days but if you have some sort of muscle tear or injury it should be avoided.
4. When should I be foam rolling or SMR?
Whenever you can fit it in really. I like to spend 5-10 minutes on the entire boy before workouts as a way to release tension and improve my range of motion for certain exercises like the overhead squat.
I’ll also spend about 5-10 minutes post-workout as a way to cool down, speed up recovery, and all while having a nice chat with a friend.
5. It’s boring or I can’t find time to fit it in.
It’s definitely not the most entertaining thing to do in the world but neither is brushing your teeth and you do that… or I hope you do. If you want to build the habit start small and attach it to something that you already do consistently.
Commit to 1 minute a day if you have to first thing in the morning and try adding a minute every day after that for 15 days until you’ve worked up to a total of 15 minutes per day.
Attach it to a habit that you already have established. If you always drink a cup of coffee every morning roll out after while sipping on a cup or as it is being prepared.
6. Is there anyone that should not be foam rolling or performing SMR?
If you’re hypermobile (extremely flexible) it might not be in your best interest. Those of you that can bend your body like a pretzel (I’m jealous by the way) rely a lot on ligaments and cartilage for stability. Excessive SMR would only contribute to more flexibility and less tension in the muscles and possibly lead to injuries.
7. Will I be sore the next day?
There is a real good chance you will the first couple of times.
8. Is there anything else I can do on a daily basis to help my body avoid some of these kinks that needed SMR?
You bet your sweet butt there are. Setting up and performing exercises with proper form is a great start. For example, when squatting making sure to drive your knees out when bending your legs.
Also, pulling your shoulders back and down while in the car or at your desk can greatly reduce the overdevelopment of fascia and muscles in the upper back, chest, and shoulders.
9. How will I know when I hit a trigger or hotspot that needs attention?
You’ll definitely know. Trust me on this one. You’ll feel a little discomfort and most likely a little pain. You may also experience sensations in other areas. For example, when I roll out knots in between my shoulder blades I can actually feel a little sick to my stomach. Not awesome but a pretty easy to recognize the sign that you’ve hit a hot spot.
Want more simple fitness, DIY, and practical life advice?
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN FOAM ROLLER.
DIY is the best! You’re about to save a little bit of green and get your Bob Villa on.
What you’ll need:
- PVC pipe. You’ll most likely have to buy 10 feet of it but this will allow you to make a couple of foam rollers. However, tell Home Depot or any other home improvement store that you buy it from that you’ll only need 24” of it.
- Spray adhesive
- Kitchen cabinet liner
Cost: $10-15 per roller
Work time: 20 minutes
Level of difficulty: Easy
STEPS TO MAKE YOUR OWN HIGH-DENSITY FOAM ROLLER
Step 1: Roll out your kitchen cabinet liner. The more you decide to use the less dense the roller will be.
Step 2: Place your PVC pipe on the liner so that the width of the liner covers the width of the PVC.
Tips: It’s best to cut your PVC pipe a little shorter than the width of the linear so that you can make sure that the entire pipe is covered. You can always cut off the extra linear at the end.
Step 3: Spray the foam roller and liner with adhesive and slowly begin to roll the pipe down the liner while applying pressure so that it sticks. Keep spraying adhesive as necessary to make sure that the liner is securely stuck on.
Step 4: Once the pipe is completely covered with your desired amount of liner continue applying pressure and rolling it on the ground so to make sure that it is securely stuck to the pipe.
WHAT TO DO NOW THAT YOU HAVE YOUR VERY OWN DIY FOAM ROLLER
If you’re already foam rolling awesome, keep at it. If you’re trying to build the habit start small. Just shoot for a minute a day until you find yourself doing it consistently. Remember, consistency over intensity at first. Here are a few ways to get started. Refresh your browser if you don’t see a video.
Foam roll your hamstrings
How to foam roll your calves
How to foam roll your hip flexor
Foam roll your quads
How to foam roll your upper back and lats