Foam Rolling Basics

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

If you’re a total novice to foam rolling, watching someone do it at the gym might make you think it’s a special kind of torture. There’s grimacing, gritted teeth, and sometimes even audible cries of pain. Why do something that looks like it hurts so much? How could that help anything?

Well, foam rolling is one of the best methods for recovery after a hard workout, and it can even be used as a tool for warming up. The basic premise is that by using your own body weight, aided by gravity, you’re massaging your muscles, and loosening up the fascia, which is the ‘skin’ that surrounds your muscles. When this fascia is tight, it makes your muscles feel sore and tight as well. Foam rolling is technically known as self-myofascial release, and that’s exactly what you’re doing – releasing tension.

If you get into a regular routine with foam rolling, your muscles will feel less sore after your workout, and you may even find your range of motion, or flexibility is improved.

I’ve put together a guide to foam rolling basics for you – a how-to for newcomers to this form of self massage, so that you can join the ranks of the grimacing, pained-face gym goers sucking in air through their teeth as they hold back screams. Okay, I might be exaggerating a little bit. But like a sports massage, when you find those sore spots, it can feel pretty painful. Just keep in mind how much better you’ll feel afterward!

The first thing you’ll need is a foam roller. Most gyms will have a few in their stretching areas, so feel free to try one out there. But it’s great to have one at home, so if you go for a run, or you wake up feeling stiff and sore after your previous day’s workout, you have one handy. This basic model is a great one to start with (and inexpensive, too!). I recommend this one to anyone who hasn’t tried foam rolling before. Once you get the hang of it, if you want to get a little deeper into your trigger spots, try this Grid trigger point roller. I have both at home. 🙂 (PS: those are affiliate links!)

Okay, now you have a roller, let’s look at exactly what to do with it!

FOAM ROLLING BASICS

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

HIP FLEXORS

Let’s start with the hip flexors, since it’s an area where many people experience tightness. Your hip flexors are the group of muscles at the top of your thighs, which work to flex your hips. This includes your quadriceps (which we will get to in just a moment).

To roll the hip flexors, arrange yourself so the front of your thigh is resting on top of the foam roller, propping your upper body up on your forearms or hands. You are putting your weight into your forearms to roll your thighs over the foam roller, getting high up on each leg, close to your hip bones. As you roll, shift your weight and experiment with rotating your hips slightly, so you’re getting into the sides of your upper thighs too. When you get to a spot that feels particularly tight or sore, pause and let your body weight sink in, breathing through the discomfort. When you feel the muscle ‘give’ a little, roll back and forth again, looking for the next sore spot, and repeat.

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

QUADRIPCEPS

Once you’ve loosened up the hip flexors a little, continue further down the front of your thighs, so you’re rolling out your quadriceps muscles. For the quadriceps, you’re rolling from the top of your knees all the way up your thighs. There are invariably some awful sore spots just above your knee, usually slightly lateral or medial on the thigh. Take your time, find those spots, and let gravity and pressure do its work to relieve the tightness as you pause. Continue rolling, looking for the spots to stop and focus on.

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

ADDUCTORS

The adductors, the muscles of your inner thighs, are often skipped when foam rolling, but targeting these will make a big difference to your recovery. 

To get into the adductor muscles, you just need to arrange the roller in the right place first. Lay it down parallel to your body, then straddle it with one bent leg, so that your inner thigh is resting on top of the roller perpendicularly. You’re now going to roll across the lengthwise roller, keeping this perpendicular angle. The leg you are not rolling is flat on the ground, and you can either rest on both forearms (shown in the photo above), or prop yourself up on one hand to help push yourself back and forth (shown in the photo below).

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

An extra tip for foam rolling the adductors is to change the position of your lower leg slightly. Try rolling out with your lower leg at the same height as your thigh, then with your inner thigh resting on the roller, see how it feels to lower your calf down toward the floor. It usually adds a little more pressure to the medial side of your thigh right above your knee, where most people will find a sore or tight area.  

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

GLUTEUS MAXIMUS

Let’s get to the big powerhouse of your lower body, your gluteus maximus, aka your butt. This is what’s working when you’re squatting, lunging, running – doing anything that requires hip extension. (If you feel like you have weak glutes, you should check out my glutes activation exercises here!)

To get right into the glutes, you need to sit on the foam roller. Then, you can lean into one side and start rolling. If that isn’t enough pressure to find your sore spots, you can add some weight to it by crossing one ankle over your opposite knee, and leaning into the side of your butt which has your foot planted. 

While you’re rolling your gluteus maximus like this, really twist to one side, getting right into the lateral side of your hip, to target your gluteus medius on the outside of your hip. There won’t be a shortage of sore spots there.

Don’t forget to pause and feel the pain of the tight spots and let that tension dissipate before rolling again!

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

HAMSTRINGS

The hamstrings are another usual suspect when it comes to tightness and soreness following a workout. Those deadlifts don’t feel like they’re doing that much damage, until you stand up out of bed the next morning. You are propping yourself up on your hands behind the roller, and using your hands to roll the backs of your thighs over your torture instrument. If this doesn’t get into the muscle deeply enough for you to feel like you’re getting those sore spots, you can cross one leg over the other (leaving both legs straight), which just adds weight to the rolling.

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

LATISSIMUS DORSI

Finally, let’s target your lats, the big back muscles you’re using doing pull downs and pull ups. First, you’re going to sit on your mat, or the floor, with the foam roller at a perpendicular angle behind you. Lay back, so the roller is just under your shoulder blades. While you’re here, raise your arms overhead in a V and enjoy a little chest-opening stretch before you roll out those lats. Now, lift your butt off the ground, and lean into one side of your back on top of the foam roller, rolling the lats over top of the roller. Make sure you’re not rolling on your spine – you are rolling your back on the side of your spine, from just over shoulder blade height down to just above your waist. 

I usually hold my arms out wide in front, like in the photo above, which helps me rotate slightly as I roll. 

What about the abductors, I hear you ask? The abductors are the muscles on the outside, lateral part of your thigh, and they are usually painful. However, that is also where your iliotibial band runs, and putting a lot of pressure on that tendon can exacerbate symptoms of ITB Syndrome, if you’re unlucky to be suffering that pain. Since you’re rotating slightly latereally when targeting your hamstrings, and getting into the side of your butt when you’re rolling out your glutes, I don’t think it’s totally necessary to roll out the abductors.

There are plenty more techniques, and even some active stretches that can be done using a foam roller, but these foam rolling basics should get you started, adding in this valuable tool to your workout recovery repertoire. 

Do you already foam roll? Do you love it? Hate it? Love to hate it?

Where do you end up feeling pain after your workout usually?

A quick guide to foam rolling basics and foam rolling tips - when to roll, how to do it, and what the benefits of self myofascial release are for athletes and runners.

Comments

  1. I am so bad at foam roll in and only do it if i am sore but not day. I need. To start doing it more often.

  2. This is a great and informative article!! I used to foam roll back in college after soccer games, but I don’t do it anymore. I really should get back to it! I love the descriptions of each move!
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  3. Interesting post. So are you saying by targetting these muscles that you won’t need to target the IT band? (which is what is causing my knee problems). I’ve used a foam roller for my back as well which helps.
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    • There’s some evidence that ITB syndrome (which often manifests as knee pain – sorry you’re dealing with that!) can be nerve related, and foam rolling the IT band directly can put pressure on the nerves that run through it. That can often exacerbate the problem. Remember, foam rolling is to roll out your muscles, and the IT band is actually connective tissue, so it’s debatable whether it’s a good idea to be rolling it out in the first place.

      I would suggest instead focusing on the other muscles surrounding the hips when foam rolling to make sure they are loose and ready to work, in case the IT band is tight from trying to do their work for them (probably that’s part of the reason you foam rolling you back has helped). Likewise, try doing some glute activation exercises before running or working out, to make sure the muscles you want to be engaged are primed for movement.

      I hope this helps!
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