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How To Use A Foam Roller (Ultimate Guide)

How To Use A Foam Roller (Ultimate Guide)

Why Use A Foam Roller

You wake up sore—prolly too sore to get out of bed. You’re dealing with the fallout of an intense workout you’d put your body through. This muscle soreness may be especially excruciating if it’d been a while since you exercised or if you thought it was time to up the ante of your current workout program.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the medical term for this specific type of chronic muscle soreness. It is how your body tells you there has been micro damage to muscle fibers and connective tissue. Notwithstanding, DOMS, like standard muscle soreness, is completely normal, harmless, and should dissipate over a few days.

Changing landscape

Two decades ago, the traditional way to take care of the sore muscle feeling would paradoxically be to do nothing—tough it out or live with the pain. Today, virtually anyone you go to for advice, including yours truly, would point you to a cylindrical piece of foam or tube called a foam roller.

You may even have the term self-myofascial release,

Bringing more to the table

But managing DOMS and relieving tension after engaging in a protracted physical activity (say daylong sitting at work or during commutes) are only a few of the reasons why foam rolling is currently a staple (and darling) of the modern fitness industry.

Benefits of using a foam roller

Aside recovery, it improves balance, corrects poor posture, boosts range of motion (flexibility, strengthens your core, reduces the risk of injury, slashes recover time, and that’s only scratching the surface.

Foam rollers are:

  • Portable, easily accessible and convenient; you could use it in the comfort of your home or throw one in your suitcase

  • Easy and simple to use; a foam roller literally sits between the muscles to be treated and the ground requiring no more than for you to roll muscles over it at an even tempo and at your own pace. Furthermore, there are inexhaustible volumes of material on foam rolling techniques, exercises, instructions, and best practices to guide usage.

  • Inexpensive and cost-effective; for a small upfront payment, you get free massages for life (ongoing visits to your fave masseuses, myotherapists, or physiotherapists can add up quickly)

Foam rolling is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Its popularity has already eclipsed other ‘self-manual therapy’ techniques (allowing one to self-treat physically)—including self-massage and self-trigger point therapy.

In fact, it has been compared to a deep-tissue massage that offers better self-control over pressure, thereby limiting the risk of getting bruised.

Incisive answers for valid questions

It follows then that if you’re remotely interested in foam rolling, you’d want to know a tad more than how to foam roll your calves. Or perhaps you’re only just getting to that critical point where you go, “Hold on a minute, why am I doing this again?”

This guide goes all in to offer a one-stop-shop for the answers to questions you’re pressed to ask (and questions you probably hadn’t thought of as well). So strap in and roll with us: There’s much to learn.

Some of the details you’d want to catch up on include:

How does foam rolling work?

Foam Rolling works to release tension along the fascia that surrounds the muscle, in order to help optimize recovery and reduce soreness.  Foam Rolling helps to stimulate more blood flow to the area being treated, ideally assisting in recovery from strain and exercise.

What does it do to your body (both in the short and long term)?

Foam Rolling has shown to help with soreness in the short term, especially before heavy lifting and post-exercise.  Individuals who have used Foam Rolling regularly state they are less fatigued and have quicker recovery in part due to consistent Foam Rolling.

How can you use foam rollers effectively?

Pick a Foam Roller that is not too soft, not too hard; but one that applies the appropriate pressure that is tolerable but not excessively painful.  Try Foam Rolling some key muscles to train that day before after your warmup, before the heavy lifting, as well as post-exercise to help with recovery.

Are there any risks you are unaware of

Individuals should not Foam Roll on injured areas, as excessive pressure might cause further injury.  As well, do not Foam Roll on the lumbar spine and avoid putting pressure that causes numbness, such as on small joints bone. 

What is the best foam roller to get for yourself?

Optimal Foam Rollers are made from higher density foam, although picking one that is best suited for your needs in terms of size should be preferred.  Avoid very hard rollers unless you are used to it.

Can foam rolling be harmful?

Foam Rolling can be harmful if done on bone instead of muscle, if you are pregnant, or if you are injured.  Always consult a physician or therapist before Foam Rolling if you are unsure if it is right for you.

Does foam rolling get easier? 

Yes, Foam Rolling does become more tolerable the more you practice.  Often times, individuals progress to harder and more agressive rollers to feel more relief in larger muscles like the glutes and quads.

Can foam rolling make you sore?

Foam Rolling shouldn't make you sore, but it should help to relieve soreness.  If you are feeling sore after Foam Rolling you are probably applying too much pressure or rolling ineffectively.

How often should you foam roll?

You should Foam Roll before and after your workouts to optimize your recovery potential and as well prime the muscles as much as possible before a heavy workout.  Feel free to Foam Roll in the morning, in the evening, on lunch, or whenever is right for you!

How long should you foam roll?

Target an area and slowly roll on it for about 45-60 seconds, then release the pressure.  Continue on the affected area for 1-2 sequences before moving on to other areas of the body.

Should I foam roll before lifting?

Foam Rolling before lifting can be helpful in priming the muscles before a warm up set.  Some individuals will Foam Roll between every set as well.

Is it better to stretch or foam roll first?

Foam Rolling should happen before stretching, as we don’t want to stretch cold muscles.  Foam Rolling can be done prior to stretching as well after a workout to immediately help with recovery.

Can foam rolling improve flexibility?

It is one of the steps to achieving improved flexibility. For example; Let’s say you are foam rolling your hamstring muscle, and spend a good amount of time releasing all the knots. The hamstrings will feel very loose and ready for activity. Now, it helps to combine a series of work such as dynamic stretching, PNF stretching, muscle release and activation techniques, followed static stretching. Following all the steps will help you improve overall flexibility.

Does foam rolling loosen muscles?

Yes. When you are foam rolling a certain area, you need to make sure you take the necessary time to work that particular area. If done correctly, there should be a reduction in tightness and the muscle area should feel relived and loosen.

Does foam rolling help mobility?

While Foam Rolling can help with soreness from training or stiffness, it does not necessarily trigger greater muscle tissue length or greater joint mobility.

Does foam rolling increase range of motion?

Using a foam roller over time reduces knots from the body. As a results, there is an increase in range of motion of the muscles targeted.

History of the Foam Roller

As with several vital tools of modern-day physical therapy, foam rolling is a relatively recent invention. But to understand it’s rise from obscurity, it is tentative to walk down memory lane to elaborate on its roots.

Manual therapy

You see, foam rolling is fundamentally a form of self-massage—technically called manual therapy. Ancient civilizations in the Far East—India and China—had used manual therapy as an integral part of traditional medicine for a variety of medical issues.

Its use was passed down through generations over the centuries, but it largely remained within the immediate vicinity of its discovery.

According to researchers, this changed in the early 19th century, when Per Hendrik Ling introduced Europe to massage. Ling developed a thorough, systematic system comprising multiple massage techniques with the aim of improving lymph and blood circulation.

If Ling exposed Europe to the efficacy of massage, Dr. Johann Mezger, a Dutch physician lit the torch that eventually culminated in the widespread use of medical massage therapies. Mezger is considered to be the first person to use massage therapy in a clinical setting and pursue it with scientific rigor.

Mezger evaluated the anatomy and physiology of massage and carried out lots of scientific experiments between the 1860s and the late 19th century to ascertain the effectiveness of massage.  

By the time of the two global wars of the first half of the 20th century, tissue massage was firmly established as an acceptable modality to use. However, following the Second World War, its use declined owing to the rise of innovations claiming to offer similar results without the donkeywork—physical labor, cost, and time—associated with massage therapy.

Three prominent such innovations were proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), ultrasound techniques, and microwave techniques.

Only the first really caught on, as PNF is very much still in use today. But tissue massage never really recovered in popularity within medical circles. However, while massage faced dire challenges in medicinal use, its use in sports held steady.

Today, massage therapy is a mainstay in sports medicine and palliative care as well as making a comeback through alternative and complementary medicine.

The Feldenkrais Method

With the tenets of manual therapy becoming widely accepted and pervasive, it wasn’t a surprise that more people began to apply it in several different ways. Moshé Feldenkrais.

Feldenkrais over time developed a set of techniques, named after him as the Feldenkrais method®, which enabled him to decrease his knee pain and optimized his performance through focusing on gentle movements while being aware on how his body moved.

His critics have questioned the effectiveness of the method, Feldenkrais published several books explaining his techniques in the 1950s and continued to teach classes until his death in 1984. Many still swear by the Feldenkrais method till date.

In the late 80’s (a few years after Feldenkrais’ death), Sean Gallagher—a student of the method and physical therapist—began to experimenting with a foam roller to massage himself. Gallagher was a former dancer who had trouble finding a doctor who understood his body, and consequently began to study movement therapy.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and this was the crucial moment that kick started the dominance of the foam rolling movement, as it quickly became popular with the larger Broadway dancers’ community.

From Broadway to your local gym floor

For the most part, foam rollers were a niche self-massage tool. That was until Mike Clark—a physical therapist and later president of the National Academy of Sports Medicine as well as team physical therapist for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns—began to advocate its use via a technique he termed “self myofascial release.”

The sports medicine community was already onboard with manual therapy and was receptive of Clark’s early manuals containing a couple of photos depicting foam rolling for self-massage. The complementary illustrations of the technique were simple and self-explanatory.

Of all Clark’s works, it was his chef-d'œuvre—ITFTNM that released in the year 2001 that got foam rolling in the lips of most folks in the sports medicine community. Over time,, foam rolling surged thanks to the unbridled enthusiasm of early adopters.

Later in 2004, Stacy Barrows, also a physical therapist and student of Feldenkrais’ Method, filed the first U.S. patent of a foam roller design. Stacy’s roller isn’t a perfectly round cylinder, which is the commonest form of foam roller used today. Instead, one side of it is flatter for improved balance. Currently, her roller is known as the SMARTROLLER®

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