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How to Use a Foam Roller Correctly for Stretching Your Muscles

You’re at the gym, Target, or a sporting goods store, and you see a cylinder with knobs and bumps on it. It doesn’t look like anything you want to use, and you’re probably not sure how to use it anyway. You assume you lay on it with some part of your leg, but which part and why? There is no way that can feel good, especially when it’s hard and dense!

Ladies and gentlemen, a foam roller can be your worst and best friend! The scientific term for using a foam roller is self-myofascial release, or SMFR, sounds dirty and sexual; I get it. What the term refers to is the mechanical effects pressure on your fascia can do to release knots and adhesions. Fascia is a term to describe muscle tissues. Science used to think fascia was like a sheath covering your muscles. Now, scientists have determined that all of your muscle tissues are a form of fascia that glide over each other during any movement.

Foam rollers come in different lengths, densities, and textures. The shorter ones with bumps you typically see at Target and Wal-Mart are also dense and can be painful for beginners to use. I don’t endorse a specific company for foam rollers; I suggest a softer roller for newbies to start with. As you become more experienced and used to the feeling of a roller, you can increase the density because the softer ones will not provide the benefits anymore. Using the rollers with more texture, as in bumps and knobs, I say do so at your own risk! The point of using a foam roller is to give your muscles a massage. The bumps and textures are like giving yourself a deep tissue sports massage, where they get into the cracks and crevices you didn’t know were there!

Because of shelf space, the rollers at your big box and sporting goods stores are short. When you order online, you can get longer lengths. I suggest a longer roller to lay on for upper body muscles to stretch. Your torso needs to fit on the length of it when you lay on top, so from your head to your lower back. Typically, the longer ones are less dense than the shorter ones. If your gym has foam rollers, feel them first to determine your comfort level. Gyms usually have longer rollers with fewer textures than big box stores.

Quadriceps foam rolling

The mistake people make in foam rolling is treating their body parts like pizza dough. They roll their quadriceps, for example, like the foam roller is flattening their muscles out. Unfortunately, this misinformation is spread from seeing others in the gym use a roller in this manner. To explain how to use a foam roller properly, I will use the calf muscles as an example. Hold yourself up on your hands and place the roller under your calf muscles so your weight pushes onto it. The roller is most effective when you do each leg individually. To do so, cross your ankles and keep your body weight on your hands. Roll on the roller until you feel a tender area. Let your muscle relax around the area a few seconds, then pump your foot 3-4 times like pushing on the gas pedal in your car. This increases the effectiveness and mechanical action of the rolling. Roll to find another 2-3 spots and repeat the process, then repeat for the other leg. You do not need to roll for longer than 5-10 minutes, and the body parts you are about to work out or are tight and sore from a previous workout. Warning: it can be painful, and you must work through it.

IT band rolling

Rolling can be done as part of a warmup or cool-down routine; it is a form of stretching. Science is realizing fascia encompasses more than previously thought. Keeping fascia properly hydrated through the mechanical pressure action of the roller has many benefits for everyone. Fascial hydration is not specifically linked to drinking more water, although it plays a role. The knots and adhesions in your muscles from daily use need to be released for good blood flow and flexibility.

Like other forms of stretching, foam rolling is an ongoing process. Some days you will have more tender areas than others, and one side may also have more tightness than the other. Include rolling as part of your regular routine for self-care and wellness. You will see and feel a difference in your muscles and joints with continued use. For a dedicated plan for stretching, email me at I will be happy to discuss a customized plan for your needs and goals.

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