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Look around any fitness facility’s gym floor and you are bound to see a long, styrofoam-looking cylinder called a foam roller—there may even been someone rolling around all over it, usually with a grimace on his or her face! While the process does not look immediately appealing, foam rolling—also referred to as trigger point or self-myofascial release—has become an important part of any fitness program. It’s an excellent method of melting away muscle tension to make your general stretch routine more effective. Other results include improving your overall performance in the activities you love and keeping you moving pain-free through your workouts.
So what is it all about? Fascia is the layer of tissue that encapsulates your muscles like a sheath (think of a layer of vacuum sealing over your muscles just under your skin). Things like stress, injury, overuse or even a sedentary lifestyle cause your fascia to tighten and become stiff, which can make you less flexible and limit your mobility around a joint, leading to pain and discomfort. You can release fascial tension by applying pressure to the muscles—it is similar to getting a professional massage, but is much more cost effective. In this post, I’ll break down proper foam-rolling technique, show you how to reach common tight spots in the lower body, and offer tips to help you roll your way to relief.
There are many ways to approach foam rolling, but I have found the safest and best results by following these guidelines:
- Roll over the muscle slowly, feeling for areas that are tight or “hot.” When you find a “hot spot” your instinct will be to roll away from it. Instead, support more of your body weight with your arms or opposite leg and breathe deeply as you gently apply pressure.
- Focus on small areas. Move incrementally rather than in large repetitive movements that cover the entire muscle, which can lead to greater inflammation.
- Stay on one spot for one to two breaths and then move an inch higher, lower, right or left. If you do not find anything in that direction, move an inch in another direction and repeat this process.
- Avoid rolling over the joints. Keep the foam roller on soft tissue only.
The greater the amount of body weight you put on the roller, the more intense it will feel. For example, in the first photo below I am using my opposite leg to support my body; therefore, I have less weight on the roller and the massage is not as deep. If you are new to foam rolling, this is a good place to start. In the second photo, I am using my opposite leg to add weight and increase the pressure of the massage. The more often you roll, the fewer hot spots you find and the more pressure you will be able to apply.
When it comes to foam rolling, it is especially important to listen to the feedback your body is giving you—use it as a guide for when to go deeper and when to back off. Initially, rolling will most likely feel uncomfortable, so start with small doses–10 minutes a day, for example. Ease into the process to prevent excessive soreness or injury.
Here are five of the most common tight areas in the lower body, simple directions for how to roll them out and a complementary flexibility move you can do immediately after rolling to get the most out of your stretch routine.
Roll: Sit on top of the foam roller. Angle the body to one side until the roller is positioned on the muscle between the hipbone and the sit bone. Roll all directions in this area.
Stretch: Stand with one hand on top of the roller for balance. Cross the leg you just rolled over the supporting leg above the knee and sit your hips back, while keeping a tall upper-body posture and your core engaged.
IT Band and Outer Thigh
Roll: Lie on your side with the foam roller under the bottom leg. Roll between the bottom of the hip and the top of the knee joint.
Stretch: Stand and, using the foam roller to balance, cross the leg you rolled behind you. Let the back hip shift out toward the side and reach the same-side arm up and overhead.
Roll: In a plank position on the mat, place the foam roller under the top of the thigh. Roll between the bottom of the hip and the top of the knee joint, making sure to rotate to the right and left to include the entire area.
Stretch: Use the foam roller to balance and grab the foot on the leg you just rolled. Gently pull it behind you toward the glutes. Keep your knees side by side, draw your glutes together and slightly tuck your tailbone underneath you.
Roll: Lie face down. Place the foam roller vertically underneath you with your inner thigh on top. Roll between the groin area and the top of the inner knee.
Stretch: Stand with the legs wider than hip distance, the toes facing forward. Use the foam roller to support you as you lunge to the side and drop the hips back.
Roll: Sit on the floor and place the foam roller under your calf. Place your hands behind you to support your weight and roll up and down the calf between the ankle and the underside of the knee.
Stretch: Hold the foam roller for balance and step the same leg behind you in a lunge. Bend the front knee and straighten out the back leg. Try to drop the back heel down and to the floor.
About the Author: Julz Arney is an ACE-certified Group Fitness Instructor with 22 years in the fitness business and the Education Programs Director and Lead Master Trainer for Schwinn® Cycling, a master trainer for Indo-Row™, SHOCKWAVE, BOSU®, and Gatorade, a dedicated student of yoga, and an AFAA-certified instructor.