Q: Hey Erika,

Your reply brought up a question I’ve had for a while, & even tho I feel bad for side-tracking the conversation, it just popped into mind & if I don’t get it out, I’ll forget.

I’ve seen people at my gym using foam rollers all over the place. What exactly is their primary function? Is it stretching?

Let’s talk about foam rolling, or #foamrollin, as I lovingly call it.

What is foam rolling, and what does it do?

#foamrollin is, undoubtedly, the poor man’s deep tissue massage. Foam rolling does the same thing a deep tissue massage can do – un-knotting the knots, relieving stress, and have you limping when you stand up. Yay, that.

Why is foam rolling necessary?

Look at it like this – as you train, you are constantly tearing muscle fibers that, as they heal, can develop small knots. These knots affect how you perform – they affect the way that particular muscle performs because the fibers are interrupted by these knots, and thus weakening the entire muscle group.

What can also happen, is overworking a muscle can result in a series of trigger points: spaces where blood flow – blood that is carrying very valuable and necessary oxygen and nutrients, mind you – is constricted and prevented from getting to other parts of the muscle.

diagram of muscle fibers; click for source

diagram of muscle fibers

Soft tissue, which is muscle and all of the varying types of connective tissue, tightens up from lack of use due to extensive periods of time sitting or sedentary living, or improper healing, or even improper usage like trying to overcompensate on one leg because the other is injured (see: overuse). Foam rolling can help loosen and recover where necessary.

Foam rolling, otherwise known as “self-myofascial release,” is all about using your body weight to un-kink the kinks, un-knot the knots, and loosen the tighter muscles.

Foam rolling is akin to stretching in the regard of loosening up tense muscles, but stretching won’t always work out the knots the way that foam rolling can. With a foam roller, you have the added benefit of using your body weight against the roller, hence the deep aspect of the deep tissue massage-like effect. With stretching, you can only go insofar as your current flexibility level will allow.

Where do you foam roll?

Your. Entire. Body. I roll everything. From the back of my neck to the balls of my feet, I roll it all. Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes. Knees, and toes.

One of the most important things you can learn about your body is that all of your muscles are connected to other muscles, and those muscles are connected to your joints, your bones, everything. When a muscle is underperforming, it’s not just affecting the way you move, it’s affecting the way your joints and bones respond to stimuli. When you roll a muscle group – quads, hamstrings/glutes, back/shoulders, and so on – you’re helping that muscle as well as the other muscles and bones (read: joints!) to which it’s connected.

For every muscle you squeeze, something else has to loosen up – if that “something else” can’t loosen up, you can’t squeeze that muscle without experiencing pain.

I’m just saying. A little bit of pain now, or several days worth of a lot of pain later. Your pick.

Here’s a great selection of videos to help you foam roll your entire body:

How does it feel?

It feels like your middle name is “masochist.”

It hurts. I’m not going to lie.

Foam rolling is how you target particular trigger points in your limbs. This is a process that is almost guaranteed to hurt. Fortunately, there are a few tricks I can help you with.

Part of what contributes to the pain is the amount of weight you have on the foam roller – if you have more weight than you can bear to put on your muscles, it’ll help to brace an arm or a leg on the floor to lighten the amount of weight pushing you into the roller.

What also contributes to the pain of foam rolling is that many people are foam rolling on a completely cold body. No warm up exercise, no quick jog around the block, nothing. That’s rough. Doing anything on a cold body – stretching included – is going to be a struggle. Soften some of the blow by doing a few jumping jacks – I think 23 is a great number : ) – before you jump down and get your roll on, and you will at least loosen up a little bit before the war.

Important things to know about foam rolling

If you are going to foam roll regularly, it’s important to stay hydrated. Massage – either through foam rolling or through a licensed massage therapist – tends to increase blood flow, which speeds up kidney function. In short, regular foam rolling will make you have to pee a lot, and you might not even realize it. Keep up with your fluids, so that you don’t have to suffer the consequences of potential dehydration.

Also worth noting, you can’t just breeze through it and think you’re going to get the full benefits. It doesn’t work that way. At least one minute per muscle group. Any less, and you’re wimping out. (It’s worth noting that, if the pain is just too unbearable, try doing some regular stretches on that particular body part first before you foam roll. That’s not “wimping out” – that’s just being smart about your body.)

A lot of foam rolling moves will feel like exercise, themselves. Try foam rolling the front of your thighs, for instance, and see if you don’t get an ab workout out of it. This means you have to be very mindful of your form while you foam. Always think “aligned, aligned” when you roll – never let your neck slouch, never let it sag, never let your chin touch your chest. I should be able to draw a straight line from your neck through your spine down to your pelvis, and everything should be in perfect alignment. If you can clasp your hands behind your head and neck while you roll, do so.

I actually don’t recommend foam rolling your abs – you’re much more likely to tighten them up as you roll, and you’re not supposed to tighten your muscles as you use them. Instead, if you want to stretch your abs, do this stretch instead:

Yoga - Cobra Pose. Female Muscles - Side View; click for source

Yoga – Cobra Pose. Female Muscles – Side View; click for source

Laying face down on the ground, place your palms face down onto the ground directly under your shoulders, and press your shoulders into the ground so that you push your torso upward in the position displayed in the diagram. If this isn’t enough of a stretch for you, you can slowly walk your palms backwards so that you can bend a little deeper in your back, thereby effectively stretching out the front of your torso.

What should I use?

So, there’s The Terminator, the Exterminator, and the Burninator.

I mean, at least that’s what I call them. (And, if you use my links to make your purchase, I get a few pennies from Amazon as a thank you for the referral!)

Trigger Point Performance The Grid Revolutionary Foam Roller

Trigger Point Performance The Grid Revolutionary Foam Roller

That’s The Terminator. This is the one my mentor literally carries around with her. I can’t even. No.

Gaiam Muscle Therapy Foam Roller

Gaiam Muscle Therapy Foam Roller

This is The Exterminator. This one will do you juuust right – it will get rid of your kinks and knots as quickly as they arrived.

DSS RumbleRoller Foam Rollers

DSS RumbleRoller Foam Rollers

This is The Burninator. This is the one that makes everything burn…. to the point where you just have to let out that deep, loud, guttural ancestral yell. This is the foam roller that makes ya wanna holla, basically.

You don’t need big giant weapons of mass relaxation the experience the benefits of self-myofascial release, though – for your feet and arms, a mere tennis ball will do the trick.

What’s more, not everyone can safely get on the ground to get all the muscles they need, and that’s why these were invented:

Pro-Tec Athletics Roller Massager w/ Trigger Point Release Grips

Pro-Tec Athletics Roller Massager w/ Trigger Point Release Grips

These girls are made specifically for those spots that you might not be able to reach because injury prevents you from being able to balance on one knee or one shin, and are guaranteed to give you similar benefits to that regular foam roller.

And, lastly….enjoy it! Don’t roll your eyes at me! This is important! Make a game out of it – see how long you can foam roll before you dissolve into a puddle of quivering goo! See if you can foam roll your booty and back hands free!

I mean, or not. But definitely foam roll. As I always say, your body will thank you for it!

For more about #foamrollin, check out this twitter chat I hosted to help convince you to take the plunge!