Learn to roll with it! How foam rolling exercises can relieve pain & ease stiffness


Like many people working from home during the pandemic, Veronika Yavor, 39, has swapped out a supportive work chair in her office for a plush sofa chair in her living room. It was comfortable at first, but the new seat soon took its toll as Javor, a Houston-based content creator, developed a sharp, radiating pain in his left buttock. She tried to ignore it, but after a particularly hard Pilates workout that focused on the glutes, the discomfort became unbearable.

“Every morning I woke up in pain, and eventually it got so bad that I was afraid to train at all,” Javor said.

Her physiotherapist said the problem was tension in her buttocks and advised her to roll her leg on a foam cylinder three times a day to relieve the tension. Within a month of the rolling plan, she was getting less sick and exercising more.


Muscle tension, whether it’s the result of sitting all day or a hard workout, can make it difficult for you to move. An hour on a massage table can relieve pain and improve performance, but some experts say you can get similar benefits from a foam roller at home. Research to support this practice is still ongoing and some scientists are skeptical, but there are a few things you need to know if you’re going to try it.

Case of Rolling Foam

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Every muscle in your body is held in place by layers of connective tissue called fascia. According to Cedric X. Bryant, president and chief scientist of the American Council on Exercise, both exercise and inactivity can cause this tissue to become stiff or tight, causing tension in an entire muscle or tension in a more localized area – so called the actuation point or knot – and limiting flexibility and range of motion.

When stiff or displaced fascia prevents effective muscle and joint movement, exercise can be uncomfortable and risky. “If you can’t move your shoulder because your joints or muscles are tight, you tend to get injured when you try to strengthen it,” says Teresa Marko, a New York-based physical therapist and adjunct professor. at Stony Brook University.

Theoretically, rolling a muscle over a rigid, cylindrical piece of foam is like a massage. “Like a massage, foam rolling uses friction to release tension and realign the fascia,” Bryant said.


One recent systematic review of 49 studies concluded that rolling foam for 90 seconds to two minutes at a time often reduces muscle stiffness and increases range of motion, or the ability of joints to move. Other small studies have shown that foam rollers can also improve soft tissue flexibility or elongation, at least in the short term. Long-term studies have shown that twisting the hamstrings three times a week for four weeks also improves flexibility.

Adding a foam roller to your cool down can also prevent or reduce post-workout soreness by stimulating blood flow. A 2014 study found that foam riding after strength training reduced muscle soreness while improving exercise efficiency as measured by vertical jump height and range of motion.

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Mayllard Howell, Brooklyn-based personal trainer and head of fitness at Reebok, said most of his clients breathe a sigh of relief when they ride the foam. “If you feel better lying on a foam roller before or after a workout, I see no reason not to use it, as long as it’s done right and doesn’t make your problem worse,” Howell said.


Case against rolling foam

However, not all are sold at foam rolling. Dr. Elizabeth Gardner, associate professor of orthopedics at Yale School of Medicine, says the people she treats often have too much faith in her.

“Oh, foam rollers – how my athletes love you!” she wrote in an email. “But unfortunately, their Styrofoam obsession is scientifically unfounded.”

She said most of the studies supporting foam rolling are small and often use different methods from each other, making it difficult to determine why they work.


Bryant acknowledged that there are not enough large, well-designed studies to confirm the effectiveness of this practice. One 2015 meta-analysis of 14 articles concluded that while foam rollers appear to improve mobility and reduce muscle soreness, there is no generally accepted way to do so.

Judy Gelber, an Omaha physical therapist, said the time people take is “better spent on understanding why their body feels like it needs to be massaged.” For example, she suggested warming up with a full range of motion (meaning up, down, sideways, etc.) or strengthening the muscles at the end of the range (exercises when the muscles are longest or shortest).

Foam rollers can also cause injury to some people. For example, people with arthritis can damage their joints, and riding an injury, whether it’s a broken bone or a torn muscle, can make it worse. People with mobility issues or those who cannot control their body weight on the ground should also exercise caution or see a physical therapist for a safer alternative.

Beginning of work

If you do decide to try a foam roller, Dr. Michael Frederickson, professor of sports medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, recommended a hard roller. You can also find some with textured ridges and bumps, which Bryant says can relieve deeper muscle tension.

Jean-Michel Brismet, physiotherapist and director of the International Academy of Orthopedic Medicine, recommends starting with lighter pressure without putting too much weight on the roller. A minute or two is usually enough, but you can start with less time.

Here are five foam exercises you can try at home before or after your workout. If you’re not sure if massage rollers are safe for you, talk to your physical therapist or healthcare provider.

Butt rolling: Sitting for long periods of time can tighten your buttocks, as can exercises such as deadlifts, squats, and lunges. Place a foam roller on the floor and position it horizontally. Bend or straighten your knees (or bend one leg and straighten the other), press your feet into the floor, and roll back and forth on your buttocks until you find the sore spots. Lean to the side as you roll so you don’t hit your tailbone. If this seems too intense, try lying on the bed in the same position and sticking a tennis ball under the trigger point.

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Rolling shoulder blades: Dumbbell bench presses, push-ups, and rowing can put stress around the shoulder blades. To relieve tension, lie on the floor with the foam roller perpendicular to your spine and roll your muscles around your shoulder blades. It can be nice to hug yourself or open your arms in the process.

Hamstring roll: Your hamstrings, which originate from the hip and connect to the knee, can become tight after a leg workout. Lying on your back, lift one leg as high as you can, using a towel around your foot to create resistance. Pull on the towel to stretch your hamstrings before you roll.

Then, in a sitting position with straight legs, place the roller under the back of the thighs. Roll back and forth up and down your hamstrings. If you notice small areas of tightness, stay there. After that, you should be able to stretch more deeply.

Mid-Back Foam Roll: Rolling the mid-back can provide relief from working at the computer or doing upper body exercises like push-ups or pull-ups. Place the roller under your back, parallel to your spine, then gently roll it from side to side on the muscles surrounding your spine. Roll each side of the spine separately and avoid twisting the bones themselves. Be aware that riding can cause acute injuries or chronic back problems if you have them.

Neck Mobility Exercise: Spending too much time hunched over a desk can overstretch the muscles that support the head, leading to headaches. Marco said that using the foam roller as a means of mobility can lengthen the cervical spine and promote relaxation and flexibility of the surrounding muscles, while gently pressing on the foam roller can relieve trigger points.

Lie on the floor with a foam roller behind your neck, parallel to the base of your skull. Keep your knees bent, buttocks and feet on the floor, and slowly turn your head to the left and right. Alternatively, keep your head still and try to gently rock your knees back and forth, creating traction with your lower body. Avoid this exercise if you have previously had neck pain or nerve problems because you may put pressure on the nerves and make the problem worse.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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