Foam Rolling: What it Is and How to Do it Right

Foam rolling has become a popular technique to help loosen up your muscles to prepare for exercise and to help speed up recovery after an intense workout.

Incorporating foam rolling into your fitness routine is something everyone can benefit from, and it’s easy to learn how to do it.

Foam rolling is also affordable and can be done before and after your workouts.

You can individualize your recovery and target areas of tension to improve your range of motion, decrease your risk of injury, and keep you fresh for your next exercise session.

Ready to learn more about foam rolling and how to do it right?

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What is Foam Rolling?

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release.

Myofascial release is sometimes compared to massage, however, it is much more than that.

This modality is an osteopathic manipulative technique that applies sustained pressure on restricted areas of connective tissue, also known as fascia, that surrounds your muscles and bones.

Regular exercise results in microscopic muscle damage and inflammation.

Over time this can lead to fascial scar tissue, which subsequently can cause muscle soreness and decreased range of motion.

This in turn leads to decreased performance and pain during exercise.

In order to recover between workout sessions and improve your fitness, methods to reduce muscle tension and soreness like foam rolling are a great option.

Myofascial release can be done by a physician or physical therapist in a hands-on session.

They apply pressure to release the restriction in connective tissue so that you have a greater range of motion and less pain.

But what if you don’t have access to a daily physical therapist with training in a myofascial release?

Enter the foam roller and self-myofascial release.

Self-myofascial release (SMR) is often recommended in the fitness realm to help treat muscle and soft tissue tension and pain.

During SMR, you use your body weight on a foam roller to exert pressure on the targeted muscles and connective tissue.

You can adjust your body position to isolate specific areas of the body and treat restrictions in the soft tissue.

Foam rolling at home is a great way to self-massage, getting rid of tightness and pain!


Types of Foam Rollers

The first step to foam rolling is choosing the right roller.

You have probably seen different types of foam rollers sitting out at your gym or while shopping for fitness equipment and have wondered which one to choose.

The main types include:

Soft Foam Rollers

While these may feel more comfortable as you first start using them to massage out your muscles, they really don’t provide a lot of deep tissue release.

Since they are so soft they won’t be able to achieve increased blood flow to your muscles, which is what you are trying to accomplish through foam rolling.

Firm Rollers with Ridges

A firm roller with ridges is a better option when focusing on muscle recovery.

A good, firm foam roller is really going to be able to knead into your myofascial tissues to release tension and increase blood flow to your sore muscles.

Studies have even found that firm rollers (also called multilevel rigid rollers) exert significantly higher pressure and isolated contact area compared to softer rollers.

So if you want to put your money to the best use, choosing a firmer roller with ridges will get you the best results.

When To Foam Roll

This is a loaded topic because really any time you have a chance is a good time to foam roll.

However, if you want to benefit the most you can plan to do your foam rolling around scheduled exercise, or even first thing in the morning.

Prior to Exercise

Foam rolling along with dynamic stretching is a great way to get your muscles primed for your workout.

Similar to massage, foam rolling before a workout has been found to help improve muscle length-tension and allow for better warm-ups.

For example, a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared athletes that either performed a series of planking exercises or foam rolling exercises and then performed a series of athletic performance tests.

The researchers found that post-exercise fatigue after foam rolling was significantly less compared to the subjects that performed planking.

Reducing fatigue during exercise means you may be able to increase your workout time, intensity, and volume.

This in turn will lead to improved fitness.

After Exercise

A lot of people do a cool down after exercise in hopes of decreasing muscle soreness the next day.

However, a review of exercise studies illustrated that while a warm-up with dynamic stretching can help decrease delayed onset muscle soreness, the cooldown did not really have an effect on muscle soreness.

However, studies have found that foam rolling can substantially improve muscle tenderness following exercise.

So if you have a foam roller available this is a great way to cool down after a tough workout.

With a foam roller, you can target the upper and lower body to improve range of motion, decrease neuromuscular exhaustion, and decrease post-exercise soreness.

Foam Roller Exercises

Upper Back

Lie with a foam roller under your spine.
The foam roller should be oriented vertically so that it is supporting your head and tailbone.
Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor.
Spread your arms wide and out to the sides with your palms facing upward.
Breathe deeply and relax into this position for up to 1 minute.

Upper to Mid Back

Place the foam roller horizontally across your upper to mid-back, right below your shoulder blades.
Bend your knees and press your feet into the floor.
Rest your head in your hands and lean back.
Raise your hips slightly to move the roller up toward your shoulders.
Focus on areas of tension for 10-20 seconds.
Work your way up to your shoulders.
Then work your way down to your mid-back again targeting areas of tension.

Low Back

Lie on your back and position the foam roller so it is horizontal below your low back.
Bend your knees and press your feet into the ground.
Bring your knees to your chest and place your hands behind your thighs or just below your knees.
Slowly shift your weight to the right side, raising the left side of your low back off the foam roller.
Hold this position for a few seconds, then gently shift to the left side.
Continue rocking your weight from side to side until you feel your muscles and soft tissue release.


Sit with your right leg on the foam roller and your left knee bent with your hands on the floor behind you.
Roll up and down from your knee to just under your right butt cheek.
Roll back and forth 8-10 times then repeat on with the left leg.


Lie facedown on the floor and place the foam roller under your hips.
Roll up and down from hip to knees 8-10 times.


Position your body on your right side, with a foam roller under the right side of your chest.
Extend your right arm out on the floor with your right leg straight on the ground, and your left leg propped in front of your body with your knee bent.
Rotate back slightly so your right lower shoulder muscle is in contact with the foam roller.
Slowly roll foam roller a few inches closer to legs, then a few inches closer to head 8-10 times.
Switch sides and repeat.

When doing any of these foam rolling exercises, you can tailor it to match your areas of soreness or tightness.

When rolling over certain muscles you will notice areas of tension.

Slow down over these regions to really focus on the muscle groups.

Focus on your breathing as you relax and target areas of pain until these muscles release.


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Focus On Areas Above and Below Tension

Another important caveat to foam rolling is to focus on the muscles above and below areas of pain.

For example, many women have issues with low back pain.

Obviously, foam rolling over the low back muscles will increase blood flow to the tissues and help decrease tension.

However, the pain may actually originate in nearby muscles.

This means you also want to relax areas of tension in the glutes and hamstrings to help ease pain in the low back.

As the volume and intensity of your workouts increase, you will deal more with muscle soreness before, during, and after exercise.

Employing techniques to ease delayed onset muscle soreness will help you recover quicker and allow you to put your best effort into each workout.

Holly Smith, M.D.
B.S. – Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer

Writer, The Fit Mother Project

Holly is an osteopathic physician, runner, triathlete, and fitness and nutrition enthusiast.

She is board certified in nephrology and internal medicine, has a bachelors degree in dietetics and is a certified personal trainer with NASM-PES certification.

Holly has completed four full ironmans, twelve marathons, countless half ironmans, olympic distance triathlons, half marathons and numerous other road races.

Holly joined the Fit Father Project in May 2019 as a regular writer, contributing articles on health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition.

She has also recently qualified for the 2020 World Championships for Ironman 70.3, in New Zealand!

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*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on foam rolling.

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