In the past couple of years, the use of foam rollers has skyrocketed in the wellness world for its tension-relieving and stress-reducing abilities for both the mind and body. Most people look to foam rollers for alleviating pain and soreness from physical activity and daylong sitting, but the benefits of foam rollers extend way beyond just feeling good; they help stretch our fascia, which plays an important role in our overall structure of our bones and joints.
To better understand foam rollers from A-Z, here's a guide breaking down the do’s, the don'ts, and a short series of exercises for the well-seasoned and newbie foam rollers alike.
Foam rolling targets the fascia.
Most people think foam rolling is some sort of medieval torture designed to inflict pain as you roll out your tight IT bands, but the foam roller is capable of so much more—and if used correctly, rolling doesn’t need to hurt. The roller can actually help rejuvenate and strengthen your entire body by healing and restoring your fascia. Fascia is a thin layer of connective tissue that lies under the skin and wraps around the every muscle and organ in the body. The role fascia actually plays in the body is really only now being fully recognized. Fascia helps connect the muscles to the bones and joints and plays a key role in our structural integrity—so in a way it is like the scaffolding of the body. The best way to imagine fascia is to think of a thin Saran wrap-like layer that lies between the skin and the muscles like a web. If you’ve ever seen the white stringy layer when you cut into an uncooked chicken, that is fascia. Fascia is also where the nerves and the lymph nodes sit–so it is now being called a sensory organ because this is where pain originates and is communicated to the brain.
What are the benefits of foam rolling?
One of the key benefits of the roller is that it helps smooth out and hydrate the fascia. Foam rolling improves circulation throughout your entire body which helps to oxygenate the blood, boost lymphatic drainage and flush toxins from the body. The roller also helps to "lubricate" the joints and reduce inflammation in the body while increasing flexibility and range of motion. It can also improve the connection to the intrinsic or core muscles; we tend to lose this connectivity with our core as we age. So bottom line, the roller is an incredible tool for overall fitness and health.
Foam rolling is a holistic tool that can be used in all forms of movement and exercise.
So many exercise regimens focus on specific things like cardio or building muscle, both of which can be good things, but to be truly balanced you need to take a more holistic approach. Aside from smoothing out and hydrating fascia, improving circulation, boosting lymphatic drainage, "lubricating" the joints, reducing inflammation and increasing flexibility, the roller can also be used as the basis for a total body workout that is the perfect complement to whatever other exercise you like to do, or can be a workout in its own right. I’ve spent years developing a series of moves on the roller that basically mimic Pilates exercises, but without the need for expensive or bulky equipment such as the Cadillac or the Reformer.
These are all benefits that exercises like running, yoga, weights, spinning, or any number of other routines don’t necessarily offer, and this makes the roller the perfect complement to whatever other workouts you might be doing.
Choosing a foam roller that's best for you.
Many people use a roller that is too hard, especially when they are first starting out. I spent years experimenting with different densities of roller and I finally decided to develop my own roller. Even with a softer roller, rolling is not always going to be comfortable—but it should be the sort of pain that feels good, because it’s doing you good. Rolling shouldn’t really hurt. If you find yourself grimacing, I recommend trying a slightly softer roller.
Foam rolling can be painful but it should feel good.
With the right roller and the right technique, rolling should feel really good. I find the roller incredible after a long day––it helps me decompress. Sure, there are some exercises that can be challenging and get the burn going in the precise place needed. If rolling really hurts you, you’re doing it wrong!
There are many rollers on the market, but what I recommend for most people is to start with a medium-density roller that has a little bit of give. A lot of people first try a very hard roller and find it uncomfortable or even painful, which is not the intention of rolling. For this reason I designed my own roller that I have found to be the perfect density for the vast majority of people. I tried lots of options until I got the density right; I also added some texture so it doesn’t slip. The tiny bumps on the surface aid in lymphatic drainage, and it’s like memory foam that forms to your body, creating both pressure and support.
I also developed a smaller, softer foam roller specifically for traveling. I find that whenever you’re on the go is a time you really need the roller, so I created this roller to be small enough to pop into your carry-on luggage but big enough to still get the all benefits of rolling. You won’t be able to do all the moves in this course on this roller, but you’ll be able to do a lot of them and if you’re on the road a lot I really recommend this option.
There are also some common mistakes to avoid when using foam rollers.
First of all, never roll on your cervical spine (the neck) or the lumbar spine (the bony part of your lower back). The discs and vertebrae in these areas don’t have so much soft tissue protecting them and rolling these areas can really hurt! Some of my moves do reach these parts–but it’s all about positioning your body so it is actually rolling over a stationary roller, rather than having the roller moving under you. Honestly, I think the biggest mistake people make is thinking the roller is just a physical therapy tool. For starters, here are five beginner foam roller exercises you can introduce into your daily movement and wellness practice.
5 basic foam roller exercises:
- Lie on the roller with your spine supported from head to tailbone.
- Begin with your arms extended down by your sides, with the palms of your hands facing up to open and expand the chest.
- Inhale deeply as you reach your arms up overhead slowly and with control, keeping them as close to the mat as possible and parallel to the floor.
- Exhale completely as you draw your arms back down to your sides.
- Repeat eight times.
Roll Out the Kinks
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
- Place the roller under your back at the bra line, leaning your mid-back over the roller.
- Gently interlace your fingers behind your head to support your head and neck.
- Using your feet to drive the movement, inhale as you roll up, stopping at the top of the shoulder blades.
- Exhale as you roll and massage down the spine, stopping at the bottom of your rib cage. (Be careful not to roll back and forth on the lower back.)
- Repeat 10 times.
Rolling Figure Four
- Sit on the roller and reach your right arm behind you, planting your right hand on the floor a few inches behind you.
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee in a figure-four position. Slightly shift your weight to the right hip/glute area. and roll back and forth a few inches in each direction for about 30 seconds.
- Spend another 30 seconds breathing as you roll in tiny circular movements.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- Start on your forearms with your belly facing the mat.
- Place the roller under your hips, with your feet together and knees wide. Keep your belly muscles engaged to prevent overarching your lower back.
- Exhale as you roll your body forward so that the foam roller moves down to just above your knees. Inhale as you roll back up.
- Repeat eight times.
Inverted Sacral Roll
- Lay down on the mat with your knees bent and feet hip-width distance apart.
- Lift your hips up off the mat and slide the roller under your hips/sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of your spine), just above the tailbone.
- Lift your knees up so they are hovering directly over your hips.
- Inhale as you release your knees over to the right.
- Exhale as you release your knees to the left.
- Repeat each side eight times.
Foam-rolling is an amazing tool and practice for regeneration and self-healing, but it’s so much more than that. I have many fun roller workouts on my website and YouTube that demonstrate exactly how you can use the roller as the basis for an incredible total body workout that will get your core and intrinsic muscles firing like nothing else! And of course, try out my mbg foam rolling exercise class here.
Wanna learn how to use foam rolling to reduce inflammation? Here's a guide on how to reduce inflammation with exercise.
Lauren Roxburgh is an author, educator, and speaker, frequently dubbed “The Body Whisperer." She is an expert on all things fascia, alignment, and movement medicine and regularly works with celebrities, athletes and orthopedic surgeons. Roxburgh has her bachelor's in nutrition and exercise physiology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is also a certified Pilates instructor and Structural Integration practitioner. Named the "Body Alignment Pro" by Vogue, she has also been listed as one of the 8 Tech Pioneers to Watch by Entrepreneur magazine, and one of the 16 Women in Wellness to Watch in 2019 by Chalkboard Magazine. Roxburgh is also the founder of the Aligned Tribe Community, the virtual Aligned Life Studio and the creator of the signature Aligned Healing Tools.