10 Basic Foam Rolling Exercises

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10 Basic Foam Rolling Exercises

Foam rollers are a popular tool for helping athletes release muscle knots or trigger points. Try these 10 basic foam roller exercises to start seeing the benefits today.

Foam roller exercises are a useful form of self-massage. With rollers you can use your own body weight to apply controlled pressure to specific muscle groups and give yourself a deep-tissue massage. This helps loosen tight tissues, reduce physical imbalances, and increase your mobility.

FAQ QUESTIONS ABOUT FOAM ROLLER EXERCISES

Does foam rolling help you build muscle?

Of course not, at least not directly. You can foam roll all day but that won’t give you bigger muscles. To some degree, it’s similar to a stretching program or even a relaxation program. And you already know that you won’t develop bigger muscles using stretching exercises. 

The true value of this training equipment lies in something else. Foam rolling prior to a workout can help decrease muscle density and promote a better warmup. Rolling after a workout may help muscles recover from strenuous exercise. If your muscles are warm and prepared, then they can generate more force and move more weight. Right? Maybe more importantly, the warmup keeps you in the one place you need to be to grow: the gym. Without injuries you can develop bigger muscles easier and quicker. And this is the hidden value of foam rolling. This is the way on which foam roller moves indirectly promote muscle growth.

foam rolling exercise guide

What muscles can you foam roll?

You can foam roll virtually any muscle/muscle group within your body, except the muscle groups surrounding the head, neck and abdomen (such as your abdominals and lower back region). As these areas protect all of your major organs, it is recommended that you perform light stretching only.

Are foam roller exercises easy to do?

Some of the foam roller exercises are easier than others. Most probably they’ll be uncomfortable at first because you will press your tight and sensitive muscles against a roller using your body weight. That’s quite a lot of pressure on your muscles. Foam rollers come in a variety of lengths, diameters, and densities. If you have never used one, start with a low-density roller while you learn the exercises because they are softer against your tight muscles. As you become used to the exercises, progress to higher-density rollers, which can give a deeper massage.

When should you do foam roller exercises?

Foam roller exercises are especially useful for releasing “knots” in muscles that need mobilization. You don’t need to do all the foam roller exercises for every workout. Instead, use them to work on specific areas of muscle tightness. Pick and choose according to the parts of your body that require attention.

You can do roller exercises before a training session to loosen and mobilize particular muscles, or after a run to help break down the lactic acid that can accumulate in them. For example, if you run one day and swim the next, your body may have you do a different set of foam roller exercises each day. Just listen to your body.

Alternatively, incorporate them into your balance and mobility maintenance program. You can use foam rolling exercises as part of an injury recovery program. However, you should always consult your doctor or physical therapist first.

Best tips for foam rolling exercises

Here are some tips to consider to ensure safe and effective foam roller moves.

  • Roll forward and backward over the target area for at least 30 seconds if exercises are part of your maintenance program (less if you are using them in your warm-ups);
  • Pause at any sensitive points and hold the position until discomfort has eased. Allow the targeted muscle to relax completely;
  • Always repeat process on both sides to prevent muscle imbalances. It does not matter if the muscle tightness is only on one side.
  • Apply pressure only to soft body tissue. Avoid rolling over any bony areas: ankle, knee, and hip joints;
  • Breathe normally as you carry out each exercise.
  • Make sure your body does the work, not the roller;
  • Use an exercise mat for additional comfort;

10 BEST FOAM ROLLER EXERCISES

Foam roller exercises are designed to target specific muscle groups. Here we show you how to do ten common exercises using a cylindrical foam roller.

QUADRICEPS GROUP

This exercise helps reduce muscle tightness and imbalance at the front of the thigh. These muscles become tight as a result of repetitive muscle contraction, especially during long runs and heavy squatting. Tightness in these muscles can also affect knee mechanics.

foam rolling quadriceps

Lie on your front with the roller beneath the top of your thighs. Keep your head, neck, body, and legs aligned. Support your upper body with your arms and make sure your toes are on the ground to support your legs.

Using your forearms to guide and support you, move your body up over the roller until it ts just above your knee. Then work back to the top of your thighs again. Repeat for 30 seconds. Crossing your legs at the ankles adds extra pressure.

HAMSTRING GROUP OD MUSCLES

Because the hamstring is a long muscle, it can be awkward to roll its entire length in one smooth movement. It’s just as effective to roll in sections: roll the top half of the muscle several times, then reposition your body and repeat along the bottom half.

Position your foam roller so that its long axis is perpendicular to your body. Take a seat on top, with your legs extended in front of you and hands on the floor behind your back. You can also cross your right leg over the left one at the knees. Raise your buttocks off the mat, keeping head, neck, and spine aligned.

hamstrings foam roller exercise

Using your hands for guidance and support, move your body back slightly, so that the roller is just behind the upper hamstring. Continue moving your body backward to apply pressure to the hamstring from just below the glutes (base or your buttocks) all the way down to the back of the knee. Return to the top and repeat. Repeat for at least 30 seconds.

You can perform this exercise without crossing your legs. That way the pressure will not be so strong.

foarm rolling posterior thigh

This foam roller exercise helps reduce muscle tension and imbalances in the hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh. Muscle tension is particularly common in runners who have a tendency to over-stride, or anyone with a misaligned pelvis.

CALF MUSCLES (GASTROCNEMIUS AND SOLEUS)

The calves may not be a muscle group we immediately think of when we think about foam rolling, but this area is very important to target. Excessive tightness in the calf muscles can negatively affect muscles higher up the leg and even into the lower back. If you engage in activities that involve jumping or being on your toes, like basketball, boxing, or jump rope, you could benefit from foam rolling the calf muscles.

Position your foam roller so that its long axis is perpendicular to your body. Take a seat on top, with your legs extended in front of you and hands on the floor behind your back. Move your body until the roller is directly under your calves.

foam calves

Begin by rolling both calves at once, from just above the ankle to just below the knee. Repeat for 30 seconds.

If you require additional pressure, cross one ankle over the other and focus on rolling one leg at a time.

calves foam roller exercise

GLUTEUS MAXIMUS (BUTT)

The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body and is the most superficial (close to the surface) of all the gluteal muscles.

Position your foam roller so that its long axis is perpendicular to your body. Take a seat on top, with your legs extended in front of you and hands on the floor behind your back.

foam rolling glutes maximus

Using your hands and feet to both support and guide you, move your body forward and backward over the roller making sure to cover the entire muscle from the top of your hamstrings to the bottom of your lower back. Aim for slow, steady movement and spend extra time anywhere you feel intense discomfort (a sure sign of extreme muscle tightness).

To increase the pressure and work one side of the body at a time, bend both legs at the knees and place one ankle across the opposite knee. Use the arms and single supporting leg to roll your gluteal muscle.

foam rolling glutes

GLUTEUS MEDIUS

Position your foam roller so that its long axis is perpendicular to your body. Take a seat on top, with your legs extended in front of you and hands on the floor behind your back. Turn your body slightly to the left so that your left hip and outside of the upper thigh are now in contact with the roller. Cross your right leg over your left so that your right foot is flat on the floor. Take your right hand and place it on the floor in front of your left

Using your hands and right foot for support and guidance, slowly move your body up and down the roller, covering the area from waist lo mid-thigh.

foamroller gluteus medius

It you feel tightness in the outer thigh area, you may want lo continue rolling all the way down to the outside of the knee. Many people have tight iliotibial (IT) bands, which can lead to knee injuries if left unchecked. Repeat on the right side.

TIBIALIS ANTERIOR – SHINS

The anterior tibialis is the most prominent shin muscle. It lies just laterally (to the outside of the body) of the shin along the front of your lower leg. The anterior tibialis serves to lift your toes off the ground with every step you take. It’s often overlooked in foam rolling, but it’s especially important for people who engage in activities such as running or rope jumping.

Start on your hands and knees, with a foam roller under the front of your shins, just below your knees. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged and your back flat, and place as much weight on the foam roller as you can tolerate.

foam rolling shins tibialis anterior

Roll along the front of your shins, from just below your knees to your ankles, by pulling your knees towards your hands while keeping your hands still. Be careful not to roll over the knee joint.

There’s another, better way to perform this exercise. In this variant your main body weight should be over the foam roller so that the muscles on the front of your shins get the most pressure.

shins foam rolling exercise

MUSCLES OF THE LOWER BACK (LUMBAR SPINE)

This foam rolling exercise reduces muscle tightness and imbalance in your lower back. Correct tension across your lower back allows a more even distribution of force through this part of the spine when you are running, minimizing the likelihood of back pain. Caution: Take care if you have facet lower back issues.

Sit on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Position the roller so that it is level with the top of your pelvis. Lie back over the roller, supporting your upper body with your forearms. Keep your spine neutral.

lumbar spine foam rolling exercise

Push your body over the roller as far as the base of your ribs, then back to the top of your pelvis. Rotate your body toward your left side and repeat the exercise, targeting the muscles on the outer side. Turn toward your right side and repeat.

NECK AND UPPER TRAPEZIUS MUSCLES (CERVICAL SPINE AREA)

Use this exercise to loosen up the muscles at the base of your skull and around your neck (trapezius muscle). These muscles can become very tight, especially if you have a tendency to run with your head forward. This is also true for people who sit in front of a computer screen all day. The neck tightness can cause headaches. When using a foam roller to release these muscles, there’s no need to apply extra pressure. It may actually be dangerous to your neck and head, also known as the cervical spine area. Just relax and let the weight of your head release your neck muscles.

Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and slightly apart. Position the foam roller perpendicular to your body, at the top of your neck, just beneath the base of your skull. Slowly turn your head from left to right over the roller for at least 30 seconds. Return your head to center.

neck upper trapezius foamrolling

Now move the foam roller down to the bottom of your neck and roll your head over it for another 30 seconds, working on the lower neck muscles. If you want to increase the pressure on your neck, try lifting your hips up slightly.

UPPER AND MID BACK (THORACIC SPINE)

This foam rolling exercise reduces tightness and improves movement in the muscles of your mid and upper back, known as the thoracic spine. The upper back is chronically tight in many, if not most, people. Mobility through the upper back and ribs helps you maintain an upright posture and to breathe correctly.

Sit down with knees bent and feet on the floor. Position the foam roller so that it will be level with your shoulder blades. Place your arms across your chest, lie back onto the roller, and lift your hips. Keep your back and neck in a straight line. Instead of crossing your arms over the chest you can also support your head with your hands, without pulling or pushing on your neck.

mid back foam roliing exercise

Breathe normally and, using your legs and feet, push your body over the roller until it reaches the bottom of the ribs, then work back to your shoulder blades, stopping below the neck. Again -repeat for 30 seconds.
Tips: Use your feet on the floor to control the motion and pressure, and tilt your body slightly from side to side to access the upper back muscles from different angles.

UPPER BACK (RHOMBOIDS)

Here’s a variation of the previous upper back move, which targets the rhomboids. Your rhomboids squeeze your shoulder blades together.

Lie on the foam roller lengthwise, with your head at one end and your tailbone at the other end. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor.

foam rolling rhomboids

With your elbows bent and hands near your head, carefully roll slightly from left to right, focusing on the muscles in your upper back and between your shoulder blades. Make sure you don’t twist your spine as you roll; move your body as one unit. Try lifting your head slightly to access your upper back muscles from a different angle.

Closing thoughts: Why foam roller exercise?

Foam roller exercises not only loosen tight muscles, but also break up any scar tissue (or muscular “adhesions”) that might be preventing the muscle from performing optimally. Improvements in range of motion and reductions in DOMS have also been documented. Chronic muscle tightness is a recipe for injury; think of foam rolling as preventative maintenance, and make it a regular part of your workout.

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