The Right and Wrong Way to Use a Foam Roller

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There are foam rollers that weigh half a pound and foam rollers that vibrate at three different speeds, foam rollers that cost upwards of $300 and even, foam rollers you can stick in the freezer. And while there are so many choices, the benefits of foam rolling are more than just self-massaging a tight IT band, explains Lauren Roxburgh, the best-selling author of Taller, Slimmer, Younger—21 Days to a Foam Roller Physique and creator of the Lo Rox Aligned foam roller.

“The foam roller works in a similar way in that when you put weight on it, the pressure as you move over the roller is working your tissue, smoothing it out and wringing out toxins and scar tissue that build up in the fascia,” she said, referring to the sheet of tissue that binds your muscles and bones. “The roller also helps to ‘lubricate’ the joints, and reduces inflammation in the body while increasing flexibility and range of motion,” she added. “So bottom line, the roller is an incredible tool for overall fitness and health.”

How to Choose

There are a range of foam rollers of all shapes and sizes available, but many experts recommend starting off with a lower density-to-medium density roller to work out tight muscles.

“As you become more accustomed to the pressure, you can increase the density and method of rolling to further release tension in the muscle and connective tissue,” notes Jacque Crockford, American Council on Exercise senior personal training expert.

Smaller areas of the body, such as the feet, can be worked over with a small roller or even a ball.

Leave the thick, round foam rollers for large muscle groups, such as the quadriceps, illotibial band, calves and hamstrings, notes Melanie Strassburg, physical therapist and assistant clinical director at New York-based Professional Physical Therapy. For more pressure, look for “rumble rollers”—rollers that have rounded “spikes” on them.

“There are a wide variety of rollers out there but I’m an advocate of keeping it simple,” Roxburgh says. “You really just need one roller that is big enough to do a variety of exercises on and is the right density.”

What You’ve Been Doing Wrong

While foam rolling is supposed to bring benefit the runner’s body, it can also cause harm if it isn’t done correctly, experts say. That could include using too hard of roller that makes the release uncomfortable or using too much pressure that causes pain.

“A little discomfort is natural but if it is really painful you’re either doing it wrong or using the wrong roller,” Roxburgh says. “The intention isn’t to dig something hard into you so it shouldn’t hurt the tissue.”

Another mistake is rolling over bones and rolling over injuries.

“With a muscle strain, going directly over the area will increase inflammation, increasing tension in the area of injury,” Strassburg says.

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