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Foam Rolling Exercises for a Better Body: Your Foam Roller Guide

foam rolling exercisesRemember that virus I mentioned?

Well, my article about building a better body with soft tissue work has convinced someone to invest in a foam roller.

Mission accomplished.

[Massive digital high-five delivered]

The virus IS spreading through your positive actions.

And I’m loving it!

But while on the topic of foam rolling, a question recently came up about foam rollers which demanded an answer (just check out that exclamation point in there).

“Is there a difference in rollers!?” – D

Well, actually D, there are.

Let’s dig in.

Foam rollers are awesome!

They do an amazing job of breaking down the built up tension in the body. The muscle knots. Those tight spots. The trigger points. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please take a second to read this article about myofascial release.

The purpose of this article is to give you a good overview of the self-myofascial practice known as foam rolling. You’ve seen it before. Maybe you’ve even tried it out yourself at some point out of sheer curiosity.

But the truth is adding foam rolling exercises into your daily routine is a game changer.

Trust me.

Foam Roller: The Choice

Foam rollers can vary drastically.

Different lengths, diameters, densities, colours, and sometimes even shapes exist.

You’ll find that the standard size of a foam roller is 6 inches in diameter and the length varies between 18 inches and 36 inches.

I recommend sticking with a 6in X 36in size.

The most important thing you have to consider when getting a foam roller is the density of the roller. The density will determine how much pressure or tension you’re able to place on your tissues.

Here are the varying density levels:

Low density: The lowest density foam roller is typically white in colour and is made of a material called Bio-Foam. This foam roller is very soft and not very durable. It also doesn’t last very long. If you’re a complete beginner or you have seriously dysfunctional soft tissues (really painful to the touch), then this might be a great choice. Otherwise, I’d go with a medium or high density.

low density foam roller

Medium (standard) density: These are the standard foam rollers you will find at most gyms. They are made from a material called Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) and are usually blue in colour. These are more dense than the bio-foam and allow you to apply a good amount of pressure. I have a few of these babies at home.

medium density foam roller

High density: There are numerous styles of high density foam rollers that differ by manufacturer. Some manufacturers compress beads of EVA foam into super tight densities. Some high quality foam rollers are almost completely solid, having really hard inner cores and thin layers of foam around it. These foam rollers last much longer and allow you to apply a great deal of pressure.

high density foam roller

Like I said, there are many styles of foam rollers, but it’s often best just to keep it simple. I think the medium density foam rollers are amazing and get the job done. If you can, it’s nice to get your hands on a high density one as well so you can really get into those tough spots.

I’ve also noticed that the recent rise in popularity of soft tissue work and foam rollers has intrigued some manufacturers to get a little creative. Check out the rumble roller, for example. I have yet to try this one out.

Foam Roller: Where to Get One

As I mentioned earlier, the rise in popularity of foam rollers has been quite drastic in the past few years. As a result, supply has started to catch up with the demand. More and more manufacturers are producing their own versions and stores are selling them like hot cakes.

This is all good news for you.

If you’re a regular at the gym, it’s more than likely that your gym has stocked up on a few foam rollers. So you always have that option. But I highly recommend getting at least one foam roller that you can use at home. Your local general fitness store should definitely have some. If not, any large sports department stores should carry them. If you live in the middle of nowhere (or prefer the world of online shopping) then your last option would be to get it online.

Foam Rolling: How to use One

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the technique of soft tissue work, so I won’t go into the details here.

The idea of foam rolling (or any self-myofascial release technique) is to break down the soft tissue adhesions that have built up over time. The foam roller works great because it allows you to apply (somewhat) concentrated and sustained pressure on your soft tissues. This softens and lengthens the tissue, allowing it to revert back to its optimal state of health over time.

Foam rolling is actually quite simple and it’s incredible when you realize that you’re replacing hundreds of dollars of massage therapy work with a simple $20 fitness tool.

To use the foam roller, you’ll need some space to work with as you’ll be contouring your body like a circus animal (only half joking). You’ll need to position your body on top of the foam roller and let gravity work its magic.

Position the particular muscle group on top of the foam roller and gently start rolling it back and forth. If you feel any pain, you’ve encountered a trigger point. It means that particular area of soft tissue needs work. Gently sway back and forth on that area until the tension is released and the pain dissipates.

More than likely you’ll find a bunch of trigger points (painful areas) across your body. Our bodies are plagued with muscular imbalances and inefficiencies, so it’s important that you pay attention to the signals (pain) your body is sending you and apply pressure accordingly.

The more often you do your soft tissue work, the healthier your tissues will be. Start slow and progress. I now do my soft tissue work every single day for at least 10 minutes. It’s worth it.

Foam Rolling Exercises

The foam roller is great for breaking the tension built up in the tissues of your body. It’s also a great relaxation tool. Foam rolling is usually the best part of my workout (sometimes the best part of my day).

There are numerous foam rolling exercises (and variations of each) that you can do. I’ve created a short video outlining some of my favorites. Check it out:

Note: if the video is not showing, hit the refresh button and it should appear.

Foam Rolling: The Routine

When and where you do your foam rolling routine is up to you, but I’m going to share some of the things I’ve found work best (for me).

I used to do my foam rolling routine after my workout. But after doing some research and testing, I found that doing foam rolling exercises before my workout works way better.

I now do my routine right after work. This actually works great because it releases the built up tension from my day-long sitting session (called work) and it prepares my muscles for my workout (which I do right after).

Here’s what my typical foam rolling routine looks like (by muscle group): upper (thoracic) spine, lats, glutes, hamstrings, IT bands, quadriceps, hip flexors. I’ll throw in some calves or shins depending on what my training has been like.

I typically spend at least 30-60 seconds on each muscle group, or as long as it takes for the pain to dissipate (this time is shortened the more you work with the roller).

Note: you can change your routine to suit your body. For example, if you have tighter hamstrings, spend a little extra time rolling them. If your IT band is really tight (i.e. you feel a lot of pain when rolling the area), spend a lot of time on it. I spend a lot of time on my hip flexors and my IT bands. You have to learn to listen to your body and adapt accordingly.

Foam Rolling: The Final Say

If you haven’t already incorporated foam rolling and soft tissue work into your routine, then I hope this post has convinced you to do so.

You’ll be surprised at the powerful effect this tool can have on your body. In as little as 10-15 minutes a day, you can bring life and health back to your soft tissues and completely transform how your body functions and feels.

Get yourself a foam roller and start rolling!

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them in the comments below!

Also, if you found the post useful, do me a favour and hit the like or tweet button on the left side to help me spread this info. Let’s spread that virus!

Christopher - July 25, 2012

Thanks for the info! Are there any areas that should be avoided when foam rolling?

    Test - July 26, 2012

    The only area I typically avoid foam rolling is the lower back. For the lower back I use a lacrosse ball instead – allows you to apply more concentrated pressure. I’ll talk about this in a future post.

Claire - July 26, 2012

Very nice vid!! I’m always encourging people to foam roll also as I’ve found it invaluable for loosening up my tight hips and “curing” my piriformis syndrome…the only difference from what you’ve shown is that when rolling the piriformis I have found it very effective to work on the side with the leg up and crossed rather than the side with the foot on the floor………keep up the good work 🙂

    Test - July 27, 2012

    Claire – I guess I should’ve shown both ways of working the piriformis. I do switch it up every now and then depending on how it feels. What kind of roller do you use?

      Claire - July 27, 2012

      Hey 🙂 – I use a dense black roller mostly, but i’ve also found that a hard medicine ball is good for glutes and piriformis as the shape allows you to get in a bit deeper ( I’ll use a lacrosse ball on occasion but find that a little TOO intense sometimes 😉

        Test - July 30, 2012

        I love my lacrosse ball, but haven’t done much work with the medicine ball when it comes to self-myofascial release. Thanks for sharing!

Dana Raquel Bryant - July 31, 2012

wow, this one is good, gonna use for another sport but i think it’ll be just as good, BIG thanks 🙂

Fathin - July 31, 2012

I’ve seen some videos on foam rolling but this video made me more interested as there are more body areas. Before this I only thought foam roller can only be used for position lying down face up! Those foam roller exercises look good for tense muscles, especially for those who sit long hours and it does look like a self-massage 🙂

Any alternatives for foam roller if you can’t find it in stores or online? Where I live, the exercise equipments are limited and online usually do not offer delivery to where I live.

    Test - August 2, 2012

    One other tool I like to use in place of the foam roller is the portable roller (one example is the Tiger Tail — google it). The details of this tool are explained on this post. If you can’t find any of these tools, get a dough roller or something similar and use that as a replacement. The idea is to put pressure on the trigger points. The tool is not the focal point.

    Ryan - August 8, 2012

    a cheap substitute/alternative for a foam roller is a two liter coke bottle filled with water. It works in a pinch, but due to it’s smaller size, one has to be focused on not falling off of it.

      Test - August 9, 2012

      That’s a great idea. You ever build one yourself?

mike h - exercise equipment fanatic - August 9, 2012

awesome article, i’ve actually been considering getting a foam roller in hopes that it will alleviate some of the tightness in my overall back, well and the overall stiffness i’ve been experiencing lately.

that rumble roller though looks like a torture device, haha.

    Test - August 10, 2012

    The foam roller is essential. A lacrosse ball works well for relieving tension in the lower back.

    And yea the rumble roller is a beast. Can’t wait to get my hands on one.

Anna - August 24, 2012

I just got a foam roller today and I’m loving it! Thanks for showing all these exercises. When I do the shin one though, it causes a lot of pain. That is, when I do it with my shin parallel to the floor. Could this be because of shin splints?

    Test - August 25, 2012

    Glad you enjoyed it Anna. The pain is due to the tightness in the fascia that covers the shin. How does it feel after you roll it? Does the pain disappear or is it ongoing?

Jesse Giovanni Ibarra - March 10, 2013

what if a certain areas is too painful to roll? for example my lats. are there ways to foam roll arms?

    Test - March 11, 2013

    Jesse, pain during self-myofascial release is good pain. The goal is to find these pain points and put some pressure on them to break the tension within the tissue. However, if the pain is not bearable, try using a softer foam roller (remember the different densities) and work your way up.

    I’ve never found much use in foam rolling arms. Perhaps using more localized tools (like lacrosse balls or tennis balls) might work better for that.

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