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Foam Rolling: Are You Doing it Incorrectly?

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

After you finish that grueling HIIT class or lengthy jog, your muscles are likely to feel sore. Those hardworking muscles were broken down during exercise and need rest in order to repair themselves, so if you don’t provide your body with some tender loving care and ample time to recover, you will increase the chances of an overuse injury. One solution? That dependable foam roller.

It has become extremely popular to utilize a foam roller after a workout, as it allows you to effectively target those trigger points and alleviate discomfort in your muscles from various angles. Foam rolling is a technique to focus on fascia — also known as the connective tissue that encompasses your bones, muscles, and joints — which can become tight. In fact, some fitness centers and trainers even offer specialized foam rolling recovery classes that solely revolve around this practice of massaging the muscles.

It may seem too easy to mess up, correct? Well, it turns out that in certain situations, you can actually do more harm than good. There are specific movements and techniques to foam roll correctly, ensuring that you enhance your recovery and aid muscle healing without causing additional pain or simply wasting your time.

Common Foam Rolling Errors

If you are using a foam roller, chances are your muscles are already experiencing soreness — therefore, you will want to avoid common errors and adhere to recommended best practices. Here, experts provide insight into the typical mistakes that individuals make when foam rolling and how to rectify them.

Utilizing Incorrect Pressure

When it comes to foam rolling, there is a optimal level of pressure. It is common to either apply too much or too little pressure — however, either way, you will not effectively restore damaged muscle tissue.

“It may take some time for the muscle you are targeting to relax,” states Chris Aronsen, a senior fitness specialist certified by NASM and a personal trainer certified by ACE in New York City. “I prefer utilizing a slower to medium speed, as it is more effective in relieving tension without excessive strain,” he adds.

Moreover, not all areas of the body are equal: certain muscles have trigger points or become tighter than others. Applying the same amount of pressure to every spot is not wise, as Aronsen points out. “Some areas you work on may not exhibit much tension, while other areas might possess a significant amount. Adjust your pressure accordingly, and remember: your body will communicate its needs to you,” he explains.

Determining the ideal pressure can be difficult. When foam rolling, you should not experience complete comfort, especially when targeting trigger points. If there is no discomfort, then your pressure is probably too light. However, if you start to feel excruciating pain, you should ease up. Aronsen states that mild discomfort, coupled with steady pressure, is to be expected. Additionally, you should avoid rolling too swiftly over each section, as it usually does not provide enough pressure.

Spending an Excessive Amount of Time on Specific Areas

While certain areas may be more tense than others, it is important not to overdo it by spending excessive time rolling on a particular spot.

“Recommended durations on any area would be 30 seconds to a minute,” expresses Susie Lemmer, a certified personal trainer and running coach situated in Chicago. “For 30 seconds, sustain the muscle over the roller and apply unwavering pressure, then allot another 30 seconds to one minute of kinetic pressure, investigating the fascia,” she elucidates. Kinetic pressure signifies that you’ll be shifting the foam roller, as opposed to static pressure where you would retain it in one location. “Initiate with static, then progress to kinetic,” advises Lemmer.

Foam Rolling a Cold Muscle

An excellent approach to investigate the fascia and foam roll effectively is to maintain the roller in one place as you twirl from side to side and then glide your body across it up and down the length of the muscle — you shift as it moves, asserts Lemmer.

When you devote too much time to one area, you jeopardize bruising and injuring yourself, particularly when you engage in it before a workout on a “cold” muscle (or a muscle that hasn’t been warmed up through activity), according to Lemmer. However, “you can foam roll a ‘cold’ muscle much more securely than static or dynamic stretching of a cold muscle,” she explains. “In fact, self-myofascial release (foam rolling) is a recommended first step in your warm-up,” she remarks.

The dangers of rolling out muscles improperly are equivalent to receiving an excessively intense massage — bruising, above all. If you obtain bruises from foam rolling, you will most likely desire to ice it. “And any type of swelling or loss of function, range of motion, or strength — see a doctor immediately,” says Lemmer.

When rolling a cold muscle, you’ll want to gradually apply softer pressure initially to evade further damaging the fascia and causing inflammation. Furthermore, if you’re moving the foam roller too forcefully over a cold muscle specifically, it can harm muscle tissue and exacerbate pains. Instead, you’ll want to keep the roller motionless and shift your body gently to allow the body to generate heat and warm up slightly to relieve tense points.

Rolling In Only One Direction

“Fascia run in all directions, so you want to ensure that you cover all of them,” says Lemmer. Initially, begin by keeping the roller stationary and rotate your limb from side to side (similar to a screwdriver). Then roll the length of the muscle, as suggested by Lemmer.

Attacking Knots Head-On

“You frequently hear about individuals ‘rolling out their knots,’ but you should perceive the fascia as bands held in tension between two poles,” says Lemmer. “If you can get the fascia above and below the knots to relax first, you will have a much easier time loosening the knot, and, as a matter of fact, you might be able to simply perform a light rolling over the area of discomfort,” she clarifies.

And you must exercise caution when delving deeply into trigger points. “Trigger points are usually locations where knots can form or produce acute pain because they retain a significant amount of tension,” says Lemmer. They can also be an area where numerous nerves converge. In these situations, foam rolling can either be exceptionally effective or entirely unproductive or detrimental if executed incorrectly, she expresses.

“Remember, you are desensitizing the overactive area of muscle with foam rolling,” says James Shapiro, a NASM-certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist based in Los Angeles. “You may encounter tingling, pulsing, or limbs ‘falling asleep.’ That’s when you should change your location or alter your position.

It signifies that you are exerting inappropriate pressure on nerves or restricting the circulation of blood,” he recommends.

Rolling the Incorrect Areas

Nearly all muscles are permissible; however, there are several body parts you must abstain from manipulating,” states Lemmer. The most considerable error? Rolling your IT band. For one, it absolutely cannot be loosened. “The IT band is actually a substantial strap of ligament that cannot be expressed or loosened,” affirms Lemmer. “If you possess ‘tight IT bands,’ instead concentrate on rolling the glutes, quadriceps, and the areas surrounding the knee. Afterward, engage in targeted strengthening and physical therapy designed to reinforce the glutes, alleviating pressure on the IT band and reducing the likelihood of IT band syndrome,” she instructs.

Additional areas to avoid encompass the lower back, neck, and pubis region. “There is simply an insufficient amount of dense muscle tissue in those regions for rolling to be safe and efficacious,” states Shapiro. “For instance, low-back issues are more closely associated with your mid-thoracic region and hips as opposed to the lower back,” and exacerbated by poor posture, he explains.

“By rolling out the pectoral muscles, hips, and quadriceps, it can revitalize your body from poor posture,” remarks Jennifer McCamish, a certified Pilates instructor and the proprietor of Shape Method Pilates. “Lie on your stomach and place a single arm over the roller at the armpit area. Lean a portion of your body weight into the pectoral muscle and gently roll toward the torso and outward towards the biceps region,” she elucidates.

An alternative and secure option for rolling out the muscles in the lumbar region involves using a tennis ball instead of a foam roller, which can help evade injury. “Certain individuals prefer employing a tennis ball to penetrate deeper into more specific, smaller areas. I like to suggest placing two tennis balls in a sock to secure them on either side of the spine within the muscle [so as] not to harm or press against the vertebrae,” explains McCamish.

Commencing In the Incorrect Location

Broadly speaking, you ought to initiate from a position of comfort and progress towards the feeling of discomfort, expresses Lemmer. Additionally, “you would not start a workout by sprinting without first warming up your muscles,” she highlights.

Thus, identify the areas with the least tautness to commence with, and then advance to the most tense areas. As you transition from one region to the next, do not shift rapidly from one group of muscles to another. “Individuals who roll too quickly are simply executing it incorrectly,” affirms McCamish.

When commencing to roll a specific area, “commence at the origin of the muscle and gradually roll towards the insertion of the muscle in order to liberate fascia in the most pleasant and efficient manner,” advises McCamish. A sound general guideline to comprehend origin-to-insertion is to initiate closest to the core, or center of the body, such as the shoulder or pelvic girdle, she suggests. For example, to roll out your quadriceps or hamstrings, “start around the pelvis in the fleshy portion of the muscle (not the joint itself) and gradually roll away from the pelvis until you reach the top of the knee,” she counsels.