Foam rolling has become a common practice for lifters and athletes alike. And it's no surprise: foam rolling has been shown to increase blood flow, help speed up muscle recovery, and increase range of motion, to name a few.
But are you getting the most out of it? Probably not.
Fact is, there’s more to foam rolling than just going through the motions, and even the most experienced lifters and athletes make mistakes. We spoke with Jim Smith, C.S.C.S., the founder of Diesel Strength and Conditioning, to find out how to get the most out of your foam roller.
Foam rolling: the basics
Even if you’ve got a mental Rolodex of foam rolling moves, you should make sure you’re hitting your muscles in the right order for optimal results. “Working across the body from the bottom up, from the top down, and from the outside in will ensure that you cover all of the major muscle groups,” Smith advises.
But going through the movements in the right order still doesn’t mean that you’re getting the most out of them. Most lifters move quickly through a foam rolling routine, but end up holding their breath because it hurts—so slow it down, Smith explains. Rushing through the movements minimizes the benefits, so focus on deep breathing and taking your time with each muscle.
“Try to introduce movement when you're using the foam roller, like military pressing with your arms when foam rolling the upper back,” Smith says. You’ll benefit even more from the soft-tissue stretching while you roll out.
Another common mistake lifters make: neglecting smaller muscle groups. Ever hear of your teres minor? Can you point to your gluteus medius? Foam roll your illiotibial tract very often? Many lifters forget these essential supporting muscles because they’re harder to see, and because the pressure from the foam roller may be too much.
Solution? “Take the roller off the floor and place it up on a flat bench," Smith advises. "That can provide different angles to attack the target muscle groups, and allows you to better control the pressure and the amount of body weight you use.”
Speaking of neglect, lifters often overlook other tools that are just as useful for rolling out, like such as medicine balls or tennis balls. These everyday tools can target more specific areas that you may not be able to hit with a foam roller, like your upper hamstring or the small muscles of your lower back.
If you foam roll, you probably also stretch. But combining the two can be even better. For example, the sliding pigeon stretch performed on a foam roller targets the external rotators of the hips, the IT bands and glutes. Here’s a demonstration of the move, which offers immediate benefits to your squat technique, Smith says.
Foam rolling: timing techniques
Once you’re hitting every muscle from every angle, you might want to take timing into consideration. You’ll see plenty of sweat-soaked gym-goers rolling out after a tough workout, and that’s great. However, that’s not the only time you should utilize a foam roller.
“If you have especially tight areas and you're having problems achieving optimal technique for the exercises in your workout, foam rolling during your warm-up, prior to your training session, can be a great idea,” Smith said. Hips, calves, lats and the upper back are some of the most common areas that can benefit from rolling out during a warm-up.
It’s also important to remember that your recovery doesn’t have to be limited to the time you’re in the gym.
“Foam rolling at night after a shower can also be a great way to wind down and get ready for sleep,” Smith said. That way, your overall recovery will be quicker so that you can get right back at it tomorrow.