The Foam Roller is a relatively inexpensive piece of exercise equipment that can really help one feel improved range of motion and reduce muscle tension spots after use. It is an easy and great home management tool to help people feel better with day-to-day activities by reducing common areas of muscle tension, stiffness, and/or trigger points.
The foam roller is widely used throughout the physical therapy, rehabilitation, and fitness worlds. Getting more specific about one way to use this tool, it is a great way to give oneself a myofascial release. This post will not get into the specifics of what it is physically doing on a structural or cellular level, but it will explain some nice, basic exercises that can loosen up tension areas in the body. To learn more about some theories of what is actually happening on a structural and cellular level with myofascial release on the foam roller, check out this interesting, detailed post that I read from the American Council of Exercise from a few years back by clicking on the above link.
In addition to being a very effective tool that helps “knead out” the common, day-to-day tension areas of the body, it can also be used in different ways, such as to increase the challenge of many core abdominal stabilization exercises and in also releasing tension of the large muscles in the legs. (But these are great subjects for another post!)
How to Get Get On the Foam Roller:
One should lay next to the foam roller on their back parallel to it with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor. The person should make sure the foam roller is in a position that will support both the head and the pelvis when they get on. Then the person should reach the nearest arm over the roller to the other side of the ground and press up with the muscles on the backs of the legs to carefully place their body on the foam roller, which will be running underneath the person’s spine. One should also gently engage the deep core abdominals prior to getting on the roller. Getting on and off the roller should be done purposefully and carefully. The body should be completely supported from the person’s head to the pelvis without either area off the roller.
3 Basic Foam Roller Exercises:
1. The Pectoral (Chest) Stretch:
Arms positioned at sides:
This is one of my most FAVORITE foam roller exercises! The person lays on their back with the foam roller underneath them along their spine. The arms should just rest at their sides. The feet should be flat on the mat with the knees bent. The spacing of the feet should be approximately shoulder width apart, or whatever distance the person feels comfortable and secure when laying on the roller. A wider distance will give a person more support.
While lying on the foam roller, one can just relax and take deep, diaphragmatic breaths. The shoulders should be resting comfortably without tension or “scrunching up” toward the head.
Arms positioned stretched outward:
(All the steps for this arm position are the same as the prior description, except for the placement of the arms.) Generally, if a person allows the arms to stretch out to the sides perpendicular to the body, it will increase the stretch across the chest. The palms should be facing up toward the ceiling. The higher the outstretched arms are moved up towards the head, generally, most people will feel an even stronger stretch across the chest in a slightly different area of the chest. The arms should only rest on a position where the person can lay relaxed, comfortable, and while taking diaphragmatic breaths. The arms should also be able to rest relaxed and without any discomfort. If any position is uncomfortable, then the stretch is too much and the person should get out of the position.
For both versions of the pectoral stretch, a person may lay in this position for up 1-2 minutes, if it is comfortable. The person may feel a gentle opening and/or stretching across their chest. Another benefit to this exercise may be increased ease with standing in a more upright posture with the shoulders resting back in a more appropriate position (versus being too forward). This is especially true if this exercise is done on a consistent basis over time.
2. Side-to-Side Rolling:
The starting position for this exercise is the same position as the pectoral stretch, except the person should place their feet in a wider stance on the floor. Generally, most people will also prefer to have their arms outstretched to the sides in a comfortable position, and their hands may turn down toward the ground to assist with balance when this exercise is performed.
Pushing with one foot toward the other side, the person will roll their body from side-to-side on the foam roller. For example, if a person uses their right leg to push toward the left side, the roller will roll slightly toward the right side underneath the person’s body. The person only pushes far enough so that the roller will massage the right side of the body without rolling out from underneath the person. Do not push too far to the side! Generally, the roller will go toward the inside of the person’s shoulder blade region. The person may feel a nice release of some of the muscles that tend to get tight around the shoulder blade.
The person can roll back and forth from side-to-side using this same technique in opposite directions on both sides of the body.
Some people will like to focus in small rolls back and forth on one side of the body for a moment to more effectively release tension spots near the shoulder blade region.
This exercise can be performed up to 4-5 times side-to-side, as long as it is comfortable.
Side to side Parallel Foam Rolling
3. Alternate Arm Flexion:
The base starting position for this exercise is the same position as the pectoral stretch. Once the body is resting in a comfortable position on the roller, (as described in the pectoral stretch exercise,) the arms will be raised toward the ceiling with the palms facing one another.
To start this exercise, the person should gently activate their deepest abdominal muscle for gentle core support. (Read my prior blog post #1 on “Bridging”, where I describe how to activate your deep transverse abdominis muscle in its description of the “Hip Lift” version.) Take an inhale through the nose to prepare for movement. The arms will then move in opposite directions, one reaching up towards the head, and the other reaching towards the person’s hip. The arms should only move as far as the person is comfortable without discomfort. This will vary for every person, depending on their varying flexibility. The person will continue to inhale through their nose and exhale through pursed lips as the arms switch directions on a regular basis.
The person should also pay attention so that their back does NOT arch/move and their ribs do not “poke up” with the arm movement. The person also should keep the body stable on the right and left sides. There should be no shortening (side bending) or lengthening of either side of the body. If the person cannot control either of these things from happening, the person should reduce the movement of the arms to a range that this can be controlled.
This exercise can be performed for up to 8-10 arm repetitions if it is comfortable.
Alternate Arm Flexion on the Foam Roller
Slight variations of this arm exercise:
- When one is comfortable with the non-weighted exercise, a light 1-2 pound weight, as appropriate, can be added to increase the challenge of this exercise and help assist gentle stretching/mobility of the arms and chest region.
Bilateral arm flexion:
A person can move both arms up overhead and then down toward the hips simultaneously together. Because both arms are moving together, the exercise is more symmetrical so it will be less challenging if your body likes to sidebend with the other version. But it may be more challenging for balance and it should also generally be MORE challenging to control your back from arching/moving and to keep your ribs in the proper position.
Tips for Foam Roller Use:
- These exercises should alleviate tension in common spots of the body. If any of these exercises are too uncomfortable or cause any pain, they should be discontinued immediately.
- When laying on the roller or performing any exercise on it, one should focus on their breathing. One should not hold their breath as it can cause tension in some muscles. A natural breathing pattern allows oxygen to circulate into your body’s tissues, among other things!
- If a person has a forward head, sometimes the person may need a small mat or a towel under their head to support it in a comfortable position.
- All exercises with movement should be performed at a slow, comfortable pace focusing in on the proper body positions described, while also continuing to maintain a regular breath pattern.
- There are various densities and sizes of foam rollers.
- Denser foam rollers are generally good for people who need a deeper pressure myofascial release and/or have been doing foam roller exercises for some time and would like a more intense pressure on their sore spots.
- Softer foam rollers for people who may be more sensitive to pressure on their sore spots.
- Some foam rollers come with bumps, or patterns on their surface. This can put a different kind of pressure on the body as the person is working. Generally, the more prominent bumps will be more intense.
- Foam rollers come in ½ arcs (essentially it is cut in half with one flat side) so a person can either: 1) lay the flat side on the floor, giving it extra stability underneath it, but still allowing the body to lay on it and open up their tight chest and arms, among other things. This will allow a more gentle exercise. (It will not roll so you will not be able to do the “side-to-side exercise”.) 2) Lay their body on the flat side while having the challenge of the arc movement on the floor. This version can be more challenging than it seems! The focus would be to keep the foam roller parallel to the floor without wobbling from side to side on its arc.
- If a soft foam roller even seems too intense to start, sometimes a person can roll up a large towel, or even a yoga mat into a cylinder and use that to get a nice gentle chest stretch. In my picture of a few various options, I included a yoga mat that was rolled up. (Try to get it more tightly rolled, mine kept unwinding for the photo!) A “Towel roll” version is a nice, very gentle way to start preparing for these foam roller exercises for a beginner, and to also for those who need to open up a very tight chest region.
To Wrap this Blog Post Up:
Look for my next Foam Roller blog posts! I will be explaining in more posts some other great advanced foam roller myofascial releases, and and how to do deep abdominal stabilization exercises while on the foam roller in another.
The exercise ideas I presented today are just the “tip of the iceberg”! There are so many other amazing variations you can do once you know the basics! Again look for my other future blog posts to learn other great exercises on the foam roller. It can be used in many, many other ways, and even as a tool to release tight muscles of the legs! It is a such great tool that can be used to keep the entire body more relaxed and mobile, but also to keep it in great shape!
Thanks for reading!
Would you like to learn more about Dr. Magda Boulay, DPT, a physical therapist and Pilates instructor and her practice, P.ilaT.es-Physical Therapy & Pilates, in Oakland, CA to see how she can help you? Click on this link to sign up for a free 15-minute discovery phone call to see if P.ilaT.es is the right fit to address your needs!
PLEASE NOTE! This blog post is meant for educational and instructional purposes only. This exercise is a wellness exercise only, and it is not medical advice. This post is not a substitute for professional medical consult, evaluation, & or treatment. If you have a current injury or condition, please consult in person with a licensed medical professional before attempting or starting this, or any other exercise program.