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Foam Roller 101: How to Use it and Why

Foam rollers have been around since the 1980’s and have seen a huge increase in variety and usage since the 2000’s. They’re bright, come in funny shapes and very groan-inducing. But what are they for exactly and how do you use them?

In this post we’re going to discuss these funny looking quirky objects, what they’re used for and how you can utilise them to improve your health and fitness.

WHAT IS A FOAM ROLLER?

Believe it or not, foam rollers have been around for quite some time. They were first used in the 1980’s by a gentleman called Moshe Feldenkrais, who developed a form of exercise therapy called the Feldenkrais Method. This therapy aimed to reduce physical pain and overall mobility issues for specific areas of the human body with claims of ‘reorganising connections between the brain and body’. The roller was found to be the most effective in helping people improve their physical functioning as the person exercising becomes more aware of their own body.

Despite its obscure appearance, a foam roller isn’t some strange alien device – it’s a common mobility and recovery tool, designed to replace a typical sports massage and give you the ability and control to improve your recovery at home. Initially introduced and used by weightlifters, the roller was popular in helping them reduce muscle ache and improve their overall performance in the gym.

The obvious benefits of a foam roller are the cost, accessibility and ease of use (if you ignore the bit where it hurts). Obviously, it’s not going to be as effective as a full sports massage, but those hurt a lot too… and are much more expensive!

WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH THEM?

There are a number of different things people use foam rollers for, all with varying degrees of truth and evidence. Below we’ll discuss the main uses and what they can (or might) do for you.

MOBILISING

This is the most common use for a foam roller. Pre-workout foam rolling is a great way to warm tissues and ensure everything is moving and supple before exercise. The last thing you want to do is start exercising without warming up properly. Exercises for both pre-workout and post-workout can be exactly the same but be mindful of the areas of your body you’ve pushed during your workout.

This is the same as elite athletes getting sports massages before big games and competitions. Stimulating your blood flow and removing waste products from your muscles is likely to improve the “feeling” of movement and improve performance. No matter what sport you train in, foam rollers can be great for both beginners and experienced athletes.

A pre-workout with a foam roller can also be a great way of improving niggling “sticky” spots like the hip flexors and upper back (using the foam roller for your back is a great way of decompressing and opening up your shoulder posture). If you find a “knot” (tight and sore areas), allow the foam roller to sink into the muscle and try moving the joint through full range of motion.

This method is a great way to simulate active release therapy – a massage technique that improves muscle length and combats tightness and mobility limitations. Engaging your core within the rolling motions helps to properly engage your muscles and warm your body up. Post-workout foam rolling exercises are a brilliant way to soften any tense muscles right after periods of activity. It’s important to warm-down after exercise, so learning how to use a foam roller after workout activity could go a long way in helping you recover more quickly.

Your hips, back and legs receive a lot of strain on a daily basis – foam rolling exercises after a workout can help reduce this. If you’re unsure on what exercises to do after a workout, placing the foam roller under your calves, putting your bodyweight onto your hands and rolling your legs along the roller is a simple movement for improving blood flow to the areas you’ve worked.

If you’re a runner, foam rolling exercises like the above are good in helping your legs feel supple, leading to a quicker recovery.

ADHESIONS AND FASCIA

Foam rolling can also help reduce the adhesions and blockages caused by fascia – a type of connective tissue found between muscles, tendons and ligaments. This tissue builds up to protect and stabilise muscles but can become excessive and impinge movement. If you want to set some new personal bests, having relaxed muscles thoroughly warmed-up is imperative.

The theory behind this is the surface tension and massage-like pressure from the foam roller contribute to reducing the build-up of fascia. Breaking up adhesions should directly improve the range of movement in your muscles, allowing them to stretch and reach full length.

This is going to mean less joint problems, better mobility and improved recovery. Whether you get rolling before or after exercise, you are going to see improved health and performance.

HEALTH FOR DESK-JOCKEYS

If you’re working long hours at a desk or on a computer, you’re going to experience some long-term health problems if you’re not careful.

Desk posture is a common issue characterised by a forward head, rounded upper back, inactive hips and pressure on the lower back. This is a key contributor to lower back pain and long-term frailty. Cleary, worth avoiding.

Foam rollers are excellent for pin-pointing these problem areas and relieving the pressure of everyday poor posture. The more often you are able to roll, even for as little as 5 minutes, the better you’ll combat these serious health risks!

EFFLEURAGE

After prolonged exercise, your muscles take a lot of punishment. From protein degradation to lactic acid build-up – you’re going to accumulate a lot of waste products in the muscles themselves.

These substances have been linked to increased DOMS and reduced short-term performance after hard exercise. If you’re looking to feel better, improve performance and walk up stairs comfortably, foam rolling after each training session is going to be a huge help.

This improves blood flow to the affected area, meaning more nutrients in and more waste products out. This can be achieved with as little as 5-10 minutes after a session – simply roll out the key areas to reduce soreness.

FOAM ROLLER BACK EXERCISES

It’s pretty evident the biggest cause for people calling in sick is due to having a bad back. In 2017, it was reported British people were unable to work for an average of 4.3 days per year. Back pain was one of the main reasons for employees being absent. Learning how to use a foam roller for back specific exercises might just help to reduce those numbers.

Keep it simple with these foam rolling exercises for your back and follow these basic steps:

  • Place the foam roller horizontally just your below shoulder blades, under your upper back.
  • Keep your feet flat, your knees bent and hands placed behind your head.
  • Engage your core by clenching your abs and shift your weight into your feet.
  • Lift your hips from the floor slightly to roll onto the foam roller toward your middle back and no further. Hold this movement and repeat the transition.

Foam rollers aren’t just beneficial for mobility and recovery, they also make for a great exercise tool if used properly. To compliment their mobility, posture and recovery benefits, we’ve included three excellent exercises for your core, glutes and scapula – overlooked and injury-prone areas.

FOAM ROLLER BRIDGE

If you often find your hips feel tight, turning them on and strengthening them is a great way to improve your physique and balance. Bridges are a great place to start, but bridges with the foam roller add a real challenge – increasing the use of smaller hip muscles and adding real ‘bang for your buck’.

Keep it focused and follow these simple steps:

  • Lay with your back on the floor and your legs inline with your hips, knees bent, pointing to the ceiling.
  • Place a foam roller between your legs, just above your knees and clench your legs firmly. (Try and get someone to take the foam roller away to test you’re gripping enough)
  • Arms and hands on the floor, focus your energy on your core and hips/glutes and raise your hips to the ceiling – you should feel the slightly clench in your glutes.
  • Be careful when returning to the starting position and make sure your lower back is completely flat on the floor with no lower back arch present. (This is key in attaining the best technique possible)
  • The movement may feel unnatural at first, however repeating this exercise 5-6 times for two sets is a good starting point.

FOAM ROLLER WALK-OUT

This exercise is an amazing way to improve your core strength and start building to the famous ab roll-out. Improving your core strength and stability will also work with the mobilising effects to improve back health.

The trick here is to make sure your take your time and breathe correctly when rolling away from your legs, following these steps:

  • Keep the foam roller directly in front of you with both hands placed either side of the roller, keeping your arms in line with your shoulders.
  • Shift your body weight onto your hands and keeping your balance on your knees, slightly apart, with ankles touching.
  • Begin the movement by solely using your hands and arms to roll forward but clench your core as your roll away from your torso.
  • Return when you feel your core is fully engaged and your body has gone forward enough to have a desired push on your body.

FOAM ROLLER WALL SLIDE

The wall slide is a suitable way of developing healthy control of the upper back and shoulders. This means less chance of injury, improved strength and control through the upper body and stronger lifts.

With these simple steps, you will be on your way to having a strong upper back and shoulders:

  • Begin with the foam roller horizontally placed against a wall with both outer forearms, near your wrists, placed against the roller. (Your palms should be facing one another fingers spread in a ‘high-five’ position, pointing upwards.
  • Keep your feet, hips width apart, and your lower back straight, with your upper back slightly rounded and guide your shoulder blades upwards with your arms leading the movement upwards.
  • You should be looking to maintaining a reach, round and rotation movement of your shoulders around the ribcage, as you roll your arms along the foam roller upwards against the wall directly up, above your head.

So, what are you waiting for? Get rolling with these exercises to become a healthier you!


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