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The Beginner’s Guide To Foam Rolling

Fitness trends constantly come and go. (We ditched Zumba for bootcamp and bootcamp for spin class, and so on and so on.) But a few crazes deserve a permanent spot in our health and fitness regimens—like foam rolling.

We’ve all seen people at the gym rolling their calves or quads across a foam cylinder or piece of pipe (yowch!), but if you’ve never given it a shot yourself, consider this your instruction manual. Your muscles will thank you.

So What’s The Actual Deal With Foam Rolling?

Foam rolling is kind of like giving yourself a massage. Known in the science world as self-myofascial release (SMR), foam rolling uses a foam cylinder—you can find them in various levels of firmness—to apply active pressure to your muscles and connective tissues called fascia, explains Jacqueline Crockford, M.S., C.S.C.S., Exercise Physiology Content Manager for ACE.

“When you foam roll, you provide a little heat and boost circulation in and around the soft tissues you’re rolling,” says Crockford. The self-massage can help to loosen up fascia, which can sometimes be responsible for trigger points and spots we call ‘knots,’ she says. Anyone who’s gotten a deep tissue massage knows they can sometimes hurt, but that’s the great thing about foam rolling: You control how much pressure you apply.

Related: Pick your perfect foam roller.  

How To Roll—And When To Do It

You can use your standard foam roller to massage most of your major muscle groups. “With one tool, you can hit your upper back, glutes, quads, calves, lats, and IT bands,” says Crockford. Position yourself on the foam roller and start by rolling up and down the length of your muscle a few times, she recommends. (So if you’re rolling your hamstrings, for example, you’ll roll up and down the length of your thigh.) Then find that place of tension, or ‘trigger point,’ and rest that spot on the foam roller for 30 seconds, or until you start to feel that tension ease away. Finally, change directions and roll from side to side across the muscle.

Want to hit harder-to-reach spots? Grab a tennis or lacrosse ball. “You can use a ball or two to roll out your chest, between your shoulder blades, and even the arches of your feet,” says Crockford. Similarly, roll the ball back and forth across the desired spot, pausing to show tense spots some extra love.

Pre-workout static stretching has come under fire for negatively affecting strength performance, according to a number of studies included in a review published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, but Crockford says it’s worth trying. “Foam rolling helps to warm up your muscles and fascia, and prepare them for the exercise you’ll be doing,” Crockford says. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, for example, found that foam rolling improved range of motion in active male participants, but did not diminish the force they produced in a later muscle strength test.

“Then, after training, when your muscles are fully warmed up, self-massage can help you really work on places of tension and start to cool down,” she says. A review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports found that self-myofascial release decreased muscle soreness when used following strength training.

What Not To Do

Since foam rolling is all about your muscles and fascia (a.k.a. soft tissue), you don’t want to roll over joints and straight-up bone. “We have protective sacs and cartilage around bony protrusions like our hips and our joints,” says Crockford. Joints and bones are not meant to have pressure directly applied to them—not to mention, rolling over your knees will just plain hurt, she says.

While studies show foam rolling can help boost the recovery process and impact soreness, it’s not a treatment for an injury like a strained muscle.  “If you have a pulled muscle or injury, stay away from that area when foam rolling until you’re healed and able to comfortably apply pressure,” says Crockford.

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