Maybe six or seven years ago, there was a point when foam rollers magically materialised overnight in every gym around Australia. They're everywhere because they work: rollers enable self-myofascial release, which basically translates to "a massage you give yourself to loosen up tight spots".
How to use a foam roller
… or, more accurately, how not to use one.
Slow down. I see people all the time rolling around on their foam roller with the grace of teenagers at the end of a B&S ball. Take it slow! Roll about 3-4 inches of the muscle you're targeting at a time, going over each area about eight times. If you find a particularly tight spot — which is likely — stop for a few deep breaths before you continue.
Breathe and relax. Easier said than done, because foam rolling can hurt. But if you're tensed up and holding your breath, it won't do you any good. If a foam roller exercise is too painful to endure, find a modification that takes off some of the pressure.
Stop rolling your ITB. I spent years foam rolling my ITB — that's iliotibial band, the thick band of connective tissue running from hip to knee on the outside of both your thighs — before I learned two big reasons not to.
First: it is excruciating. Second: it's pointless, because the ITB doesn't stretch and can't be released — so foam rolling it is all pain, no gain. Instead, focus on rolling your glutes, quads, and other lower-body muscles surrounding the ITB.
When to do foam roller exercises
There are literally hundreds of foam roller exercises (YouTube will help you find ones that target your trouble spots), and no clear scientific consensus on when is the best time to do them. But some foam rolling seems to be better than none — you might prefer to use a roller pre-workout, to loosen up; or post-workout, as part of your cool-down stretch; or even during your workout.
Here's three foam roller mobilisations I do before every lower-body workout — they only take about two minutes.
1. Thoracic extension. Your thoracic spine is basically the upper-middle part of your backbone. Slumping in a chair all day draws it forward, so foam rolling can open it up — increasing your range of motion and breathing capacity.
Lie face up with the foam roller under your mid-back, perpendicular to your body. Lace your hands behind your head with your elbows pulled together, to draw your shoulder blades apart. Gently arch back over the roller, exhaling as you lower your body and draw it back up again.
2. Adductors, aka the insides of your thighs. I get absurdly tight in there (anecdotally, so do most men). Lie face down with the foam roller parallel to your torso, and the inside of one thigh propped over it — like so. Admittedly, this one also looks like something you'd see at the end of a B&S.
3. Quads. Lie face down, this time with the roller perpendicular to your torso and underneath the upper part of your thighs. You can either roll both legs at once (easier) or separately (harder, but you can target a greater number of trouble spots around your knees and/or hips).
Try this: foam roll only one side of your lower body (from calves to hips), then stand up and knock out a few bodyweight squats. Feel the difference in the rolled side vs the non-rolled side?
According to Sam Downing, the secret to wellbeing is just to keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also a writer focusing on everyday health.
Follow him on Twitter.