Foam Rolling For Dummies
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Rolling with foam rollers or other types of rollers should be your go-to resource for injury management and injury prevention. Rollers are easy to use, adaptable in almost any location, and produce fast results.

foam rolling © Jacob Lund /

Foam rollers

With so many great roller options to use to treat your body, now’s the time to open your eyes, and your body, to the wonderful world of rollers. Each type of roller has different shapes, sizes, and options. These varying characteristics provide many ways to treat the muscles and fascia throughout your body.

  • Circular rollers: Simple, long circular rollers are the perfect place to start learning the art of rolling. These include the old-school foam rollers; with a larger surface area that is typically softer, they’re comfortable, although not ideal for using on smaller body parts.
  • Multi-pattern rollers: Covered with varying bumps and ridges, these rollers are more uncomfortable, and provide a more aggressive style of delving deeper into tight muscles and fascia.
  • Vibrating rollers: Vibrating massage rollers enable you to roll tight trigger points, and are a helpful way to relax chronic muscle soreness.
  • Roller balls: When it comes to applying localized pressure on an area of your body, it’s hard to beat roller balls. Because of their round contact points and varied sizes, roller balls apply concentrated pressure exactly where you need it to unlock a muscle or relax a trigger point.
  • Half rollers: Half rollers are foam rollers cut in half the long way. The result is a very stable and versatile tool for both treatments and exercise.
  • Travel rollers: As the name suggests, travel rollers are collapsible and easy to bring with you on the road. With a simple pull of the strings, the skinny pad is quickly transformed into a stable and functional roller.

Evaluate your body in three positions

Professional and elite athletes will tell you: staying injury-free and pain-free requires a proven sports medicine game plan. This starts with evaluating your body in three important positions.

Blinking red lights (warning signs) for standing

Here are the warning signs to look for when your standing posture is poor and needs to be corrected:

  • Winging shoulder blades, when the insides of the shoulder blades pull away from the back of the ribs and point backwards
  • Knocked knees, when the insides of the knees fall inward
  • Clawed or pulled-back toes
  • Forward head where the front of the chin is protruding well in front of the ribs
  • Relaxed abdominals with a forward, rolled pelvis
  • Rounded shoulders

Blinking red lights (warning signs) for walking

Here are the warning signs to look for when your walking posture is poor and needs to be corrected:

  • Asymmetrical or uneven shoe-wear pattern on the bottom of your shoes
  • One leg is longer than the other
  • Uneven arm swing
  • Limited range of motion in a hip, knee, or ankle
  • Pain with walking
  • One leg shifts outward (circumduction) as it swings forward, more than the other leg

Blinking red lights (warning signs) for squatting

Here are the warning signs to look for when your squatting form is poor and needs to be corrected:

  • A side view shows the shoulders quickly shifting forward in front of the knees when starting the squat
  • A side view shows the elevated hands quickly shifting forward well in front of the shoulders
  • Pain with squatting
  • A side view shows the spine is straight from the pelvis to the head
  • A front view shows the body shifts to one side
  • The heels raise off the ground when starting the squat

You can evaluate these three important body positions for balance and symmetry, by using your smartphone and a mirror. Balancing one side of your body to the other when standing, walking, and squatting simply helps your muscles, tendons, and fascia to do their job.

When your body is unbalanced, those same muscles, tendons, and fascia become dysfunctional. The use of rollers, roller balls, half rollers, and vibrating rollers helps to relax tight and dysfunctional muscles by unlocking their painful trigger points.

When skeletal muscles restore their ability to be relaxed and stretchy after a roller treatment, they naturally return to do what they do best: stabilize the body and move joints.

Treat tight muscles, painful trigger points, and restricted joints with rollers

Foam roller treatments are a wonderful way to enhance your wellness. Tight muscles, painful trigger points, and restricted joints hinder your body’s ability to be active and healthy.

Each roller or roller ball has the ability to isolate knots or trigger points in muscles. These muscle restrictions limit the ability of your muscles, tendons, and fascia to properly contract, stretch, and stabilize your body. When the trigger points are properly isolated and compressed with the perfect roller (or roller ball) then passively elongated, the trigger point relaxes and the muscle’s natural ability to do its job returns!

When previously tight and painful muscles are “unlocked,” they immediately become longer and stronger. The bones they move suddenly have enhanced mobility, and the joints those muscles protect immediately bend with more range of motion with less effort.

Injury prevention with rollers

A key element of preventing injuries is keeping your muscles and fascia healthy and happy.  This is achieved with three easy steps:

1. Unlock the motor muscles

With every sport and activity, there are certain muscles that do a majority of the work. These prime mover muscles are referred to as the agonist muscles. That name sounds too stuffy for me. Instead, I call those blue-collar, hard-working muscles your motor muscles. Your motor muscles get a large amount of the work done so that you can enjoy your sport or activity.

Use your roller or roller ball to unlock your motor muscles, keeping them loose and limber.  The rollers allow your healthy muscles to relax and be responsive to commands from your brain via your motor nerves.

2. Strengthen opposing muscles

When the motor muscles are hard at work, your opposing or antagonistic muscles, are constantly being stretched and lengthened. These opposing muscles are located on the opposite side (front or back) of your body or limb.

Opposing muscles are consistently overly stretched thanks to the overly strong motor muscles on the opposite side of limb/body.  This makes your opposing muscles too long and too weak. To avoid this common problem, strengthening the longer and weakened opposed muscles will result in better posture and performance.

3. Launch prevention exercises

To avoid your body becoming imbalanced and prone to injury, you need to practice simple, preventative exercises designed to maintain your muscle balance.  These preventative movements/exercises are performed after both your rolling treatment and opposing muscle strengthening exercises.

In Step 1, you re-establish proper length of your motor muscles by unlocking them with your rollers. In Step 2, you strengthened your too-long and too-weak opposing muscles. Here in Step 3, you’re wisely launching a plan to maintain your new healthy muscle status.

To do so, perform activities which involve large-range, low intensity total-body movements which involve both the motor muscles you just unlocked and the opposing muscles you just strengthened. These movement patterns will re-educate your body to now move properly with a now enhanced muscle balance.

These preventative movements/exercises may include jumping jacks, swimming, shadow boxing, yoga, dancing, marching, arm circles, Tai Chi, flexibility classes and so on. The objective of these low intensity, fun movements is not to get stronger or faster. The objective of these movements is to reset your muscles, fascia and joints ability to move better with less effort.

Easy and hard roller workouts

If you don’t think about using rollers as workout partners, you’re truly missing out. Roller workouts may sound kind of elementary, but they can take simple, basic exercises and make them extra-challenging. Following are a few exercises you’re probably familiar with. Now, when you include a roller or two, it will open your eyes, and your lungs, to the amazing benefits of roller workouts:

  • Pushups

Easy: Both hands on one foam roller

Hard: Both hands on one foam roller and both feet on another foam roller

  • Body squats

Easy: Both feet on the flat side of a half roller

Hard: Both feet on a full foam roller

  • Crunches

Easy: Lying on a long foam roller that is parallel to your spine

Hard: Lying on a long foam roller that is perpendicular to your spine, placed approximately halfway between your beltline and your shoulder blades

  • Backward lunges

Easy: Front foot on the flat side of a half roller

Hard: Front foot on a full roller

You can learn roller workouts and stretches to help you both prevent injuries and enhance your fitness.  Muscle-strengthening and muscle-lengthening roller workouts can be included to enhance each of your three body zones: upper body, core/spine, and lower body.

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