You’ve probably heard your runner friend or gym buddy mention how their foam roller is both their best friend and worst enemy. How it hurts so good. While it’s true that foam rollers can be a great recovery tool, there’s more to rolling for relief than just lying on the floor and digging into whatever hurts.
“Like [with] any rehabilitation tool, improper use can cause injury. Overuse of a new injury that has not been fully healed can cause the injury to worsen or cause bruising,” says Fei Jiang, P.T., D.P.T., O.C.S., of Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California. And yes, foam rolling can contribute to overuse, too. “For example, if someone has a strained hamstring, one should let the area heal rather than foam rolling on it; that can cause the injury to worsen,” he says.
Using the right techniques will also make you more likely to reap the benefits of foam rolling,, says Austin Misiura, D.P.T., O.C.S., C.S.C.S., owner of Pure Physical Therapy, a rehab and movement retraining center in Miami. While research on foam rolling is still limited, what’s out there suggests it may help you recover better after a workout, improve circulation, and relax and loosen tight, achy muscles.
As long as you do it properly, foam rolling is a pretty low-risk way to potentially improve your workout performance and simply feel better. If you’re new to foam rolling or just not sure if you’re doing it right, here are some common mistakes to look out for.
Mistake #1: You’re rolling in the wrong direction.
If it feels hard to balance on the foam roller, you might be rolling the wrong way. “Likely, you are misaligning the foam roller by placing it parallel to the muscle. Instead, try rotating the foam roller so that it is perpendicular to the [length of the] muscle,” says Jiang. Then roll up and down the entire length of the muscle.
By keeping the roller perpendicular to the muscle or tissue you’re targeting, you’ll be able to balance better, roll with a steady flow, and increase the surface area you cover with each roll, Jiang says.
Mistake #2: You’re not rolling your upper body.
It may seem like foam rolling is primarily a lower-body activity—especially since so many vocal foam-rolling faithfuls are runners. But you can and should roll out your upper body, too.
That includes your pectorals (chest), lats (the broad muscle on the sides of your mid-back), triceps, and the muscles around the shoulder blades. Some of these muscles might be a little hard to reach with a big roller, so you might want to roll them out with a lacrosse ball instead. For example, the spot between your armpits and chest that gets wildly sore if you do too many push-ups can be awkward to drape over a tubular roller, and the muscles in the upper back can sort of get lost under the shoulder blades. In both cases, it’ll be easier to get a ball in there to target the tight spots (more on that in a minute).
Mistake #3: You’re not using the right pressure.
If you’re rolling too gently, it may not make much of an impact, and if you’re going too hard, you could add to the pain and end up tensing up your muscles in response, which is the opposite of the goal.
Though you can ultimately control the pressure as you roll—pressing all your weight onto one spot will feel much more intense than if you prop yourself up with your leg or hand—different types of rollers can make it easier to apply different amounts of pressure. “Typically, the hollow rollers apply more pressure than the full cylinder,” Misjura says. Full-cylinder rollers are usually a bit softer; the hollow ones usually have harder plastic in the middle, which puts more pressure on your body with less effort on your end.
Misjura suggests “applying pressure up to a self-rated 5 out of 10 in tenderness; any more and you are very likely to guard or stiffen while you are rolling, which will be counterproductive.” Either type of foam roller will work, so it comes down to personal preference.
When targeting smaller, deeper muscles, like those in the hip and upper back, try using either a lacrosse ball (harder) or a tennis ball (a bit softer and gentler). A ball allows you to target the smaller spots in between bones and really reach the places you are trying to roll, he explains. “It is pretty much impossible to get to a smaller or deeper muscle using the roller because it has a huge surface area so it covers too big of an area to be specific,” he says.
Mistake #4: You’re trying to roll out bony areas.
Foam rollers are meant to release tension in soft tissue, so rolling over bony spots is unnecessary and will probably just be painful, says Jiang. Bony areas include the shoulder blades, ankles, and parts of the hips and legs (like the knees and shins).
For example, “people tend to roll over the shoulder blades while attempting to roll out the thoracic region [the upper part of the spine],” he says. Rolling on these bones isn’t going to help you—you want to roll the muscles and tissues that are beneath. To do that, pull your elbows together in front of your body, or simply cross your arms over your chest, and pull your shoulder blades forward. Then, place the roller horizontally underneath your upper back, and roll so it moves up and down your spine.
Same goes for the bony spots in your hips and pelvis, and the spot just below the hip bone where the thigh bone (femur) begins (called the greater trochanter). “[Rolling there] is painful and does not help loosen muscles and tendons in the leg,” Jiang says. Instead, locate and roll out the soft areas above and below the hard areas on the side of the hip to help improve mobility of the leg, he says. If you can’t get in there with a foam roller, try a tennis or lacrosse ball instead.
Beyond these bony areas, you also don’t want to roll your IT band, the tendon that runs along the outside of your thigh from the top of the pelvis to the shin bone. Contrary to what you might think, it’s considered “not stretchable,” as it’s composed of taut tissue, says Misiura. Plus, since discomfort in the IT band often stems from tightness in connected muscles, focusing on the quads, hamstrings, and glutes will likely be more productive, he says.
Misjura suggests specifically rolling the tensor fascia lata, a small muscle that works with the IT band and the glutes to stabilize the hip and knee as you walk and run. It’s on the outside of your hip (think: side butt) from the top of your pelvis to about halfway down your thigh, where it connects to your IT band. “Rolling this area will assist in the treatment of IT band [discomfort] and improve hip mobility much more than trying to roll the IT band,” says Misjura.
Mistake #5: You’re spending too much time on trigger points.
“A common mistake is to foam-roll directly and only on the knots for a long period of time. People often spend several minutes rolling on areas of pain, only to create more pain and irritation in those areas,” says Jiang. At best, overdoing it in one spot won’t make a difference in terms of relief, and at worst, it can lead to more pain, he adds.
The goal here is to relax the muscle, and sometimes that means you have to start with the less tense areas that connect to the trigger point. “Instead, roll the general larger surface around the area for 60 to 90 seconds before targeting the knotted tissue for 30 seconds at a time,” Jiang says. When you loosen up the areas around a trigger point, you’ll likely indirectly decrease tension a bit in the spot you feel you need to roll the most, says Jiang. That way, once you focus on the trigger point, it should feel a little more comfortable to roll.
Mistake #6: You’re rolling your lower back.
It’s okay to roll your upper back and midback, specifically the areas around the shoulder blades and the lats. But even though you might be tempted to foam-roll your lower back, it’s not a good idea.
It’s difficult to balance a foam roller on the lower part of the back, says Jiang. Trying to get into the right position to roll out the area can ultimately force you to overarch your spine, which can cause discomfort or even a strain. This can be especially harmful if you already have too much extension (an exaggerated arch) naturally in your lower back or any other pre-existing lower-back issue, Jiang says.
Instead of rolling, Jiang suggests using a lacrosse ball to target the spots along your spine that feel tight and need to be released—don’t roll in the middle of the spine, but rather along the muscles that run down either side of it. With the lacrosse ball, you’re less likely to put your back into a compromised position. If you have chronic lower-back pain or a past or current lower-back injury, talk with your doctor before using any tools to apply pressure to the area.
Mistake #7: You’re not contracting and relaxing your muscles while rolling.
While this isn’t exactly a mistake, it is a missed opportunity for efficiency. “If you contract and relax your muscles as you are applying the pressure with the roller, you are likely to see [better] effects,” says Misjura.
“Any active treatment works better than a passive one. Your nervous system will adapt better if you are actively working by contracting and relaxing your muscles,” he explains. The more you can actively get your muscles moving from a contracted, tense state to a lengthened, relaxed one, the better. Using this technique, you’ll likely notice bigger improvements in your mobility in less time, Misjura adds.
When you find an area of tightness, keep the pressure of the roller on that spot for 30 seconds, and as you do, move the connected joint slowly to contract and release the muscle. “For example, if you are rolling your calf, apply the pressure with the roller underneath your leg, keep it on the tender spot, and point and flex your foot back and forth 10 times,” Misjura says. “Another example is the quads. Find the tender spot while you are lying face down on the roller, and hold there as you bend and straighten your knee 10 times,” he says.
It’s worth a try—if you’re going to take the time to foam-roll, you might as well get as much out of it as you can.