How a foam roller can help your flexibility

If you’ve been to a gym lately, you’ve probably seen people rolling around on the ground on top of foam cylinders, grimacing in pain. Did you wonder to yourself, “What in the world are they doing?”

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release. Foam rolling has been around for a while, but it is really starting to become more mainstream as more and more fitness professionals are coming to realize how important soft tissue quality is for movement and performance.

To understand the why and how of foam rolling, you need to understand muscle fascia. Fascia is the anatomical glue that holds your muscles together and connects the kinetic chain.

If you’ve ever cooked a roast, you may have notice a shiny, silvery covering on the outside of the meat — that is muscle fascia. Muscle fascia is suppose to be supple and move and stretch with the muscles.

Past injuries and traumas can affect the muscle fascia and cause it to become dense and less pliable. This results in decreased mobility, flexibility and sometimes even pain. The fascia can even develop knots.

Many people feel that they are not flexible because of tight or shortened muscles, but constricted muscle fascia is the more likely culprit keeping them from reaching their toes. Traditional stretching techniques used by someone with poor-quality fascia tissue may actually exacerbate the problem.


Imagine your muscle, covered in fascia, as a shoestring. The shoestring has a knot in it. If you grab both ends of the shoestring and pull in opposite directions, what happens to that knot? It gets tighter and tighter the more you pull. This is exactly what happens when you stretch constricted, knotted fascia. How do you get the knot out of the shoestring? You have to use your fingernails and try to pry it loose.

So, how do you get the knot out of the muscle fascia? You have to use a foam roller, a massage stick or some other tool for self-myofascial release.

There are several accessible and inexpensive tools that you can use for self-myofascial release.

Related: 3 exercises to relieve lower back pain

How to choose a foam roller

The most popular tool is the foam roller. Foam rollers typically come in two sizes, a three foot long version and a single foot long version.

The full-size roller is my preference; however, the half roller fits nicely in a desk drawer in the office or in a suitcase when traveling. Foam rollers are also made from a variety of materials and denseness. The more dense the material, the more intense the rolling will be.

For more targeted myofascial release, a dense ball such as a baseball or lacrosse ball can be used. The smaller surface area of the ball, compared to the roller, means very precise and intense pressure on the area being targeted. A ball is useful in areas such as the chest, the glutes, and the bottoms of your feet.

A massage stick is another useful tool. It is a great option for individuals who have a hard time getting on the ground or holding their body weight in the right positions for foam rolling.

Related: Why it’s time to redefine how we think about exercise

Proper foam rolling technique

Before you run out and purchase a foam roller, there are some do’s and don’ts of self-myofascial release.

  • Do roll on a hard surface, such as the floor.
  • Don’t roll onto joints or across boney prominences.
  • Do use foam rolling before your workouts as part of your warm up.
  • Don’t foam roll on areas of injury, such as sprains, strains and bruises.

Individuals suffering from circulatory problems and edema should consult with their physician before trying self-myofascial release.

When performing self-myofascial release, I like to start from the bottom and work my way up the body.

I begin with the soles of the feet and progress to the upper back. I prefer to use foam rolling before a workout as part of my warm up. It loosens up the fascia and the muscles, increases blood and lymphatic flow, and gets increases my body temperature.

But you can use foam rolling anytime. Some people enjoy it post workout routine as a way to wind down and relax the muscles.

As you move across the tissue, you may feel knots or “hot spots.” When you do, hold pressure on those areas for approximately 30 seconds, and you should feel the knot start to loosen. You may also notice that some areas of your body seem to need more attention than others — and that’s okay.

You may spend a minute or two on one body part and only 20 or 30 seconds on another. If you are new to self-myofascial release, it may be very painful at first, especially in areas like the IT band, but stick with it. As your tissue quality improves, foam rolling will become less painful.

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How a foam roller can help your flexibility