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Foam rolling hurts so good–if you do it right

Reviewed.com logo Reviewed.com 6/16/2021 Esther Bell
a woman jumping in the air: Foam rolling hurts so good–if you do it right © Getty Images / miljko Foam rolling hurts so good–if you do it right — Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.

You may already be a foam rolling devotee familiar with the benefits of self-myofascial rolling. But if you haven’t bothered to ask what the hunks of foam sitting in the corner of the gym are for, let’s catch you up. Foam rollers are, yes, cylinders made of dense foam, but these simple pieces of gear can make a huge difference in your exercise routine when it comes to muscle health.

Foam rolling can provide many great benefits such as speeding up recovery, relieving soreness, and improving flexibility, for everyone from dedicated CrossFit athletes to casual at-home yogis. Foam rolling may seem intuitive, but you’ll still want to follow some tips and tricks to get a great self-massage session.

What are foam rollers?

a person in a blue shirt: Foam rollers can be used to speed up recovery, increase flexibility, and prevent injury. © Getty Images / microgen Foam rollers can be used to speed up recovery, increase flexibility, and prevent injury.

Foam rollers are a great tool for exercise recovery. They’re relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and provide a range of benefits for pretty much anyone who moves.

Like the name implies, foam rollers are solid or hollow cylinders made of foam, typically 6 inches in diameter and ranging in length from 24 to 36 inches. You use one to give yourself an upside-down massage of sorts, wherein you place a limb or section of your body overtop the roller and allow your body weight to apply pressure to the muscles that come into contact with the roller.

Foam rollers come in different sizes to target different muscle groups, and various densities to provide more intense or more gentle massage sessions. Some are textured with the idea that they’ll offer a deeper, more precise massage.

What are the benefits of foam rolling?

Foam rollers can come in different shapes and sizes to give more precise massages. © Getty Images / Greola84 Foam rollers can come in different shapes and sizes to give more precise massages.

Foam rolling, also called “self-myofascial rolling” is believed to work by relaxing muscle tension and massaging the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles and tightens when stressed. Though the exact details of why foam rolling works are unknown, fitness experts have found it can improve muscle recovery, enhance function and performance in the muscles and joints, increase flexibility, and prevent injury.

When it comes to post-workout recovery, foam rolling can help reduce inflammation, increase range of motion and blood flow, and correct muscle imbalances, according to Shayra Brown, a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Before workouts, NASM suggests that a dynamic warm-up using a foam roller may boost performance and improve power, agility, and strength. Foam rolling has also been shown to improve flexibility and is valuable for injury prevention. It won’t heal existing injuries, though, and if you’re injured you should consult with your doctor or certified trainer before embarking on a routine.

Who should use a foam roller?

a close up of a persons feet: Everyone can benefit from foam rolling. © Getty Images / South_agency Everyone can benefit from foam rolling.

Pretty much everyone can use and benefit from a foam roller, whether you’re in the gym five days a week or the most exercise you get is walking around the block.

But those who exercise more frequently and intensely may reap the greatest rewards. The more you exercise, the more likely you are to have tense, sometimes overused, muscles and joint ranges of motion that are temporarily limited due to post-workout soreness. By using foam rollers during warm-ups and cool-downs, athletes can recover more quickly, allowing them to get back to the gym faster and see better results. Incorporating foam rolling into their routines may also let more active folks make more progress in their fitness programs, according to Brown.

How and when should I use a foam roller?

a woman standing in front of a palm tree: NASM recommends rolling slow and steady. © Getty Images / microgen NASM recommends rolling slow and steady.

Foam rollers can be used during either the warm-up or cool-down period of your workout, multiple times per week. More active athletes may benefit from foam rolling as often as every day, whereas more casual exercisers may only need to roll once a week.

NASM recommends starting with a softer foam roller for a more gentle massage, and working your way up to a more dense roller. Foam rolling isn’t always pleasant (especially on already-sore muscles), but it should never be painful, and softer rollers will ease you into the sensation. Though some claim denser foam rollers provide better results, this isn’t proven, and most experts recommend you pick a foam roller that is comfortable for you. We've tested a lot of foam rollers and think the LuxFit is a great one to start off with. It's firm but not overly rigid, so it's effective at rolling out muscles without causing pain.

It’s also important to roll slowly during recovery-focused sessions. NASM recommends rolling the length of a muscle at the rate of about one inch per second, and spending 90 to 120 seconds on each muscle group. Rolling slowly like this will help you effectively relieve tension and identify tight spots. If you have any tight spots, hold pressure on the spot for 30 to 60 seconds, then flex and relax the target muscle or joint to get the blood moving. You want to avoid rolling directly along the spine, and if you find going over any body part feels too intense or painful, try adjusting your hands or feet to lift some of the weight off the complaining muscle to reduce the pressure.

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