How To Effectively Foam Roll Your Upper & Lower Body

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Foam rolling is a popular, easy method of self-massage that can help with injury prevention, head and neck pain, and sore muscles. If you’ve ever visited a physical therapist, they likely recommended the practice for muscle soreness. However, they might not have told you an additional benefit: that foam rolling one muscle group can help with soreness throughout your entire body. 

Foam rolling targets the fascia: a connective tissue that wraps and connects the muscles, bones, nerves, and blood vessels of the body. Together, fascia and muscle tissue make up the myofascial system, and foam rolling is a great way to create a self-myofascial release. Myofascial release matters because when tight spots form in muscles, due to overuse or injury, they can refer pain through the fascia. Pain referral is best described as when pressure is applied in one area but felt or radiated in another. For example, if you have a tender spot in your head or neck, it could actually be due to upper back pain. Foam rolling triggers a myofascial release, which can help relieve pain and increase blood flow in those tight spots. 

All you’ll need for the foam roller exercises below is a spot on the ground, your body weight, and a foam roller – in a pinch, you can even use a tennis ball for smaller muscles. Fun fact: foam rolling should actually be a proactive practice, regardless of pain, in order for you to continue to move better for life and prevent injuries. By manipulating your body’s soft tissue and fascia via self-massage, you aid muscle recovery and assist in returning it to normal function. Normal function means you are elastic, healthy, and ready to perform, in and outside of the gym!

Let’s Get Foam Rolling

Common problems that people have with foam rolling include not rolling in both directions, and only rolling for a few seconds, which isn’t enough to relieve tight spots. For the best results, spend at least 60 seconds on each tight spot, and remember to take deep breaths. If you find a knot, linger on it for a little while, rolling back and forth until the tender spot eases. 

Like static stretching, foam rolling at the end of a workout, such as after a long run, may help your muscles recover faster. Even for people who aren’t active daily, it’s a good idea to spend at least 15 minutes a day doing myofascial work. Just like all other areas of your health (nutrition, sleep, activity, etc.), rolling takes consistent practice.

How much pressure should you use?

The amount of pressure needed depends on the severity and size of the tender spots. Since you’ll be rolling for a minimum of 60 seconds per area, you don’t want to apply too much pressure right away. It’s also important to keep in mind that smaller body parts may need less pressure. For example, your bicep is much smaller, and contains less fascia, than your lower leg.

Upper Body Foam Rolling Routine

This routine can help with tight spots due to upper back pain and lower back pain. Self-massaging the fascia in those areas is a great way to relieve head and neck pain and improve poor posture. Complete all reps on one side before switching to the other side, when applicable.

Upper Back

  1. Lie down with a roller across your upper back, with hands on the ground by your sides or crossed over your chest, your feet flat and knees bent.
  2. Push away, rolling down from your upper back to your mid-back, straightening your legs.
  3. Then pull back, rolling up from your mid to upper back.

Lower Back

  1. Lie with a roller on your mid-back, with hands on the ground behind, your feet flat and knees bent.
  2. Push away, rolling down from your mid-back to your buttocks, straightening your legs.
  3. Then pull back, rolling up from your buttocks to your mid-back.

Chest

  1. Lie face-down with a roller under your upper chest and your arms stretched overhead, but still touching the ground. Keep your head and neck lifted.
  2. Pull your body toward your forearms using your biceps, rolling down from your upper chest to your mid-abdomen, supporting your weight on your toes and forearms.
  3. Push away, rolling back from your mid-abdomen to your upper chest.

Lats

  1. Sit on the ground, leaning to one side, with a roller under the side of your rib cage, resting on your forearm with your elbow bent.
  2. Roll upward toward your armpit, straightening your arm. Stop at the armpit, before you reach your biceps.
  3. Roll back down from your armpit to your rib cage, bending your elbow.

Triceps

  1. Lie on your side with a roller (or a tennis ball) in your armpit, with your arm straight out and your other hand on the ground in front of you.
  2. Raise your upper body, rolling down the back of your upper arm from your armpit to your elbow.
  3. Lower your body back down, rolling back up your arm to your armpit. For proper form, make sure you’re keeping the roller on your triceps, rather than turning your arm down to work your biceps.

Back

  1. Lie on your back with a roller lengthwise along your spine, feet flat on the ground, knees bent and arms by your sides.
  2. Roll from side to side across your back and shoulder blades, placing extra emphasis on tight spots, keeping your feet flat. Keep your head and neck lifted. This is a great exercise for back pain.

Lower Body Foam Rolling Routine

Your lower body contains a lot of fascia, so foam rolling is a great way to prevent a lower-body injury and relieve larger tight spots. Complete all reps on one side before switching to the other side, when applicable.

Shins (Anterior Tibialis)

  1. Starting with the left side, kneel on all fours with the roller under your left ankle. Keep your head and neck lifted.
  2. Raise your left knee and push back, rolling up from your left ankle to your left knee, straightening your leg.
  3. Roll back down the left shin, keeping the left knee raised throughout. Repeat with the right leg.

Adductors

  1. Lie face-down with one leg bent with a 90 degree angle at the knee and place the roller under your inner thigh.
  2. Roll back and forth along your inner thigh from your inside hip to knee, and then back, pushing your body with your biceps and back muscles. Keep your chest and neck lifted.

Calves

  1. Sit with the roller under your ankles, with your legs straight and your hands on the ground behind your buttocks.
  2. Raise your hips off the floor and lift your right foot off the roller, supporting your bodyweight with your hands and biceps.
  3. Roll up and down your left calf from ankle to knee, keeping the right leg lifted, pushing your body away with your hands.

Glutes

  1. Sit upright on the roller with legs straight out in front and your hands on the mat behind your back.
  2. Roll back and forth over your buttocks from the top of your hamstrings to your lower back.
  3. Bend and straighten your legs as you roll back and forth.

Side Glutes (Piriformis)

  1. Sit upright on a roller, leaning to your left side with your right leg bent and your right ankle on your left knee.
  2. Place your right hand on the ground behind you to support your bodyweight, with your right arm straight.
  3. Push your body away, bending your right elbow and rolling over the side of your buttocks.
  4. Pull back, straightening your arm and rolling back over the buttocks. Repeat on the left side.

Hamstrings

  1. Sit with a roller under the top of your hamstrings with your legs straight, your feet off the ground, and your hands behind your buttocks about 2 feet. Your chest should be at a 45 degree angle from the floor.
  2. Pull your body towards your hands, rolling down along the hamstrings to the back of your knees. 
  3. Push your body back away from your hands, rolling up from knees to your buttocks. Be sure to keep equal pressure on your left and right leg.

IT Band

  1. Lie on your side with the roller under your hip, resting on your forearm and hand, with your feet off the ground.
  2. Pull your body toward your forearm, rolling down along the side of your thigh from your hip to the top of your knee.
  3. Push away, rolling back up the side of your thigh from your knee to your hip.

Side Shin (Peroneus)

  1. Lie on your side with a roller under the side of your bottom shin, hips on the ground and resting on your forearm.
  2. Pull your body toward your forearm, raising your hip off the ground, and roll down the side of your shin from your knee to your ankle.
  3. Push away, rolling back up the side of your shin to your knee.

Quadriceps

  1. Lie face-down with a roller under your lower thighs, just above your knee, supporting your weight on your hands and toes with your arms straight.
  2. Use your biceps to push backward, lowering your body down, raising your feet and roll up along the front of your thighs from your knee to mid-thigh.
  3. Pull forward, returning to a straight arm position, rolling down to the top of your knee again.

Hip Flexor

  1. Lie face-down with a roller at hip level, legs straight with your right foot off the floor, resting on your forearms.
  2. Lean away from your right leg so that your left hip is pressed against the roller. Roll up and down on the left leg, from the top of your left hip to your mid-quad. Repeat on the opposite side.

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