This might sound over-the-top, but the foam roller is probably the single most influential piece of exercise equipment I have used so far (though my Vibram Five Fingers are challenging that position).
Essentially, the foam roller is a personal massage agent. If you use it well, it incurs that “Ouch! That hurts! Keep doing it!” that you might experience at the hands of a competent masseuse.
Since we don’t use our bodies well (see: chairs, cars, computers for some examples), our muscles become imbalanced – some are overused, some are underused, others are trying to compensate for those that are underused and lazy.
It’s a mess.
And we can’t feel it because we’ve adapted to it. A foam roller is a tool you can use on a daily basis (or as you schedule time) to help balance. Contrary to images conjured by its name, there is not much rolling involved.
Your IT band runs from your hip to your knee on the outside of your leg, and it probably has some knots in it.
To work out some of those knots using a foam roller, follow these steps.
For ease of directions, I will write about the left side, but this can be done on either/both.
Lay the foam roller on the ground.
Lay on your side with your left hip on the foam roller just below the hip bone, so that your body and the foam roller are perpendicular and your body is in a straight line.
Lean your weight on your left elbow and forearm, keeping your elbow under your shoulder.
Your right leg can either lie on top of your left leg or you can bend your right knee and put your right foot flat on the floor in front of your left knee.
Move slowly so that the foam roller is rolling towards your knee.
Before long, you will probably hit a spot that is tender. When you find it, stay on it for 20 to 30 seconds. By the end of that time, the pain should have lessened or disappeared completely.
If you roll the entire distance from your hip to your knee with no tender spots, try it again with a slight forward lean.
You can continue on to find another spot or switch legs, depending on how much time you want to dedicate to this.
I use the foam roller on all four sides of my upper leg (quads, IT, hamstrings, adductors), as well as calves, piriformis (butt), and lats.
To roll your calves, the process is similar to that described above, but you will be sitting up and roll from just below your knee to just above your ankle.
There are several muscles in the calf, and on many people, the tightest one runs somewhat outside of center.
I can roll straight down the back of my calf without feeling a thing, but if I turn my leg outward slightly, the results are much different!
Experiment and see where your knots are.
I cross one leg over the other to create more weight on the leg being rolled. If that is too much, use the side of the roller and leave the opposite leg off.
To roll your quads, you’ll be laying face down and will still roll from just below your hip down to your knee.
As with calves, these can be done on the edge of the foam roller to allow one leg at a time. Again, you can tilt slightly to one side or the other for different results.
To roll your hamstrings, you’ll be sitting on the edge of the roller (for single leg action), moving from just below your sit bone down to your knee.
To roll your adductors (inside of the leg), put the roller parallel to your body.
Bend the leg you are rolling so that your hip and knee are both at 90-degree angles. Put the roller as close to your groin as possible. Your trunk will be moving away from the roller as it heads towards your knee. Adductors are tight on most people.
To roll your piriformis, sit on the foam roller on your sit bones with your feet flat on the floor.
Cross your left ankle over your right knee. Roll forward, just off your sit bone. Lean slightly to the left. This muscle is fairly small, but you probably won’t need to move too much off of your sit bone to find a spot that is noticeable.
To roll your lats, lay on your left side with your hip and legs on the ground, your left arm extended straight up over your head, foam roller just beneath your arm pit.
You can use your right hand in a fist on your left shoulder as a means to prop up your head if that is more comfortable than holding it up with your neck. Roll towards your waist.
Again, these are tight on most people and you probably won’t need to move much to find a tender spot. Also, if you tilt slightly forward or backwards, you will achieve different results. Repeat on the right side.
For all of these, when you have finished rolling, it’s a good idea to take a long static stretch.
Your muscle has been jumbled up for who knows how long. You just straightened some of it out.
Give it some reinforcement with a good, gentle stretch.
Reach into the stretch only until you feel it stretching (no need to be a hero) and hold it for 20 to 30 seconds. By that time, it shouldn’t feel so stretchy any more, and if you want to move deeper into the stretch, you can.
On days when I take my time, I’ll spend half an hour with the foam roller before a workout.
When I felt some excessive tightness in my right hamstring (the same one that several months prior, when training for a triathlon, went from “tight” to “pulled” and left me out of training for two months), I rolled that entire leg slowly and thoroughly at least once each day — usually first thing in the morning — followed by stretching.
Within a week, I was up and running again.
I rolled the entire leg because everything is inter-connected, and an unhappy hamstring might be because of tightness in other places.
There you have it! Roll away!
If you are diabetic, have osteoporosis, or have varicose veins or a blood clot in your legs, please check with your doctor before using a foam roller. There could be dangerous side effects to those conditions.
Heather is a 34-year-old teacher, wife, friend, dog-mom, dancer, musician, triathlete, dreamer, personal trainer, cancer survivor, not necessarily in that order. She has changed her life from heavy to slender, fast food to veggies, sedentary to triathlete, synthetic to natural. She just opened Second Chance FitCenter, a small personal training center in metro Phoenix, and blogs at Change Is Possible.