Foam Roller Stretching - Benefits and Exercises

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Foam Roller Stretching - You've seen them laying around the gym, but do you know what they do?

History

A foam roller is exactly what it sounds like for those of you that have never seen one.  And foam roller stretching is the first step in any serious workout nowadays. It is the tool used to achieve myofascial release, a vital part of flexibility.  Everyone can benefit from improved flexibility - simply because it is a core element of physical fitness. 

As we humans become smarter as a species, we learn from injuries of others and we try to prevent them.  This forward thinking is something every athlete must keep in mind while performing.  Preventing injuries is not hard, and it’s not expensive either.  Since the beginning of time, back rubs and massages have been considered the ultimate medium to achieve relaxation.  And surprisingly it wasn’t until recently that they could be thought of as injury prevention.  Sports health science exploded in North America after seeing its success in European nations in the 60’s and 70’s.  It is common sense to stretch before any kind of physical exertion, but stretching only goes so far. 

Professional physical therapist Mike Clark is generally credited with first bringing the foam roller into the limelight.  He thought of foam rolling as “self myofascial-release” a term that has become synonymous with the activity itself.  Professionals found the combined benefits of myofascial release with regular old stretching to be particularly useful.  Because foam rolling was such an effective solution for the pro sports world it slowly worked its way into the hands of millions of Americans.  It’s popularity has spiked at an almost viral rate in recent years as unsuspecting friends are convinced it won’t hurt.

How It Works

If you have never rolled before, it will actually be quite painful.  But it’s a good kind of pain.  It’s the feeling of your veins being able to fully breathe as your muscles surrender their tension to the roller.  The purpose of rolling your muscles is to break down sore, knotted muscle tissue.  Knots in your muscle restrict blood flow and movement and just plain suck.

Myofascial Release works because of a molecular level change in your muscles called autogenic inhibition.  It is caused by a small mechanoreceptor known as the Golgi Tendon Organ which is very receptive to tension.  When this mechanoreceptor is triggered by the deep pressure applied by the foam roller, it literally gives way.  This is the fundamental answer to why foam rolling works. 

Why You Should Roll

Most people who roll just once recognize its immediate usefulness and convenience immediately.

  1. Flexibility.  A greater range of motion is useful for you in any area of your life.  And unsurprisingly increasing your flexibility can result in an increase in life satisfaction.  You will see your body become more limber as every-day tasks become increasingly easier.
  2. Circulation.  Tight and rigid muscles make it harder for your body to pump blood throughout our muscles.  Rolling your muscles loosens up the veins allowing for far better circulation.    
  3. Relaxation.  Like we mentioned above, the golgi tendon organ can be manipulated with the roller to release its tension.  When this tension is released it feels similar to having a large weight lifted off you.
  4. Injury Prevention.  The whole reason myofascial release was introduced into sports was to keep athletes performing better and for longer.  Now regular people can enjoy these benefits too.  Foam rollers are incredibly effective at treating IT band syndrome and shin splints.

When You Should Roll

Foam rolling much like dynamic stretching can be performed at any time.  Personal preference or time constraints generally decide when most personal trainers or athletes roll.  To take full advantage of a roller, it is recommended that you roll before and after your workout along with your regular stretching.  

Foam rolling is a very simple and convenient activity to throw into your workouts to increase effectiveness.  I find rolling after a long day at work completely cures my aching back.  You can ask any local personal trainer about their opinion on foam rollers, you will always get the same positive answer.

What Roller Should I Choose

While rollers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, the standard is a 6 inch by 36 inch long.  Generally speaking I find I like the most basic variation of a product.  I try to avoid rollers with fancy designs because they are just a waste of money.  Nothing beats the original design of the foam roller.  It usually lasts the longest, and is definitely the most versatile 

The other option you have control over is density.  If you have never rolled before and are new to it, you should go with a softer, less firm roller.  These ones are usually EVA-closed foam and are white or blue.  These rollers are generally cheaper which is why they are great for beginners.  For anyone who exercises or works-out regularly, I suggest a black closed cell roller or another firm density roller.  There are even other options available for people who can’t use latex or other harmful chemicals.

Tips

  •   A full body foam roller stretch can take 5 - 10 minutes.
  •   Keep it near your T.V. so you can roll during commercials.
  •   Rolling even just 3 times a week will give you results.
  •   Practice breathing slow, and heavily to increase relaxation.
  •   Don’t hold your breath!

The Three Best Stretches

The Iliotobial Band – IT-Band
While everyone can benefit from this single stretch, runners benefit especially. The illiotical tract runs along the outside of the thigh from the pelvis to the knee. IT-Band syndrome (IDBS) is a swelling or sharp pain in that area which can be easily cured with a little rolling.
To Begin:

  • Lie on your side with the roller just under the side of your upper thigh.
  • Use your free arm and leg in front to balance.
  • Roll slowly from your hip to your knee, then back up. (This may hurt).
  • You can try resting your free leg on top to add more pressure.

The Anterior Tibialis – Outer Calf/Shin
This is another stretch that really benefits runners, in addition to everyone else. This stretch can cure aching legs if you’ve been on your feet all day. If you have been standing for an extended period of time your Tibialis becomes very tight, making a foam roller the perfect solution. A painful anterior Tibialis could also be a symptom of shin splints, also easily cured with this stretch.
To Begin:

  • You can start by kneeling over the roller, with the roller in between your knee and feet.
  • Keep your hands on the ground and front and roll on the outsides of your shins.
  • You can either start at your ankle or your knee but make sure to roll both ways.

Pro Tip:

  • Roll with one leg over the other to increase pressure.

Rhomboids & Latimuss Dorsi - Your Back
While I don’t know how many people actually suffer from back problems, I know anecdotally that everyone suffers from back pain of some sort. Whether your lifting heavy, or you’ve worked 12 hours anyone can benefit from rolling out your back.
Lats:

  • Lay over the roller with it under your armpit.
  • Twist your arm outwards as you isolate your traps.
  • Roller each side individually, rolling the entire muscle

Rhombs:

  • Align the roller so it is directly under your spine, and lay down.
  • Move your hands out to the side and try to find the sweet spot.
  • When you’re rolling in between your shoulder blades stop at the points that are tender.

Devin Steel is a kinesiology and business student in Vancouver, Canada. He is an avid sports fan and an even bigger canucks fan. Follow him at the Myorollers blog

 

References

ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22580977

strengthcoach.com/public/1303.cfm

drbenkim.com/how-to-improve-blood-circulation-legs.htm

sharecare.com/question/what-foam-rolling

media.wix.com/ugd/ee042d_72bedf559140977bf73b3c951dbf9b76.pdf

Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3

Foam Rolling

Great post - I've foam rolled extensively for the last 5+ years and the information on this particular site is strong. However, I think it would be worth it to look at your presentation. Maybe there is a better way to get the word out about these things than an article, they really do work.

Good Work!

TM-VI

Brilliant article. I learned

Brilliant article. I learned a lot!

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