How To Use a Foam Roller

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on August 17, 2021
4 min read

Tight muscles are no fun. They get achy and tired, making exercise and other activities a chore. You may also find that tight muscles leave you feeling less flexible when you try to move. A good massage can loosen up your tight spots, but if you can’t get a professional massage, try a foam roller instead.

Foam rollers are large cylinders made of solid foam. They come in different sizes and firmness levels. You can use them to massage large muscle groups. Some people use them after a workout to ward off soreness. Others include foam rolling as part of a warm-up to make sure muscles are loose before exercising. Other people use them to stretch away tension.

Foam rollers, like a massage, are a type of myofascial release technique. The fascia is a layer of fibrous tissue that surrounds your muscles. It contains and protects your muscles, and helps the muscles move smoothly so you can be active.

If your muscles are overworked or injured, the fascia can contract to protect the muscles from further injury. The tension can remain after the muscles have healed, so may you feel stiff and tight after the strain or injury is better. Myofascial release techniques carefully manipulate the tissues and let them relax into a loosened state.

Here are five ways you can use a foam roller:

Hamstrings: Hamstrings can tighten up if you spend a lot of time sitting at work. Using a foam roller will boost circulation to the area to get your blood flowing to these muscles. Rolling will also loosen muscles that have gotten stiff from staying still. Here’s how to use a foam roller for your hamstrings:

  • Sit on the floor with your legs extended forward.
  • Lift yourself up and back until the roller is touching the back of your leg between the knee and hip.
  • Slowly move forward and back along the length of your thigh.
  • Continue for about 30 seconds.

Quadriceps: If you sit a lot, your quads spend a lot of time in a shortened position. The foam roller will help loosen tight fibers surrounding your leg muscles. This will improve mobility and flexibility. To massage this muscle group, do the following:

  • Start in a plank position with the roller under your thigh. ‌
  • Push your body forward and back, so the roller goes over the length of your quad muscles.
  • If you hit a tender spot, hold still and stop rolling on it. Maintain steady pressure for a few breaths.
  • Continue for about 30 seconds.

Upper Back: Sitting, standing, and exercising can all put a strain on your back and shoulders. Rolling the muscles can reduce minor spasms that cause pain. The increased flexibility and loosened muscles will help improve your posture, so you don’t make tension worse by holding an unusual position. Here’s how to use a foam roller for your upper back:

  • Lie on the floor with your knees bent. Rest your shoulders against the roller.‌
  • Raise your hips and use your feet to push your upper body back and forth along the roller.
  • Continue for about 30 seconds.

Illiotibial Band: The iliotibial band (IT band) is a long stretch of connective tissue that goes down the outside of your leg from your pelvis to your knee. IT bands can get tight and cause knee and hip discomfort. Rolling out the tension in the IT band is as good as a warm-up and a post-workout routine. Here’s how to roll it out:

  • Lie on your side, legs extended, with your outer thigh on the roller.
  • Rest your top leg on your bottom leg. Alternately, cross your top leg across your bottom leg and rest your foot on the ground.
  • Use your arm to support your upper body.
  • Roll down the outside of your leg and back. If you hit a painful spot, pause for a few breaths.
  • Continue for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Latissimus Muscles: Also known as your lats, these muscles are located under your arm and down the side of your ribcage. If they are tight, it can upset your postures. Loosening these muscles will let you stand or sit up straighter. This will also keep your back from feeling fatigued. To roll out this muscle group, do the following:

  • Lie on your back with the foam roller positioned underneath one of your lats.
  • Keep your bottom leg straight and bend your upper leg across it to help with balance.
  • Slowly start to roll from your armpit down to your mid-back area.
  • Continue for 30 seconds, then switch to roll on the other side.

If you are unsure if you are healthy enough for foam rolling, call your doctor. They can discuss the risks and benefits with you.